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Environmental Committee
Research Report: Deforestation
Eliminating deforestation and forest degradation in order to prevent species from
extinction, especially with regard to areas in Asia, Africa and South America
By Dominik Goldstein
Deforestation and forest degradation are undoubtedly part of the largest environmental problems our
world is facing today. Of the 16 million square kilometers of forest that once covered the earth’s
surface, only 6.2 million remain up to date. 2.3 million have been destroyed between 2000 and 2012
alone. Not only does this threaten the balance of local important environmental factors such as water
cycles and greenhouse gas decomposition and harm the economy and society of affected areas, but it
also endangers many different species, as 80% of all biodiversity is found in forests. The entire
planet and its population rely on the fate of forests, it is vital that the issues of deforestation and
forest degradation are tackled thoroughly, however, it can only be achieved through close
cooperation amongst all UN member nations.
Background Information
The first evidence of deforestation appears in the Mesolithic period, roughly between 20,000-10,000
BCE, long before high cultures as we know them. Back then, it was used only on small scale, mainly
to make dense forests more profitable for game animals. Later, with the upcoming of farming and
livestock holding, deforestation gained more and more of importance. With the growing population
and the advancing of technology in the following centuries more wood was needed for more people,
resulting in deforestation especially in western European countries. In the late middle ages and the
colonial period large forests were cut down only to construct large naval forces. With the economic
development during the industrialization came the need for more space for growing cities,
infrastructure and food demand, resulting in more deforestation. In the 20th century now many
developing countries also started to destroy large forests in order to gain land mostly for agriculture,
and especially regions in Africa, southern Asia and South America have lost great areas of their
rainforests. The rising temperatures of the past decades as consequence to the greenhouse effect have
also contributed to the forest degradation process, since some forests cannot adapt to the climate
Reasons of deforestation and forest degradation
Generally deforestation happens mostly near populated areas, roads, rivers or near sources of mineral
or natural resources. Deforestation is to a certain extent necessary, as the development of society
always causes a modification of the environment. This makes deforestation a very complex topic and
many people have an easy chance to use illegal deforestation for their own benefit. These are the
Environmental Committee
Research Report: Deforestation
most common reasons for illegal and unsustainable deforestation in Africa, South America and
Southern Asia that can easily harm the forests biodiversity.
According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), about 80%
of deforestation is caused due to the need for agricultural land. A large part of this is taken up by
subsistence farming: Poor people living in remote forest areas need a cost-effective way to feed
themselves and their families. Often, these people then go into slash and burn farming (referred to as
“shifting cultivation”), which is modestly sustainable, if practiced on a small scale. The ever
increasing number of subsistence farmers in many poor and less developed countries, however, has
destroyed large forest areas by slashing and burning at an immense scale that does not allow the
forests to recover. Also commercial agriculture plays an important role in deforestation. As the
global demand for products such as soy, palm oil, beef and other commodities rises, many companies
take the illegal initiative in destroying large parts of tropical rainforests in Brazil, Congo, Malaysia,
Indonesia and many more newly industrializing countries, transforming the land into plantations and
cattle ranches to meet this demand. According to a study by the NGO “Forest Trends”, commercial
agriculture was responsible for half of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012, the entire
export value of these goods sum up to roughly 61 billion US dollars per year. The Amazon
rainforest, the largest forest on earth, has lost 17% of its total area to mostly cattle ranching in the
past 50 years. As stated by the study, the affected countries are unable to stop this process
effectively, partly because of corruption, partly because of missing capacities.
Illegal Logging
Normally, the production and trade of wood and timber are regulated by national laws in order to
protect forests. That way the government can regulate a sustainable forest development and timber
market. Illegal logging, however, undermines governmental regulations and can destroy large parts
of the forest, because, unlike the legal logging, it is hardly ever paired with reforestation efforts.
