Environmental Issues in the Rainforest

LoggingBefore humans started destroying the rainforests, they covered 15% of the Earth's land area, today, they cover only 6%. In the last 200 years, the total area of rainforest has decreased from 1, 500 million hectares to less than 800 million hectares. (One hectare is equivalent to the area covered by two football pitches). In just the last 50 years, one third of tropical rainforests have been destroyed, 46-58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year.

The disappearance of the forest is called deforestation. As populations have grown and demands for land and timber have grown greater, so the deforestation has accelerated. Current rates of deforestation amount to about 6 million hectares a year. That about 8.5 million football pitches.

Rainforests are the world's most spectacular ecosystems. An ecosystem is not just the plants, but also the birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, invertebrates, bacteria, and even the non-living elements like soil, water and air. In some cases their climates have remained stable for the last 65 million years. This means that they have developed arrays of life unequalled by any other ecosystems on the planet. The destruction of the rainforests will affect other ecosystems throughout the world.

Humans have cut down trees for thousands of years, yet concern over deforestation is fairly recent. The rate at which the forests have been cleared has accelerated during the latter part of the 20th and into the 21st century. Since the end of the Second World War about half the world's rainforest has been felled. Gradually, the rainforest has gained the attention of the worldwide media, making most of us aware of the problems.

Forests are destroyed for a number of reasons:-

1) The growth of populations in countries with rainforest.

2) An increase in worldwide demand for tropical hardwoods has put a greater strain on the rainforests.

3) Cattle Grazing in South America.

4) Soya plantations in South America.

5) Palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

6) Mining.

7) Hydroelectric dams in South America.


Fortunes can be made in the rainforest. Hardwoods like mahogany and teak are very valuable, and can be sold for a great profit. The money that can be made is only available in the short-term. Once an area of forest is cleared, it will probably never recover. When a 35 metre tree is felled, it can crush up to 17 smaller trees as it crashes to the ground. There may be only two or three commercially viable trees in an area of forest the size of two football pitches. Trees are also cut down for wood pulp, which until recently came only from softwoods like Canadian conifers. The pulp is used to make paper.

In West Africa, almost 90% of the rainforest has been destroyed and now the logging is spreading to Central Africa.

Road building through rainforests is another problem, making illegal logging and the poaching of animals much easier. In Africa apes such as gorillas and other animals are hunted for bushmeat to be sold by roadsides and in the markets. Many apes are vulnerable to diseases.

An estimated 70 - 80% of logging in Brazil and Indonesia is illegal. About 1/10 of wood used in the timber trade worldwide is illegal. To avoid buying this wood in the UK, the most recognised and trustworthy standard is the Forestry Stewardship Council logo on wood and paper products which ensures the source was from sustainably managed forests.

Cattle Grazing

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef with more cattle (204 million) than people (200 million in 2013)! After logging and/or burning of the rainforest, cleared land is sold to local farmers for cattle grazing.

80% of deforested areas in Brazil are used for cattle ranching and are the greatest source of carbon emissions in Brazil. Not only that but the cattle naturally produce large quantities of methane, another “greenhouse gas” approximately 26 times more effective than CO2.

Soya Plantations

Most of the beef in the UK is not sourced from Brazil. However, livestock can still be indirectly responsible for rainforest destruction since intensively farmed animals in the UK are fed a high protein plant called soya. China, with its growing demands for beef has in recent years become the largest consumer of soya from Brazil. Most of the world's soya comes from South America where areas of rainforest, as well as other habitats like the savannahs have been planted with this crop.

At first the land may be very productive. However, in any rainforest it is only the top layer of soil, known as the “topsoil” that is fertile. Eventually the good topsoil will be washed away by the rains within three or four years and the area may become a desert. Otherwise farmers may resort to using more and more fertilizers and pesticides which bring with them their own problems such as the pollution of rivers. Soy plants may also be genetically modified - still a controversial issue.

Palm Oil

Have you heard of palm oil? How about vegetable oil or olive oil? Oils from plants, vegetables, seeds and nuts have been used for centuries all over the world for many different foods and products. Oil palms are palm trees which grow hundreds of little orange/red fruits that are squashed, squeezed and pulped to produce palm oil. It is estimated that 33% of all the products in your local supermarket contain palm oil - that’s a lot of products! It is used in bread, cereals, chocolates, pizzas, cleaning products, chewing gum and even shampoo.

Sometimes land is cleared so that it can be replanted with valuable cash crops such as the oil palm plant, which produces palm oil. It can also be used as a biofuel instead of petrol or diesel. Indonesia produces 90% of the world's palm oil and aims to double its production by 2020. Palm oil production is such a huge business in Malaysia and Indonesia that the latter has gained the title of “World’s Fastest Rainforest Destroyer” in the Guiness Book of World Records!

Valuable trees are harvested and the rest are burnt to clear the land for the farming of palm oil. As the soil’s fertility does not last forever, the people at the head of logging companies avoid bankruptcy by buying up new areas of forest. Burning the trees and the peatlands beneath them is highly polluting (see below) although the ash improves the soil’s fertility before planting.

In burning the rainforests Indonesia is also burning the peatlands below which store masses of carbon. Their peatlands cover just 0.1% of the earth’s land, yet contribute to 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases. This makes Indonesia the country with the 3rd largest carbon footprint in the world, when deforestation is taken into account! Bio-fuel targets in Europe mean that demand for palm oil is set to increase, despite the fact that more pollution is caused producing bio-fuels than is saved by not using petrol and diesel.

Pet food and palm kernel meal

Cats, dogs, pigs, cows and goldfish. Some are pets, some are farm animals which provide us with food or milk, but one thing they do have in common - they are contributing to the destruction of Asia’s rainforests.

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