Forest degradation is the long-term reduction in the overall capacity of a forest to produce or provide benefits, such as carbon storage, biodiversity, wood, and other products due to environmental and anthropogenic alterations. It results to a decrease in the number of species in the forest and in tree cover, or the alteration of the forest structure. Forest degradation is different from deforestation; although the latter is a contributing factor to the loss of biodiversity.
Forest degradation creates great ecological problems in all parts of the earth, the most significant impact of which is the loss of habitat of many species or loss of biodiversity. It also leads to the disruption of water cycle and river ecosystems, and soil erosion.
Causes and effects of degradation
Forest fires. Every year, fires wipe out millions of hectares of forests worldwide. Although, they are expected to occur in many forest types, particularly in boreal and dry tropical forests, since they are a natural part of ecosystems. But fires can also be due to accidents and human error.
Forest fires become a serious issue when:
- they occur in the wrong places at an unusual frequency, or at a wrong temperature
- they are directly or indirectly premeditated or influenced by humans
- fire is used as an option to “manage” forests. Usually, this is employed as the simplest and cheapest means for smallholders.
Fires can tremendously change the composition and structure of forests. They make the burned areas vulnerable to invasion of alien species, and endanger biological diversity. They also leave an impact on varied sectors, particularly:
- Local communities. Forests are basically an important resource base for the communities around it, such as the soil where they grow their crops, water for drinking and irrigation, and the like. When fires occur, environmental degradation adversely affects soil fertility, water cycles, and biodiversity.
I remember what Ghanaian President, John Dramani Mahama, once said in a speech. He lamented at how his country suffers from environmental degradation through forest depletion, agricultural soil degradation, and environmental health damage, which remarkably hamper his country’s prospects of sustainable development. He said that such degradation has cost 3.7 percent of Ghana’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010.
- Farmers. Forest fires mean loss of their crops, or even livelihood.
Fires can also tremendously damage buildings, plantations, and crops as well as claim human lives.
Climate change. Climate change causes transformations on montane forests, rainforests, savannas, boreal forests, and other similar ecosystems. It increases the intensity and frequency of droughts and dry spells, and escalates the mean and peak temperatures. Extreme weather conditions considerably decrease tree cover and dry out bodies of water that run through the forests.
Wildlife are also forced to migrate, decreasing the quality of forest ecosystems in the process. Actually, forest wildlife severely suffers when they lack water and have to look for a new habitat. When changes happen too quickly in the ecosystems, species might not be able to cope with it, resulting in its loss or, worse, global extinction.
Diseases and pests. An outbreak of plague and pest attacks can damage the vegetative cover of forest areas.