Mongabay.com is considered a leading source of information on tropical forests by some of the world's top ecologists and conservationists. TROPICAL RAINFORESTS: Imperiled Riches—Threatened Rainforests
Clear-cutting in Borneo
Clear-cutting in Borneo. (Photo by R. Butler)

DEFORESTATION

A World Imperiled: Forces Behind Forest Loss
By Rhett Butler   |  Last updated July 27, 2012

As the first seven parts of the rainforest section of the site have described, tropical rainforests are incredibly rich ecosystems that play a fundamental role in the basic functioning of the planet. Rainforests are home to probably 50 percent of the world's terrestrial species, making them an extensive library of biological and genetic resources. In addition, rainforests help maintain the climate by regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall, protect against desertification, and provide numerous other ecological functions.

However, these precious systems are among the most threatened on the planet. Although the precise area is debated, each day at least 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest disappear from Earth. At least another 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest are degraded. Along with them, the planet loses untold numbers of species to extinction, the vast majority of which have never been documented by science. As these forests fall, more carbon is added to the atmosphere, climatic conditions are further altered, and more topsoil is lost to erosion.

2012 data from Harris et al.
Estimates based on satellite imagery.
Forest Area 2000Gross Forest
Cover Loss
Gross loss,
2000-2005
(Million ha)(ha/yr)Total
Brazil4583,292,0003.6%
Indonesia107701,0003.3%
Argentina49437,0004.5%
Paraguay21242,0005.8%
Malaysia22233,0005.3%
India42206,0002.5%
DR Congo167203,0000.6%
Mozambique34196,0002.9%
Myanmar33186,0002.8%
Tanzania23149,0003.2%
Mexico46140,0001.5%
Colombia63137,0001.1%
Thailand17134,0003.9%
Zambia29134,0002.3%
Bolivia61129,0001.1%
Despite increased awareness of the importance of these forests, deforestation rates have not slowed. Analysis of figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that tropical deforestation rates increased 8.5 percent from 2000-2005 when compared with the 1990s, while loss of primary forests may have expanded by 25 percent over the same period. Nigeria and Vietnam's rate of primary forest loss has doubled since the 1990s, while Peru's rate has tripled.

Overall, FAO estimates that 10.4 million hectares of tropical forest were permanently destroyed each year in the period from 2000 to 2005, an increase since the 1990-2000 period, when around 10.16 million hectares of forest were lost. Among primary forests, annual deforestation rose to 6.26 million hectares from 5.41 million hectares in the same period. On a broader scale, FAO data shows that primary forests are being replaced by less biodiverse plantations and secondary forests. Due to a significant increase in plantation forests, forest cover has generally been expanding in North America, Europe, and China while diminishing in the tropics. Industrial logging, conversion for agriculture (commercial and subsistence), and forest fires—often purposely set by people—are responsible for the bulk of global deforestation today.

But enough about the extent and some of the effects of deforestation. What is responsible for this loss? This is the question this section addresses.

Deforestation figures and charts



    Highlighted deforestation pictures >>



Deforestation and Degradation


2012 data from Harris et al.
Share of gross forest loss in tropical countries
Before expanding further on forest loss it is critical to first explain what is considered "forest" and what is meant by deforestation and forest degradation.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the leading source for information on the status of the world's forests, defines forests as land with a tree canopy cover of more than 10 percent and an area of more than half a hectare. FAO says that "forest" includes natural forests and forest plantations but specifically excludes stands of trees established primarily for agricultural production (i.e. fruit tree and oil palm plantations) and trees planted in agroforestry systems.

Other organizations use different standards for defining forests. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) uses 40 percent cover as the threshold for "closed forests" and 10-40 percent cover for "open forests," while the Tropical Ecosystem Environment Observations by Satellite (TREES) project—funded in the 1990s by the European Commission—classifies areas with more than 70 percent canopy cover as "dense forests" and those with 40-70 percent cover as "fragmented forest."


Data according to the FAO. Note the differences from the chart above. FAO's data is based on self reporting from forestry departments, while Harris and colleagues used satellite imagery.
To reduce confusion, this site will generally follow FAO's convention, even though it has been criticized for its generous definition of what it considers forest.

