Forests mean riches: a wealth of biodiversity, plant and animal species, resources, ecological services and, often, economic interests. The richer a forest, the greater the interest it inspires, and therefore the greater the threats to its survival. First we should establish what we mean when we talk about forests and deforestation. Deforestation rate refers to the percentage of forest cover lost in a year for every hectare of surface area. It is estimated that forests currently cover 31 percent of land on the planet, around 4 billion hectares, and that over the last decade 13 million hectares have been lost each year.
Food Security: One Billion People Depend on the Forests
Deforestation has serious repercussions for the planet’s general equilibriums. One of the main negative effects is the impact on climate and the greenhouse effect. When trees are cut down, some of the planet’s capacity to trap the carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere is also lost, contributing to an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the air. Not to mention the carbon that the trees had fixed during their lifetime, which is released again when they are chopped down. So we have a dual effect: on the one hand a reduction of the capacity to trap the free carbon dioxide in the air and on the other its release during the decomposition or combustion of organic matter. Currently it is calculated that the volume of CO2 emitted each year because of deforestation makes up 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation has many other consequences, from the loss of biodiversity to the destruction of ecosystems, from the potential extinction of indigenous forest-dwellers to the disappearance of other resources the forest can offer (nuts, fruits, plants that can be used for medicines or cosmetics, etc.). According to some estimates, around a billion people in the world depend directly on forests for their food security.
One Example Out of Many
The Amazon forest is not the planet’s only green lung (not forgetting the tree cover across much of Central Africa and the Asian continent), but it can serve as an example to help us understand the dynamics leading to deforestation and the interests revolving around it. The Amazon forest covers over 5 million square kilometers, most of which lies in Brazil. On a global scale, it represents the world’s largest tropical forest, and is home to around fifth of the world’s freshwater reserves, a tenth of all known fauna and over 40,000 plant species. After being subjected to widespread deforestation since the 1970s (in the last five years alone, over 45,000 square kilometers have been lost, a surface area half the size of Portugal), as well as the previously mentioned consequences, the rain patterns have also changed, which in conjunction with the global temperature increase is causing an ongoing process of desertification in the whole Amazon region. The motivations behind deforestation come from complex social, economic and food industry dynamics, and are only marginally connected to the exploitation of timber as a raw material. In fact, the demand for land to be converted to agriculture is the biggest factor. At the moment, as well as being the world’s second-biggest soy producer, Brazil is also one of the leading countries for extensive cattle farming. Both of these activities require large surface areas. In the future, the markets for soy and beef, pushed by the global demographic increase and the growth of per-capita consumption, could expand further, causing even more demand for land. Aggravating this dynamic is the issue of biofuels, of which Brazil is again the world’s second-biggest producer. In this case the problem lies in the cultivation of sugar cane for the production of bioethanol, occupying arable land in other parts of the country and displacing crops and livestock which must then be relocated.
And yet sustainable management of forests is possible, making the most of their resources but also preserving their enormous riches. It is not necessarily true that the best objective is zero deforestation, in other words the constant maintenance of the number of hectares of tree cover. If the cut trees are replaced by new plantings, the surface area of forest will stay the same, but the wealth and complexity of forest ecosystems and habitats in the original forest will be lost. These ecological equilibriums require dozens of years to be restored. If reforestation is not always a good compromise, the objective must be to practice sustainable management, every year taking only the percentage of forest biomass that can regrow in a year, thus keeping the total value stable. There are examples of virtuous forest management and there are also tools that can help us understand if the products we buy come from responsibly managed forests. One is FSC certification (Forest Stewardship Council ), which guarantees that raw materials (paper, wood, etc.) come from forests managed in a responsible way.
Deforestation, biodiversity loss and the threat to food security will be discussed at the conference “Get Your Forks Out of the Forest!” on Thursday October 25 at midday.