Same as the agriculture, illegal logging is frequently paired with corruption and the inability to
pursue the people involved. Harvesting and selling firewood has also contributed to the global
deforestation process.
Increasing urbanization is another contributing factor to deforestation. The growth of cities consumes
both building material and space, which is easily acquired from nearby forests if available. If this
growth is developing in an uncontrolled way (urban sprawl), it mostly causes deforestation of
suburban areas.
Climate change
Climate change, indirectly caused by humans, is another factor that can harm forests and lead to
forest degradation. Rising temperatures and irregularities in weather and wind, which many plants
Environmental Committee
Research Report: Deforestation
and animals in a forest are not used to and cannot adapt to, ultimately destroy forests as well. This is
a less acute process and may take many decades, but it certainly is a threat in the long run. Since the
process of deforestation emits greenhouse gasses, climate change is accelerated to a certain extent
and is therefore another reason to take measures to reduce, and eventually stop deforestation.
Consequences of deforestation
Environmental consequences
In every place of our Earth living organisms can be found. These organisms balance each other out
(=ecological equilibrium) with their interactions and form an ecosystem, for instance the forest. All
organisms depend on each other. If the ecosystem is only slightly changed, that inevitably leads to
more changes, not just to one organism, but, due to an ecosystem’s interconnectedness, in effect to
all inhabitants. If a forest is cut down, many species common to this forest may be unable to adapt to
the sudden changes, and so become extinct. And since the forest is home to about 80% of earth’s
biodiversity, destroying large parts of it logically leads to mass extinctions. Some endangered
rainforests harbor up to 1500 endemic plant species alone that would vanish if the forest was to be
destroyed. Besides the destruction of the habitat, deforestation also causes some other environmental
changes that harm species in the forest:
Greenhouse gas emissions
Forests play a huge role in almost all ecosystems. They are invaluable to our planet. Firstly, forests
act as “carbon sinks”, places, where carbon dioxide is absorbed and stored. By burning or cutting
down forests, this carbon dioxide is released and acts as greenhouse gas. Consequently, temperature
rises; the entire ecosystem is alienated and destroyed. According to the World Wildlife Fund
(WWF), 15% of all human based greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation. Some
species may be unable to adapt to the atmospheric and temperature changes and so find it difficult to
Water cycles
Also the water cycles of an ecosystem are greatly dependent on trees and forests, they act in keeping
the optimal balance between the water in the soil and in the atmosphere. Influencing this cycle leads
to unbalanced weather, air and soil conditions, which is particularly harmful to plants that need
specific amounts of water or humidity levels.
Soil conditions and Erosion
Roots of trees also act as anchors for the soil and keep it from being washed away. The roots of crops
do not suffice to keep the ground in place, and often the fertile soil is simply taken away by rainfall,
leaving lower, unfertile soils behind. This is when the soil loses its profitability and the farmers move
on to deforest more land. In combination with the rising temperatures and the disturbed water cycles,
this often leads to desertification, especially tropical areas with rainforests, which is especially
harmful to all species and local settlements.
Economic and social consequences
Deforestations do not only have a negative influence on the ecosystem and all its species and the
weather, it is also in many ways bad for local economies and societies. About 1.6 billion people,
Environmental Committee
Research Report: Deforestation
most of them living in poor, rural regions, are greatly dependent on forests as source of food, fresh
water, clothing, traditional medicine and shelter. Through deforestation the entire livelihoods of
these people are disrupted and extreme poverty as a consequence increases. The WWF even reports
cases in which the indigenous people were then forced to work on plantations replacing the forest
under inhumane conditions. The United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) estimates that by 2020,
135 million people are at risk of being driven away due to deforestation and forest degradation, 60
million of which currently live in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
Illegal logging too has a negative economic impact: The unsustainable logging is very cheap,
because it is not involved in government regulations, taxes or reforestation efforts, and so floods the
legal wood and timber market with cheap products. Governments make great losses with missing
revenues and the legal competition, supporting the government, is threatened by the low prices of the
illegal wood. Although deforestation is a way to gain farmland that may help the economy, it does
not contribute to long term social or economic stability and sustainability.
