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Effects of Deforestation on Humans

Importance of Forests

Why do people destroy forests?

People destroy forests due to greed, mainly for economic gains. Often, deforestation occurs when people cut or clear forested areas to make way for agriculture or grazing. People often light fires to clear land for agricultural use. In 2019, the number of human-lit fires in Brazil skyrocketed. As of August 2019, more than 80,000 fires burned in the Amazon, an increase of almost 80% from 2018. Many forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil and is found in half of all supermarket products. Growing the trees that produce the oil requires the leveling of native forests and the destruction of local peatlands – which doubles the harmful effects on  the ecosystem., The global palm oil market was valued at $36.71 billion in 2019 and has been “witnessing unprecedented growth”. 

When forests are destroyed, complex ecosystems are disrupted or perish. Human communities that depend on forests also suffer the consequences of widespread deforestation. In countries like Uganda, people rely on trees for firewood, timber and charcoal. Families send children — primarily girls — to collect firewood, and kids have to trek farther and farther to get to the trees.  Collecting enough wood often takes all day, so the children miss school.  

According to the United Nation’s 2020 State of the World’s Forests report, three-quarters of Earth’s freshwater comes from forested watersheds, and the loss of trees can worsen water quality. The report also found that over half the global population relies on forested watersheds for their drinking water as well as water used for agriculture and industry.

Forests can be found from the tropics to high-latitude areas and contain a wide array of trees, plants, animals, fungi, and microbes. Some places are especially diverse – the tropical forests of New Guinea, for example, contain more than 6% of the world’s species of plants and animals. Deforestation not only eliminates vegetation which is important for removing carbon dioxide from the air, but the act of clearing the forests also produces greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change. In fact, deforestation accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Importance of Forests

Alone tourist in lush norvegian forest
Alone tourist in lush forest

Trees provide shelter to various organisms in the forests. They also help in maintaining the water cycle and serving various human needs. Forests are a very vital part of our ecosystem. They are important for us as:

  • Forests are an indispensable resource and provide an uninterrupted supply of oxygen, they are referred to as the lungs of the Earth as they make life possible for all human beings and organisms.
  • Forests absorb greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, acting as a storehouse of carbon, thereby combating climate change.
  • Tees in the forests form an oasis of shade as they block sunlight. In various urban areas, these trees help in tackling severe issues such as the ‘heat island’ effect.
  • As a large number of trees in the forests provides mechanical support to the soil, they help in preventing soil erosion.
  • Forests are an indispensable source of oxygen, medicine, clean water, and food.
  • With the help of the process of transpiration, the forests add water to the atmosphere, thereby playing a vital role in the water cycle.
  • Forests account for approximately 1% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the world.
  • Approximately 1.6 billion jobs are dependent on forests.
  • By acting as a sink for the floodwater, forests combat the disastrous effects and damages caused by floods.
  • Forests are a source of various raw materials for many commercially important products such as wood, paper, and fabric.
  • Forests are homes for over 80% of the biodiversity based on land. Over 50% of the species of Earth reside there. 
  • They promote the growth and development of a country.

Natural forests, especially in the eco-fragile regions of the world are under extreme stress due to anthropogenic pressure. Today, most deforestation is happening in the tropics. Areas that were inaccessible in the past are now within reach as people build new roads through the dense forests. The world has lost about 10% of its tropical tree cover since 2000, and nearly 121,000 square kilometers were destroyed in 2019 alone. The World Bank estimates that about 10 million square km of forest have been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. In the past 25 years, forests shrank by 1.3 million square km – an area bigger than the size of South Africa. Looking at the effects of deforestation on humans, it is one of the major environmental problems that has plagued both human, plants and animals in this 21st century leading to various adverse effects which affects man both directly and indirectly.

