Causes and effects of forest degradation

  • When forest degradation occurs, the ecological landscape of the earth is tremendously altered.
  • Both human error and natural phenomena contribute to forest degradation

Forest degradation is the long-term reduction in the overall capacity of a forest to produce or provide benefits. Its most significant impact is the loss of diversity. This means many species of the flora and fauna becomes extinct. And the forest structure is altered. Due to the environmental and anthropogenic change, degradation eventually destroys the whole forest cover. The forest then ceases to provide carbon storage. And disruption of the water cycle and river ecosystems, and soil erosion occurs.

Forest degradation is different from deforestation. Although the latter is a contributing factor to the loss of biodiversity.

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Causes and effects of forest degradation

Natural phenomena and human error are the primary contributors to forest degradation.

Forest fires
Sadly, forest fires occur almost every year in different forest regions of the world. They can be caused by natural, accidental, and human error. And when these fires occur, millions of hectares of trees and vegetation covers are wiped out. Although the fires could happen in many forest types, it’s a more common occurrence in the boreal and dry tropical woodlands.

Forest fires become a serious issue when:

  • they occur in the wrong places and at an unusual frequency
  • they blow up at a wrong temperature
  • they are directly or indirectly premeditated or influenced by humans
  • fire is used as an option to “manage” the forests. Usually, this is employed by smallholder farmers. Popularly referred to as slash-and-burn, this method is the simplest and cheapest means of farming.

Fires tremendously change the composition and structure of the forests. They turn the burned areas vulnerable to invasion of alien species. Forest fires do endanger biological diversity and affect the local communities and farmers around the area.

The forest is important in the livelihoods of the local communities. It’s where they get their fuelwood, food, medicine, and construction materials.

Indigenous people, in particular, are almost fully dependent on the forests. Those living in dense forests rely heavily on the woodlands for their subsistence and income.

For the farmers, on the other hand, forest fires mean the loss of their crops and livelihood. In the worst cases, these incidents can claim their lives.

On the general note, forest fires tremendously affect the economy and diversity of the region. Soil fertility and water cycles are disrupted, too. 

Having said these, I’m reminded of what Ghana President, John Dramani Mahama, once said in a speech. He lamented at how his country suffers from environmental degradation. He particularly pointed out forest depletion, agricultural soil degradation, and environmental health damage as the contributing factors that hamper Ghana’s prospects of sustainable development. Mahama said that such degradation has cost 3.7 percent of Ghana’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010.

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Climate change
The extreme changes in the average atmospheric temperatures significantly cause forest degradation. Prolonged droughts and intense cold or dry periods stunt the tree covers. These extreme weather conditions also dry out the water systems that flow through the forests. Thus, reducing the number of tree species to thrive.

Forest wildlife need water to survive. Once they realize that their habitat’s water source is depleting, they move to other regions to fill their needs. Because of this migration, the ecosystem in the region from which they come is altered. Likewise, the extreme changes in the ecosystems make it difficult for many species to cope. This, therefore, results in their loss or extinction.

Diseases and pests
An outbreak of plague and pest attacks can damage the trees and vegetation cover of the forest areas. The destruction consequently leads to a reduction in the quality of the specific features of the forests. It alters biodiversity and food chain relationships due to the death of particular species of flora and fauna.

Forest fragmentation
Fragmentation refers to the breaking down of large forest areas into smaller pieces. This results when tectonic movements or flooding occurs.

Fragmentation disrupts healthy ecosystems. The animals, which normally flourish in large forest areas, find it difficult to cope in smaller pieces of forests. Fragmentation significantly alters the mutual relationships and food chain interactions in the physical environment of the forest.

Soil erosion and sedimentation
Soil erosion and sedimentation are closely associated with forest degradation. The increasing demand for agricultural products led to the move to convert forests and grasslands into farm fields and pastures. Such a transition from natural vegetation to agriculture causes soil erosion. Plants like cotton, coffee, soybean, wheat, and palm oil cannot hold onto the soil. Thus, increasing the vulnerability of the soil to erode beyond its ability to maintain itself. The degraded lands become less able to hold onto water, heightening the possibility of flooding.

Land pollution
Land pollution means the degradation of the soil and the earth’s surface. Anthropogenic activities that discharge chemicals on the land close to the forest areas make the environment unfavorable for the survival of vegetation, trees, and animal species. Chemicals contaminate the plants and waters that the animals consumed. Thus, interfering their interactive food chains.

Air pollution
Air pollution is another substantial factor that causes a serious problem for the forests. The main agent of air pollution is acid deposition, commonly known as acid rain.

Acid rain occurs when emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) react in the atmosphere with oxygen, water, and oxidants to form varied acidic compounds. When these compounds fall on earth, they destroy the leaves of the trees and vegetation needed for photosynthesis. Acid rain changes the acidity of the water systems that support the forests. It also damages the important forest ecosystems and biodiversity.

And, speaking of air pollution: Not only our forests can be suffocated by polluted air. We, too, are prone to illnesses caused by the air-borne contaminants, even if we spend most of our time indoors. Make sure, then, to install an air cleaning system purifier right at your home or workplace. This way, we can be physically fit in helping protect our forests.

What we can do to save our forests

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The forests play a vital role in tackling global warming. And so, we need to conscientiously work towards the conservation and sustainable use of forests. We need to pay attention to the maintenance of the carbon stocks that these forests hold. At the same time, we must respect the rights of the local communities and indigenous peoples that depend on the woodlands.

You and I can greatly help in minimizing the impact of forest degradation. Yes, we have the responsibility to take care of the only habitat we have – the planet Earth. Coordinate with the local Forestry or Environment and Natural Resources office in your area and find out what your forests and immediate environment needs. Each region varies in the landscape. So does each forest areas requirements differ, too.


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