FAO defines deforestation as "the conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of the tree canopy cover below the minimum 10 percent threshold." Depletion of forest to tree crown cover greater than 10 percent (say from 90 percent to 12 percent) is considered forest degradation. Logging most often falls under the category of forest degradation and thus is not included in FAO deforestation statistics. For this reason, forest degradation rates are considerably higher than deforestation rates.

Digging a little deeper, FAO says that "deforestation includes areas of forest converted to agriculture, pasture, water reservoirs and urban areas," but the term "specifically excludes areas where the trees have been removed as a result of harvesting or logging and where the forest is expected to regenerate naturally or with the aid of silvicultural measures."


Deforestation vs. Degradation



Causes of Deforestation Causes of Degradation


Other versions of this page

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Review questions:

  • What is the difference between deforestation and forest degradation?
  • What are some examples of activities that cause deforestation?
  • What are some causes of forest degradation?


Continued / Next:

Natural forces behind deforestation




Recent deforestation news articles

High Court denies appeal by palm oil company that cleared protected peat forest
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Malaysian palm oil company destroys Borneo forests, despite buyer's zero deforestation commitment
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Climate change to boost farmland, diminish harvests, says new study
(09/29/2014) Climate change is likely to alter how we humans grow adequate amounts of food for a swelling global population. Assessing just how much and where those changes will occur has been difficult. But a new study takes aim at those very questions and could provide a guide for the debate over feeding the planet while also preserving biodiversity and the forests that filter out the carbon we produce.


Diverse, deceptive, declining: orchids threatened by deforestation in South America
(09/26/2014) Pushing past a thick fern leaf, Crain stopped short, overcome by joy. As he broke into dance, his assistant peered curiously at the tiny lentil-shaped fruit dangling from a stem, and resolutely decided Crain was mad. After more than two years studying a rare Puerto Rican endemic orchid species, Crain had finally found his first specimen bearing fruit.


Coal mine has heavy impact in Indonesian Borneo
(09/26/2014) Baharuddin should be happy. The rambutan and durian trees flanking his home are heavy with fruit. Two hectares of chilies stretch before his house. The price of chili — a staple commodity in Indonesia — has been stable for six months. From his 2,000 plants he hopes to earn 40 million rupiah ($3,400), much of which he wants to invest in expanding his crop. That is, if his farm can survive the threats that have destroyed so many of his neighbor's.


Reintroduction program ups Mexico's scarlet macaw population by 34 percent in one year
(09/25/2014) While listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, the scarlet macaw has disappeared from almost all of its native range in Mexico, is very rare in most Central America countries, and is locally extinct in El Salvador. A new paper published this week finds a reintroduction program was hugely successful in its first year of operation, with a 92 percent survival rate for released birds.


Four countries pledge to restore 30 million hectares of degraded lands at UN Summit
(09/25/2014) In 2011, Germany and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature launched the Bonn Challenge, which pledged to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested lands by 2020. Several countries have already made commitments—including the U.S.—but this week at the UN Climate Summit four more jumped on board.


Termites suffer in logged forests and palm oil plantations
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Turning point for Peru's forests? Norway and Germany put muscle and money behind ambitious agreement
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Cargill commits to zero deforestation across entire global supply chain: all commodities
(09/24/2014) Cargill, one of the world's largest agricultural companies, has extended its zero deforestation commitment for palm oil to all commodities it produces. The commitment, announced Tuesday at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York, is the most far-reaching zero deforestation policy ever established, covering Cargill's sprawling global empire of businesses, including palm oil, sugar, soy, cattle, and cocoa.


Norway to pay Liberia to stop deforestation
(09/23/2014) In one of the many major announcements that have come out of the UN Climate Summit in New York this week, Norway says it will pay Liberia to stop cutting down its forests. Norway’s payment will come on the form of development aid for the war-torn, impoverished, and now Ebola-ridden West African nation.


Fragmented forests hurt some bat species, may benefit others
(09/23/2014) Development of roads and other structures disturb large, continuous patches of habitat for wildlife. This habitat fragmentation is one of the biggest contributors to species extinction, as the local ecology and species interactions are altered. A new study finds that leaf-nosed bat abundances in Mexico are closely linked to how sensitive each species is to habitat fragmentation.