Deforestation is one of the environmental problems faced by the world today. Deforestation is clearing Earth’s forests on a massive scale, often resulting in damage to the quality of the land. Forests still cover about 30 percent of the world’s land area, but swaths the size of Panama are lost each and every year. The world’s rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years at the current rate of deforestation.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines deforestation as the conversion of forest to other land uses (regardless of whether it is human-induced).

Causes of Deforestation

Natural Causes

  1. Natural calamities such as floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc can also lead to the destruction of forests.
  2. Forest fires by natural causes such as lightning are responsible for clearing large areas of land.
  3. Invasion of the forest ecosystem by some parasites or other animal species can destroy the biodiversity of various areas of land.

Human Activities 

While humans used to worship plants and trees, now they have resorted to cutting them for their selfish needs. The various human activities that contribute to deforestation are:

Agriculture:

Deforestation is predominantly driven by the conversion of forests into agricultural land and associated activities. UNFCCC’s data reveals that agriculture contributes to more than 80 percent of deforestation. The degradation of forests is primarily attributed to certain agricultural practices, including:

  • Expansion of agricultural land: The clearing of forests to make way for larger areas of farmland is a significant contributor to deforestation.
  • Cultivation of field crops: Crops like cocoa, palm oil, soya beans, and others are extensively grown, leading to widespread deforestation. A notable example is Malaysia, where large-scale deforestation occurs to facilitate palm oil extraction.
  • Livestock rearing: The practice of raising livestock also plays a role in forest degradation, as it often necessitates the clearance of forested areas for grazing or feed production.

Logging:

Logging includes the cutting of trees for raw materials to be used for commercial purposes in industries. Illegal logging of wood fuel and the expansion of roads also contributes to deforestation. Industries based on wood such as furniture, paper, and match-sticks industry needs a huge supply of wood. Trees are cut down for fuel supplies such as charcoal and firewood. 

Urbanization:

With the increasing population, the needs of humans are also increasing. For the purpose of dwelling, a huge number of forests are cut down. The land obtained after deforestation serves various purposes such as for the construction of homes and industries, development of roads, mineral expansion, etc. The increasing population has increased the need for settlements and housing areas which further leads to deforestation activities.

Top 13 Effects of Deforestation on Humans

Aerial view of road between cottonwood forest and deforested are
Aerial view of road between cottonwood forest and deforested are
  1. Soil Erosion
  2. Hydrological Effects
  3. Flooding
  4. Biodiversity
  5. Global Warming and Climate Change
  6. Desertification
  7. Melting of the Icebergs
  8. Disruption of Local People’s Means of Livelihood
  9. Low Life Quality
  10. Loss of Habitat
  11. Low Agricultural Produce
  12. Health effects
  13. Economic impact

1. Soil Erosion

Accelerated soil erosion is one of the effects of deforestation on humans because as soil erosion happens, both man’s movement from one place to another, agricultural production, and even access to potable water can be adversely affected. Deforestation weakens and degrades the soil. Forested soils are usually not only richer in organic matter, but also more resistant to erosion, bad weather, and extreme weather events. This happens mainly because roots help fix trees in the ground and the sun-blocking tree cover helps the soil to slowly dry out. As a result, deforestation will probably mean the soil will become increasingly fragile, leaving the area more vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides and erosion. Due to surface plant litter and undergrowth, forests that are undisturbed have a minimal rate of erosion. The rate of erosion occurs from deforestation because it decreases the amount of litter cover, which provides protection from surface runoff. The rate of erosion is around 2 metric tons per square kilometer. This can be an advantage in excessively leached tropical rainforest soils. Forestry operations themselves also increase erosion through the development of (forest) roads and the use of mechanized equipment.

