SAN JOSE, California – Picture Manhattan. Then picture it annihilated. Now, imagine Manhattan-sized areas around the world being destroyed every hour. This isn’t the plot of Transformers 5 or the next global apocalypse thriller – every single hour, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan is obliterated.
Deforestation is a critical issue that destroys ecosystems, encourages poverty and accelerates climate change. Producing oxygen that all people and wildlife depend on, forests cover nearly a third of the planet’s landmass. Along with being home to many of the most endangered and threatened animals in the world, they provide fresh water, food, medicine, clothing and shelter to 1.6 billion people.
However, almost 50 football field-sized areas of forest are lost – every year, every month? The answer is every minute. Ruined by agriculture, ranching, development and logging, the forest is being lost at a catastrophic rate that jeopardizes not only dependent animals and people, but also the entire planet. Forests are critical in mitigating climate change because they soak up carbon dioxide; their destruction is responsible for about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Worldwide, illegal logging bypasses timber regulation by harvesting protected species, more than is permitted, and from protected areas. In some areas, it is more prevalent than legal logging. Illegal logging lowers the price of timber worldwide, deprives governments of necessary tax revenues and hurts business for law-abiding logging companies. Though the destruction of the planet’s most valuable forests is detrimental enough, illegal logging also causes human rights violations.
When logging companies try to find new sources of timber, they often repress the poor communities who depend on the forests. Deforestation destroys the homes and livelihoods of millions, leading to situations like in Brazil, where poor people must find alternative work at remote soy plantations where they are abused and forced to labor under inhumane conditions at gunpoint. Because black market timber sells at a much lower price, children are exploited into near-slave labor in order to squeeze out profit.
Even without logging companies, the deforestation and poverty are locked in a harmful relationship. Of the 1.3 billion people worldwide who live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day, forests directly contribute to 90 percent their livelihoods. To survive, some of these people clear the land for subsistence agriculture, chopping down even protected forests to grow food for their families. Others cut down trees for illegal timber, which sells for a fraction of the wood’s true value. The pittance they earn from these harmful endeavors keeps them mired in extreme poverty.
Though many of the poor recognize the destructive nature of their practices, the choice between feeding their families today and protecting the land for future generations is an obvious one.
Haiti, which has one of the world’s rates of child mortality, is a compelling study in the direct connection between deforestation and quality of life. Rampant deforestation has caused infertile farmland, famine, massive erosion and frequent flash floods, all of which spread sickness and disease. Children already suffer from malnutrition due to famine, but their vulnerable immune systems are further trodden by recurrent flash floods that sweep sewage, garbage and corpses into their villages, creating constant highly unsanitary living conditions. Additionally, just a day of rain on Haiti’s treeless, brown mountains causes mudslides that bury thousands during the rainy season.
The damage can be clearly seen from space – satellite photos show still existing lush forests in the Dominican Republic, but next door, Haiti is a bare, dull landscape.
“Deforestation and poverty are very closely linked,” said Clémentine Lalande, Haiti head of investments for Yunus Social Business. “It has been clearly identified in various studies as one of the main causes of poverty here, leading to degraded soil, decreasing agricultural yields, water scarcity, decreasing farming income, and potentially malnutrition, in particular in rural areas.”
Once covered in fertile forests, the land has since made barren from the 40 million trees that are chopped yearly. Recognizing deforestation as of the country’s primary causes of poverty, Haiti launched a campaign last spring to plant 50 million trees annually, hoping to increase the forest cover from its dangerously low level of two percent – one of the lowest in world history.
– Annie Jung