When the word deforestation first appeared in 1874, it was used to refer to ‘the action or process of clearing of forests’. While its meaning has remained the same, deforestation, today, is linked to a host of issues ranging from economic loss and injustice towards tribal communities, to witness a surge in disease outbreaks.
This shift in perspective can be primarily attributed to the fact that environmentalists, scientists and conservationists alike have come to realise that the impacts of the process go much beyond environmental destruction. We all must recognise this quickly if we are to secure trees — and ourselves — a sustained future on the planet.
Historically, the practice of cutting down trees has its roots in man’s needs for shelter, warmth and food — the earliest known instances of tree-felling date back to the Mesolithic age — around 10,000 years ago. By then, individuals had become aware that some materials were more flammable than others and, if used correctly, would allow them to ‘control’ fire. Wood was one such material; early humans began cutting down trees to fashion various wooden implements.
The advent of agriculture further enhanced this process. Farming invited, amongst other things, the creation of large spaces for crops to grow on and the construction of houses to support a settled way of life near them. All of this required the periodic clearing of forests and set the tone for man’s non-sustainable dependence on nature.
But it is not until recently, in the last one and half centuries or so, that deforestation has become a source of global concern. The mechanisation of industry, coupled with improvements in healthcare after the 1850s, brought with them an explosion of ‘felt’ needs.
More people started demanding cheap wooden products, such as toys and pencils, than ever before. Additionally, the emergence of the pulp and forest tourism industries in the early 20th century significantly increased deforestation of timber-rich areas. This means that in the last 150 years, over 1,200 million hectares of forest cover has been lost, twice the amount of all the time before it!
Consequently, the rising levels of deforestation in today’s times is a reflection of the consumerist lifestyles that many of us have come to adopt. Indeed, not much has changed since we first began cutting down trees; we still look at them for the wood and fruits they provide.
What has changed, however, is how we relate with them. From initially valuing trees as shared natural commodities essential to our survival, we’ve begun to view them as resources available for mindless exploitation.
This has several unpleasant consequences. Trees are essential members of whichever ecosystem they are found and play critical roles in maintaining its stability and integrity. They provide for and promote healthy habitats for many organisms, minimise soil erosion and reduce a considerable amount of carbon dioxide in forests. But what makes them essential to the planet’s survival is their ability to regulate weather conditions and rainfall.
This is made possible by a remarkable process known as evapotranspiration. Through it, moisture absorbed by trees, plants and soil is returned to the atmosphere every day, such that it is responsible for a substantial proportion the world’s annual precipitation. Hence, by cutting down forests, not only do we accelerate biodiversity loss but also contribute significantly to climate change.
Scientists estimate that annual forest cover loss is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. That is more than what 85 million cars would emit in their lifetimes!
Combined with shortages in rainfall, this could have disastrous implications for the planet in future. Experts already contend that meeting the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 will be difficult at the current rates of global warming.
Unfortunately, this is not where the demerits of deforestation end. Deforestation also impacts tribal communities adversely. If one scrutinises the graph above, it becomes evident that the focus of deforestation has gradually shifted from temperate forests to tropical ones — encompassing humid equatorial regions in Africa, South America and Asia. Incidentally, these also provide for the majority of the world’s remaining tribal communities, making them direct victims of the process.
Critics will be quick to point out that even if tribal communities moved out from forests, they received economic compensation from the government and other institutions involved in their displacement to facilitate their rehabilitation. While this is indeed true, it is important to highlight in many cases that this payment is delayed to the extent that it retains little significance.
In some instances, this can mean waiting for more than 20 years. Secondly, in leaving the forest, tribal communities lose much more than their source of income and livelihood; they are robbed of a way of life and a place they claimed as a home for large parts of their existence. Such losses can never be quantified, and therefore, accounted for.
Finally, deforestation also increases the likelihood of future disease outbreaks. As human presence invades deeper into the forest, we come into contact with wild animals and plants that were traditionally separate from us. Many of these, including various species of bats and monkeys, are natural hosts of disease-causing organisms that partially or entirely foreign to human immune systems.
Once an individual contracts a disease from them, there is a significant chance that they struggle to recover from it and spread it on to others. In most cases, finding a suitable cure for such ‘novel’ diseases takes time, and the potential for an epidemic or pandemic develops.
Zika, Ebola and Covid-19 are the latest manifestations of this increasingly worrying trend. They have all originated from deep within the forest, gradually found their way into human settlements and claimed thousands of lives. Even more alarming is the fact that all these pandemics have occurred in the last ten years: For many, this is a clear indication that such incidences are on the rise.
Ultimately, deforestation is a problem of attitude. Over the years, we become far too concerned with a model of economic progress that thrives on a one-sided relationship with the forest and its people. We need to put a pause on this relentless pursuit and rethink what it means for the planet. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic presents us with this reflective moment.