2. Hydrological Effects

Changes in the water cycle are one of the effects of deforestation on humans. Trees extract groundwater through their roots and release it into the atmosphere. When part of a forest is removed, the trees no longer transpire this water, resulting in a much drier climate. Deforestation reduces the content of water in the soil and groundwater as well as atmospheric moisture. The dry soil leads to a lower water intake for the trees to extract. Deforestation reduces soil cohesion. Shrinking forest cover lessens the landscape’s capacity to intercept, retain and transpire precipitation. Instead of trapping precipitation, which then percolates to groundwater systems, deforested areas become sources of surface water runoff, which moves much faster than subsurface flows. Forests return most of the water that falls as precipitation to the atmosphere by transpiration. In contrast, when an area is deforested, almost all precipitation is lost as run-off. That quicker transport of surface water can translate into flash flooding and more localized floods than would occur with the forest cover. 

Deforestation also contributes to decreased evapotranspiration, which lessens atmospheric moisture which in some cases affects precipitation levels downwind from the deforested area, as water is not recycled to downwind forests, but is lost in runoff and returns directly to the oceans. As a result, the presence or absence of trees can change the quantity of water on the surface, in the soil or groundwater, or in the atmosphere. This in turn changes erosion rates and the availability of water for either ecosystem functions or human services. Deforestation on lowland plains moves cloud formation and rainfall to higher elevations. Deforestation disrupts normal weather patterns creating hotter and drier weather thus increasing drought, desertification, crop failures, melting of the polar ice caps, coastal flooding, and displacement of major vegetation regimes. Deforestation affects wind flows, water vapor flows, and absorption of solar energy thus clearly influencing local and global climate.

3. Flooding

The adverse effects of deforestation on humans include coastal flooding. Trees help the land retain water and topsoil, which provides the rich nutrients to sustain additional forest life. Without forests, the soil erodes and washes away, causing farmers to move on and perpetuate the cycle. The barren land which is left behind in the wake of these unsustainable agricultural practices is then more susceptible to flooding, specifically in coastal regions.

4. Biodiversity

Dwindling biodiversity is one of the most known effects of deforestation on humans because deforestation threatens biodiversity. In fact, forests represent some of the most veritable hubs of biodiversity. From mammals to birds, insects, amphibians or plants, the forest is home to many rare and fragile species. 80% of the Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests. These species are specifically supported by the rich forest environments that provide them with food and shelter. In most cases, when there is deforestation, many animals that depend on trees for livelihood are disadvantaged. By destroying the forests, human activities are putting entire ecosystems in danger, creating natural imbalances, and putting Life in threat. The natural world is complex, interconnected, and made of thousands of inter-dependencies and among other functions, trees provide shade and colder temperatures for animals and smaller trees or vegetation which may not survive with the heat of direct sunlight. To be precise, birds, reptiles, and amphibians among many other classes of animals depend on trees for food and shelter. Whenever there is deforestation, these species are lost either through death, migration, or the general degradation of their habitat. It has been estimated that we are losing 137 plant, animal, and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation, which equates to 50,000 species a year. Others state that tropical rainforest deforestation is contributing to the ongoing Holocene mass extinction. The known extinction rates from deforestation rates are very low, approximately 1 species per year from mammals and birds which extrapolates to approximately 23,000 species per year for all species.

5. Global Warming and Climate Change

Global Warming and Climate change are some of the effects of deforestation on humans as the trees reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground giving the Earth an ambient temperature. Trees also act as sinks for carbon dioxides which is a major cause of Global warming and climate change because the trees take in carbon dioxide and some of these greenhouse gases and give out oxygen. The destruction of trees would cause a great number of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere increasing the rate of global warming. Healthy forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting as valuable carbon sinks. Deforested areas lose that ability and release more carbon. Also, burning and incineration of trees and related forest plants releases a large amount of CO2 increasing the rate of global warming and consequently climate change. According to scientists, tropical deforestation releases 1.5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

6. Desertification

One of the effects of deforestation on humans is desertification is when the land that once had habitable trees has been laid bare and this spreads across an area gradually transforming mostly forested areas into deserts. Deforestation has been known to be one of the major causes of desertification. Deforestation increases greenhouse effects by reducing the number of greenhouse gases that are absorbed by trees this, in turn, raises evaporation and evapotranspiration levels and increased temperatures causing long dry season periods and therefore increasing drought. The soil contains moisture that needs to be preserved and this can be done when there is sufficient forest cover. Soil is being covered by trees aiding the retention of water in the soil. But when the soil is exposed to increased temperatures in the absence of trees, the soil heats up and the soil loses moisture this, in turn, truncates the water cycle causing limited or no rainfall in a particular region which may later lead to desertification.