Measures taken
In 2007, the UNFF, a UN forum to promote management, conservation and sustainable use of all
types of forests, adopted 4 “Global Objectives on Forests” (GOF) within their “forest instruments”,
as a framework to tackle deforestation forest degradation internationally:
GOF1: reverse the loss of forest cover;
GOF2: enhance forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits;
GOF3: increase protected and other areas of sustainably managed forests;
GOF4: reverse decline in ODA (official development assistance) for sustainable forest
management and mobilize significantly increased, new and additional financial resources.
Many Nations and NGOs have also started to fight illegal deforestation on national levels. According
to the WWF, Paraguay has managed to reduce deforestation by 85% after 2004 when the zerodeforestation law was introduced.
Possible Solutions and approaches
The issue of deforestation and forest degradation is a very broad and complex topic. Many initiatives
have to be taken to eliminate deforestation as a whole:
Deforestation and forest degradation cannot be eradicated completely in our nowadays world,
since the growing population and changing needs always call for certain modifications. This makes
controlling deforestation so complicated. Simply banning it is no cure-all. Therefore it is the main
aim to clearly define the legal status of deforestation with special regard to sustainability,
reforestation attempts and the preservation of endangered species. Only through creating a legal
framework can illegal deforestation be properly addressed and tackled.
It is important that deforestation is fought actively. Many illegal loggers, but also agricultural
businesses have little difficulties establishing a trade network and deforesting at maximum
efficiency. Primary reasons for this are corruption or the missing capacities to track down and
convict these criminals.
Environmental Committee
Research Report: Deforestation
Often, illegal deforestation, like most other criminal activity, happens due to poverty or other
demographic disparities. Empowering local communities and fighting poverty as a whole would, as
an example, help to fight these disparities. That way not only is deforestation through poverty
prevented, empowering local communities would make them able to help in the struggle to protect
local forests for themselves.
Great parts of forests have already been lost, the area of large habitats decimated. Proper
reforestation efforts could contribute greatly to restore the living area for many endangered species.
Deforestation has been present for longer than civilization itself, but today, we are facing the
consequences of the large scale destruction of the forests on our planet. Agriculture, cattle ranching,
illegal logging and more have wiped more than half of all forests of the face of the earth. Many
species and also people are directly dependent on forests and are threatened by all sorts of
unsustainable deforestation. If we want to ensure their survival, deforestation and forest degradation
have to be fought properly through international cooperation. Only that way can we ensure a
sustainable future for all organisms, including people, on planet Earth.
Definition of Key Terms
Deforestation: the active removal of a forest or a gathering of trees from an area in order for it to be
thereafter used for a non-forest use.
Forest Degradation: the process in which a forest’s capacity to produce ecosystem services such as
carbon storage or wood products due to environmental changes or anthropogenic activity
Biodiversity: the variety of all life forms on earth/within a certain ecosystem
Sustainability: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs
Slash and Burn farming: a technique of farming, usually performed illegally, that uses fire to burn
the remainders of old fields or forests in order to prepare them and convert them into farmland
cheaply and quickly
Illegal logging: logging which is not authorized by the governmental authorities. It includes logging
from protected forests, logging more than permitted or logging endangered tree species
Ecosystem: a system that is defined through the living organisms, their interactions and exchange of
energy or elements within it
Endemic species: species that are bound to a specific geographic location of variably size
Desertification: the degradation of a dryland ecosystem into a desert by losing water bodies, most
vegetation and wildlife, caused by environmental changes or anthropogenic activity
Environmental Committee
Research Report: Deforestation
Research guide
WWF internet page on deforestation:
Internet page of the UNFF (Documents):
Documents of the UNFCCC on Deforestation:
Further sources