Deforestation simply put means the removal of trees and forests, usually through cutting or burning. In South America, most deforestation takes place because of a need for agricultural land. There are three main types of deforestation that take place in these tropical regions.
In countries with poor economies, such as those in South America, people turn to agriculture to meet the everyday needs of living. Poor farmers then migrate to agricultural settlement areas, and cut down several acres of land to use for farming. They then burn the stumps to release the nutrients into the soil needed to grow crops. This is essential because in rainforests nearly all of the nutrients required to sustain life are found within the plants and trees, and not in the soil.
The process is called ‘Slash & Burn’ agriculture, and in poor countries, farming like this is the only way for people to survive – they raise crops to feed themselves and to sell to make money to live by. However, with no trees, the nutrients are soon washed away by rain. This can happen in as little as three years, when the farmers are forced to move to new land, as the land they cleared becomes useless and unable to yield crops. The land is left to re grow, but as the soil is left barren, the forest will take a long time (up to 50 years) to grow back.
The perils of intensive agriculture
‘Intensive’ agriculture takes place on a much bigger scale. Large companies clear vast amounts of land, often for cattle pastures to fill the world beef market. They also use the land for large plantations, and use pesticides and irrigation systems that are very damaging to the land. However, the chemicals they use to kill pests also kill other animals and cause a lot of damage to surrounding areas. The rain washes the chemicals into the water system killing the fish, another popular industry in South America, and the use of irrigation systems in Banana plantations affects the natural water balance of the land, which can have other damaging effects. Land used in these ways not only affects much of the surrounding area negatively, but also can take centuries to re-grow.
Lastly, commercial loggers cut forests to sell as timber or pulp. This is done either selectively, taking only certain types of tree, or through clear cutting, whereby all trees in a certain area are removed. Selective felling is more damaging than expected, with studies showing that felling a small amount of trees in a forest can affect a great deal of trees in the surrounding area. However, when left to re-grow, the area recovers quite quickly. When clear cutting has taken place, it is very difficult for the forest to re-grow at all, because all the nutrients have been removed – trees are taken away not burnt, so their nutrients are not released into the soil.
Causes of deforestation
The causes of deforestation are mainly related to a competitive global economy, which forces poorer countries to use their only resources for money. This happens both locally and nationally. Locally, people use land for farming to make money, due to poverty and increasing populations. In Bolivia the average annual income is $800 as oppose to $26,980 in the U.S. Nationally, governments sell logging concessions to cover debts and develop industries. For example, in 1995, Brazil owed $159 Billion internationally. By selling their precious woods such as mahogany, they can attempt to pay back their debts and develop their won industries to generate wealth for the country.
The problem is, using their forests is only a short-term solution, which is causing even worse, and long-term effects. Most poignant is its effect on the environment, and the local wildlife. Trees are made of about 50% carbon, so when trees are burnt, carbon is released into the atmosphere. This joins with Oxygen to make CO2, which enhances the greenhouse effect, changing temperatures globally. It also affects the climate of the local area, as it is estimated that half the rain in tropical countries comes from evaporation of moisture in the canopy of the trees. Cutting them down reduces the amount of rain, raising temperatures and allowing the sun to heat up the land and dry it out.
The effects on flora and fauna
Also greatly affected are the animals and plants that live in the rainforests. Tropical rainforests hold about 50% of earth’s species of animal. When we destroy their habitat, we kill them too. Most worrying about this is that many of the animals killed as a result of deforestation are as yet undiscovered. It is estimated that over 130 species a day are wiped out globally through deforestation – these plants and animals could hold cures for cancer or aids that may never be discovered. Not only this, but animals that we do know about are also being threatened, as their habitats are destroyed and they themselves are killed too.
Due to the complexity of environmental issues such as deforestation, many conflicts have arisen between environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace and those involved in deforestation activities. The solutions to problems such as deforestation lie in addressing the root cause. In this case, finding a solution means considering the economic problems that lie at the heart of the situation.
Many propositions have been put forward – such as sustainable wood sources – but it isn’t enough. Organisations such as Greenpeace and other activists make a huge effort to save the rainforests, but in doing so they make many enemies, many of whom are those whose co-operation is needed to help both the rainforests and the people. And, if deforestation continues at its current rate, in just 100 years there will be no more rainforests left. This is not a solution. When they are gone, the people of South America will be right back where they started, but with no forests, their prime asset will be gone.