7. Melting of the Icebergs

Melting of the icebergs is one of the effects of deforestation on humans. Deforestation in the Polar Regions leads to the disturbance of the ice caps. Deforestation exposes ice caps to increased temperatures which lead to the melting of the ice caps. This leads to increased melting which further leads to the rise in the ocean or sea level. This in turn changes the weather patterns causing climate change and intense flooding.

8. Disruption of Local People’s Means of Livelihood

Millions of people worldwide are supported by forests globally, that is to say, that many people depend on forest hunting, medicine, wild food plants, housing materials, fuelwood, timber, and other materials for their local businesses such as rubber and palm oil. But as these trees are harvested by majorly big businesses, this disrupts the livelihood of small-scale agricultural business owners making disruption of local people’s means of livelihood one of the serious effects of deforestation to humans needing urgent attention.

9. Low Life Quality

Deforestation is a major contributor to intense heat in various parts of the world spanning from the United States to India and even many parts of the middle east and increased rainfalls in tropical rainforest areas causing various problems that eventually lead to death if not handled timely. Deforestation decreases the availability of staple food and access to other Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs)and hence decreases the quality of life.

10. Loss of Habitat

Loss of habitat is one of the effects of deforestation on humans. 70% of land animals and plant species live in forests. The trees of the rainforest that provide shelter for some species also regulate the temperature. Clearing of forested areas exposes the earth to unfavorable conditions which consequently leads to the destruction of innumerable species habitat as the forest sustains the life of various animal and plant communities. This causes these plants and animals to adapt to unfavorable conditions and if they cannot adapt, they either migrate to greener pastures or face extreme hardships. Deforestation has led to the exposure and destruction of many species which are very useful in the sustainability of the ecosystem.

11. Low Agricultural Produce

Deforestation consequently leads to varied rainfall patterns which in turn leads to extreme heat or intense rainfall. This disrupts planting and harvesting periods majorly in rural areas. This in turn affects crop yield causing low agricultural produce. Deforestation also exposes the soil to extreme conditions which kill microorganisms which aids the development and growth of plants leading to low agricultural yield. Deforestation also causes erosion which washes away agricultural produce reducing the net agricultural produce causing food insecurity making low agricultural production one of the effects of deforestation on humans.

12. Health effects

Health effects are one of the effects of deforestation on humans. Deforestation disrupts the balance of nature. Deforestation results in the death of various species of plants and animals that both helps in medicine production and indirectly prevent disease exposure to people. Deforestation also exposes plants and animals which are dangerous to human health including zoonotic diseases. Deforestation can also create a path for non-native species to flourish such as certain types of snails, which have been correlated with an increase in schistosomiasis cases. Diseases associated with forest include malaria, Chagas disease (also known as American trypanosomiasis), African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), leishmaniasis, Lyme disease, HIV, and Ebola. Majority of new infectious diseases affecting humans even the ones that are communicable. The SARS-CoV2 virus that caused the current COVID-19 pandemic, is zoonotic and their emergence may be linked to habitat loss due to forest area change and the expansion of human populations into forest areas, which both increase human exposure to wildlife.

13. Economic impact

Economic impacts are one of the effects of deforestation on humans. According to the World Economic Forum, half of the global GDP is dependent on nature. For every dollar spent on nature restoration, there is a profit of at least 9 dollars. According to a report by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Bonn in 2008, damage to forests and other aspects of nature could halve living standards for the world’s poor and reduce global GDP by about 7% by 2050.