Dissolving pulp: the threat to Indonesia’s forests you’ve probably never heard of
(09/23/2014) If the term “dissolving pulp” evokes nothing for you, you’re not alone. Not many people have heard of it, and the very term “dissolving pulp” is so generic it’s hard to imagine it could be a threat to anything.


Feeding the planet while saving forests
(09/22/2014) Cattle ranching, palm oil production, soy cultivation, and other forms of commercial agriculture drive more than 70 percent of tropical deforestation worldwide, but a global transition could enable the world to produce more food, fuel and fiber without destroying more forests, argues a new report published by the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA), a group of philanthropic organizations working to slow climate change.


Extinction island? Plans to log half an island could endanger over 40 species
(09/22/2014) Woodlark Island is a rare place on the planet today. This small island off the coast Papua New Guinea is still covered in rich tropical forest, an ecosystem shared for thousands of years between tribal peoples and a plethora of species, including at least 42 found no-where else. Yet, like many such wildernesses, Woodlark Island is now facing major changes: not the least of them is a plan to log half of the island.


Legislation protecting Indonesia's indigenous communities is not good enough, says advocacy group
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The cheap option on climate change: recognize indigenous rights to forests
(09/18/2014) Since 2008, governments have invested $1.64 billion in funds to kick-start REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, the global effort to conserve the world's forests in order to better mitigate climate change. However, a new report by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) finds that same amount of money could have secured the legal rights of indigenous and local people to 450 million hectares of forest, an area 40 percent larger than India.


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(09/17/2014) Peruvian authorities have pulled more human remains from a remote river in the Amazon, which may belong to one of the four murdered Ashaninka natives killed on September 1st. It is believed the four Ashaninka men, including renowned leader Edwin Chota Valera, were assassinated for speaking up against illegal logging on their traditional lands.


Activists urge outgoing Indonesian president to protect key forest area before he steps down
(09/17/2014) Activists have launched an urgent appeal calling upon outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to step up protection of the only ecosystem that houses Sumatran orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers.


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Brazil's planned Tapajós dams would increase Amazon deforestation by 1M ha
(09/14/2014) A plan to build a dozen dams in the Tapajós river basin would drive the loss of an additional 950,000 hectares of rainforest by 2032 by spurring land speculation and mass migration to the region, suggests a new study published by Imazon, a Brazilian NGO.


As Bolivia plans dramatic agro-expansion, forests may pay the price (PART II)
(09/12/2014) In an August 14 announcement, Bolivian Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, laid out an ambitious plan to increase the country’s cropland by 250 percent, and triple its agricultural output. The proposal is touted as way to increase both food and economic security for the inland South American country, but what will it mean for its forests?


Palm oil company continues to operate illegal plantation despite court ruling
(09/12/2014) A palm oil company in Central Kalimantan continues to operate business as usual, despite a Supreme Court ruling confirming it has no legal permit to do so. Since 2009, PT Hati Prima Agro (HPA), a subsidiary of palm oil giant Bumitama Gunajaya Agro Group (BGA), has cleared over 7,000 ha of land in Central Kalimantan, even though their permits were revoked by the Ministry of Forestry in 2008.


Brazil confirms last year's rise in Amazon deforestation
(09/12/2014) Brazil's National Space Agency INPE has officially confirmed last year's rise in Amazon deforestation.


Illegal tropical deforestation driven globally by “agro-conversion”
(09/11/2014) Nearly 50 percent of tropical deforestation to make room for commercial agriculture between 2000 and 2012 was done so illegally. That’s a key finding of a report published by the U.S.-based nonprofit organization Forest Trends looking at the global tide of tropical forest “agro-conversion.”


The latest deforestation news



Other pages in this section:

A World Imperilled
Threats from Humankind
Economic Restructuring
Logging
Fires
Commercial Agriculture
Hydro, Pollution, Hunting
Debt
Consumption, Conclusion
- - - - -
References
References
References
References
References
Natural forces
Subsistence Activities
Oil Extraction
Mining
War
Cattle Pasture
Fuelwood, Roads, Climate
Population & Poverty

- - - - -
Kids version of this section
- Why are rainforests disappearing?
- Logging
- Agriculture
- Cattle
- Roads
- Poverty


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Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2013

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"Rainforest" is used interchangeably with "rain forest" on this site. "Jungle" is generally not used.