Forested products like timber and fuelwood have been known to play a key role in human societies as compared to water and land forming a large part of the economy in both developed and developing countries. Today, developed countries continue to utilize timber for building houses and wood pulp for paper. In developing countries, about three billion people rely on wood for heating and cooking. Conversion of forest to agriculture and exploitation of wood products has caused short-term gains but will lead to long-term income losses and long-term biological productivity reduction. Illegal logging causes annual losses of billions of dollars to the economy of various countries. 

The new procedures to get amounts of wood are causing more harm to the economy and overpowering the amount of money spent by people employed in logging. According to a study, “in most areas studied, the various ventures that prompted deforestation rarely generated more than US$5 for every ton of carbon they released and frequently returned far less than US$1”. The European market price for an offset tied to a one-ton reduction in carbon is 23 euro (about US$35). The forest lands are converted into farms, ranches, and urban areas through deforestation. Another cause behind deforestation is the cutting of trees for timber and fuel. Deforestation has also been used in war situations to deprive an enemy of cover for its forces and other vital resources. It essentially leads to the extinction of vital things and destroys the ecological balance of nature. Thus causing:-

Other significant adverse effects of deforestation

young beautiful woman volunteer activist in the forest with a poster save the forest
young woman volunteer activist in the forest with a poster save the forest

Extinction of flora and fauna

Destruction of the forests leads to a tragic loss of biodiversity. Millions of plants and animal species are on the verge of extinction due to deforestation. Countries with tropical forests suffer the greatest causalities due to deforestation.

Relocation of wildlife to urban areas

Many wild animals have started relocating to urban areas as a result of massive deforestation. There have been many cases of various wild animals like snakes, bats, etc causing accidents in urban areas. Many times wild animals get killed in an effort to capture them. There have been instances of carnivorous predators like lions, tigers, and wolfs preying on humans in villages surrounded by forests.

Silting of Rivers and Dams

Deforestation causes large-scale deposition of sediments in the rivers. This leads to a collection of sediments in the dams, thus reducing their lifespan.

The danger of submersion of coastal areas and glaciers

Due to massive deforestation, the average temperature of the earth has risen in the last century. If this phenomenon continues then the increased temperatures would lead to the melting of glaciers. This would lead to a massive rise in the sea levels leading to submersion of coastal areas. Keeping these dire consequences in mind, an honest effort should be made by human civilization to conserve forests.

Biodiversity Loss

Forests are a habitat of over 80% of the species that exist on Earth. Deforestation destroys all the habitats of these animals and plants thereby causing many species to become extinct in nature. This leads to “biodiversity loss”. While many species have become extinct, multiple species remain endangered. The loss of these species due to the destruction of their habitat causes a disturbance in the ecosystem. 

Climate Change

As forests absorb a huge amount of CO2 from the atmosphere, releasing O2 in the process which is necessary for our breathing. Carbon dioxide and gases like methane are responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere of the Earth. The removal of trees leads to global warming as the cutting of trees increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causing an absorption deficit. This releases greenhouse gases leading to a change in the climate.

Soil Erosion

The cutting of trees weakens the soil and hence soil erosion occurs. The land’s exposure to the sun’s heat dries the moisture inside the soil. The nutrients present are evaporated and therefore when rainfall comes, the soil is washed off and soil erosion occurs. As a result of which, the irrigation infrastructure and hydroelectric structures are damaged.

Floods

Deforestation also causes erosion of land. As the water level of various water bodies rises, floods occur. Trees absorb and therefore store a huge amount of water when it rains through their roots. This flow of water is disrupted due to deforestation causing floods in various areas.

Affect on the Economy

Deforestation provides the raw material for various industries. The overexploitation of these resources leads to a reduction in the long-term productivity of the economy. Hence, a sustainable approach to the use of these resources will be really beneficial for the economy of a nation.

Preventive Measures

Developing alternatives to deforestation can help decrease the need for tree clearing. For example, the desire to expand the amount of land used for agriculture is a compelling economic reason to deforest an area. But if people adopted sustainable farming practices or employed new farming technologies and crops, the need for more land might be diminished. 

Forests can be restored by replanting trees in cleared areas or simply allowing the forest ecosystem to regenerate over time. The goal of restoration is to return the forest to its original state before it was cleared. The sooner a cleared area is reforested, the quicker the ecosystem can start to repair itself. Afterward, wildlife will return, water systems will reestablish, carbon will be sequestered and soils will be replenished. 

Everyone can do their part to curb deforestation. We can buy certified wood products made from wood that has been sustainably harvested – go paperless, limit our consumption of products that use palm oil, and plant a tree when possible. However, deforestation is a global problem that won’t be overcome by individual actions and will require large-scale efforts by nations’ leaders to change course and reduce forest destruction. In 2020, more than 100 countries pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, signing an agreement at the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. A dozen countries that signed the pledge promised to provide $12 billion between 2022 and 2025 to mitigate the damage to forests from wildfires, to restore land, and to assist Indigenous communities. Other donors in the private sector pledged $7.2 billion, to support the development of agriculture strategies that do not rely on deforestation.

Deforestation can be prevented by following various preventive measures that can be followed on an individual level and also implemented by our government. Individuals and government play a really important role in the protection of forests.

Role of Individuals

Conservation scientist hugging tree black pine tree in forest, love and dedication to environment
Conservation scientist hugging tree black pine tree in forest, love and dedication to environment
  • Implementation of the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
  • Reduce: Reduce the consumption of paper instead of using their alternatives.
  • Reuse: Avoid products that are just for the purpose of use and throw in order to prevent wastage of materials.
  • Recycle: Recycling all paper and wood products in a diligent manner.
  • Spreading awareness regarding the importance of trees and the harmful effects of deforestation. 
  • Planting more and more trees to compensate for the removal of trees which in turn will only benefit mankind.

Role of Government

  • Launching new campaigns for reforestation to restore the destroyed lands.
  • Investing in new and latest technologies such as hydroponics for the agricultural industry.
  • Aiding farmers to implement agricultural practices that are eco-friendly in nature like the process of cyclic agriculture.
  • Implementations of strict rules to prevent illegal logging activities.
  • Careful implementation of plans for the construction of infrastructure such as roads, industries, homes, dams, etc to reduce the loss of area of forests.
  • Investing in forests planted with trees that offer high yields increases the output of the natural forests.
  • Increasing the forest range and area that are under the protection of the government.
  • Implementing rules to ban the agricultural practices that are inefficient like slash-and-burn agriculture, which refers to the practice of burning huge areas of land in forests and then planting crops in the same soil which has now become fertilized due to the addition of the ashes of the burnt trees.
  • Use of alternatives of wood like bamboo to reduce the demand for wood fuel and timber. 

Points to Ponder

  • Deforestation refers to the cutting down of a large number of trees from the areas of forests or other such areas in order to facilitate human activities easily.
  • Trees provide shelter to various organisms in the forests. 
  • They also help in maintaining the water cycle and serving various human needs.
  • The clearing of forests for agricultural land and activities is a primary cause of deforestation.
  • 20% of the oxygen supply of the world is supplied from the Amazon rainforest. Due to deforestation, the forest loses approximately 1.32 acres of land every minute.
  • Natural forests are being cut down to use the barren land formed in place for cultivation, building houses and industries, clearing areas for cattle grazing, forming space for mining, constructing dams, or other such human activities.
  • Deforestation also causes erosion of land.
  • Forests are a habitat of over 80% of the species that exist on Earth. 
  • The use of alternatives to wood like bamboo to reduce the demand for wood fuel and timber can help in preventing deforestation.
  • Deforestation destroys all the habitats of these animals and plants thereby causing many species to become extinct in nature.
  • Planting more and more trees to compensate for the removal of trees which in turn will only benefit mankind.
Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.
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