What are the main causes of deforestation?

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) the earth is currently losing 18.7 million acres of forest per year.

There are several causes of deforestation and these causes vary depending on where in the world you are.

The most direct driver of chopping down trees is a demand for the wood itself. This might be for use in the paper industry, where world consumption of this resource has increased demand by 400% in the last 40 years. Or it could be for thousands of other uses from furniture to matchsticks.

On top of direct uses, trees are also felled to make space for other things. This includes mining for a variety of metals and minerals where huge areas of the ground are excavated. It also includes land use-change to make space for agriculture, whether that is cattle ranching or growing crops like soy and palm oil, driven by a massive increase in demand over recent decades. It is estimated that 80% of tropical deforestation is due to agriculture.

What are the effects of deforestation?

Climate Change

Trees are excellent ‘carbon sinks’ meaning that when they are alive they absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit. More trees alive means more carbon dioxide absorbed and therefore less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Most of us don’t need reminding these days that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more heat is trapped and this is causing climate change, which brings with it a host of issues that I won’t go into now.

Deforestation is one of the leading contributors to climate change, with the World Resources Institute stating that if tropical deforestation were a country it would rank third just behind China and the USA!

Loss of biodiversity

Deforestation has devastating effects for wildlife and biodiversity. This could be the direct killing or injuring of animals when the industrial machinery tears the trees down. But it is mainly due to the loss of important habitat.

It is estimated that just a four square mile area of rainforest contains up to 1,500 plants, 400 bird species and 150 butterfly species. It is thought that 50% of all the worlds plants and animals live in the rainforests.

By chopping the trees down and often destroying all the habitat underneath too, this habitat is lost and anything that is not killed will move into smaller and smaller areas where competition for food is much higher leading to many more deaths.

Soil erosion

The final big environmental impact caused by deforestation is soil erosion. Without the trees extensive root systems in place to hold the soil together it is easily washed away by rain or blown away by the wind. The crops that often replace the trees such as soy or coffee don’t have the same root structure as the large trees they replace.

This washing away of soil leads to pollution of rivers, which leads to the loss of fish and siltation of hydroelectric dams (amongst other impacts), flooding and serious landslides that put human life at risk.

8 Innovative Solutions to Deforestation

The key is to prevent trees being chopped down in the first place, so in this list of solutions I will start with innovations that aim to stop deforestation before it happens.

However, we must also accept that we need to re-plant a lot of the forests that have been lost and so later on in the list I will mention a few innovations that aim to help with this mission too.

1) Tracking tree cover in real time (Global Forest Watch 2.0)

Tracking tree cover as accurately as possible in real time is key to assessing the extent of deforestation and attempting to prevent it where possible.

Established in 1997 and rebooted in 2013, Global Forest Watch is a project overseen by the World Resources Institute (WRI) involving over 70 partners where the aim is to improve the availability and accessibility of global data on forests.

This open-source data can be used by people and organizations all over the world, for free, to help monitor and manage forests, spot and stop illegal logging activities and fires, defend land and resources and conduct research.

Global forest watch encapsulates the importance of transparency in how we share data in order to tackle these big global problems together.

Many case studies are popping up of the vital work done by the application including identification of the source of the Southeast Asian haze crisis in 2015 which was caused by illegal burning of forests.

2) Cloud-based land use analysis (FAO Sepal)

Similar in many ways to Global Forest Watch is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) SEPAL platform.

It is a cloud based platform which allows any country to do analysis of their current forests and other land uses.

Importantly, as with Global Forest Watch, it is completely open source. It utilizes existing technology such as google satellite data, but they are purchasing higher resolution imagery to allow countries to see in even greater detail what is happening to their forests.

Being able to monitor forests at this level of detail is important as the gradual erosion from small scale agriculture and logging is often not spotted until the overall impact is huge.

3) Audio detection devices (Rainforest Connection)

Rainforest connection is a fascinating idea that looks to audio rather than visual cues to prevent illegal logging in the rainforests.

Topher White from San Francisco is a physicist who was inspired to act after a trip to Indonesia where he saw first hand the struggles the conservationists faced their from illegal logging. He saw that even the gibbon sanctuary where he was volunteering was not safe from the encroaching threat.

Taking on the silicon valley philosophy that you should utilize existing tech wherever possible, he looked to use old mobile phones combined with modern software to create a network of listening devices across the forest. The idea being that the phones already contain the microphones and GPS capability required to make really useful devices for this function.

One of the biggest challenges with the idea is ensuring the phones can maintain a charge. This means harnessing the sun’s energy using solar panels. The problem is that these phones are located under the tree canopy where sunlight is often blocked by the vegetation above (most areas are in the shade 90% of the time).  But with a clever design consisting of several panels mounted at different angles, Topher has managed to create a device that can retain a charge even in these conditions.

When a chainsaw or truck sound is heard by one of the devices it sends an alert notification to someone who can go and check out the activity and see what is happening.

It is currently undergoing pilot tests in Indonesia, Cameroon and Brazil.

4) Scannable powder to spray on trees (Stardust)

Knowing if logs came from a legal or illegal source can often be tricky to determine so a way to verify the origin of wood can be vital.

Stardust is a powder that is designed to be sprayed onto trees. This dust forms a layer on the wood that can subsequently be scanned to determine the origin of the logs. This can be done when the log is cut up and even when it has been made into products such as paper!

Stardust is invisible to the human eye and so doesn’t ruin the end products, is non-toxic and very cheap to use.

5) Crowdsourcing apps (This is My Backyard)

Technology has arguably exacerbated many environmental problems by creating a more globalized world where we are constantly connected. However, this same tech can also hopefully provide some of the solutions as well.

Crowdsourcing uses the power of large numbers of people who now increasingly have access to technology such as the internet across the globe.

This allows initiatives such as This is My Backyard (TIMBY) to gain vast amounts of useful data from the public on detrimental activities such as illegal logging. The simple reporting app allows local people and communities to upload alerts, photos and videos from their smartphones.

This data is then collated on their investigation dashboard where it can be verified and compared with other reports from the app.

Finally, TIMBY provides a storytelling tool, important for helping create a narrative to spread the message and to facilitate action.

The technology is being used across the world by organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Oxfam.

6) Blockchain and cryptocurrency technology (Ubiquity, Earth Coin, Terra Zero)

You’ve probably heard of blockchain as the technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. But this technology can be utilized for other applications too.

Blockchain is a ‘distributed ledger’ meaning the ledger isn’t held by a bank (as is the case with traditional currency) but is distributed and decentralized. This ledger is very secure and theoretically can’t be tampered with and any amendment to it is kept forever and can be tracked.

So how can this technology be applied to tackle deforestation?

The idea is to use blockchain technology to make the forests more valuable intact than they are chopped down.

American start-up Ubitquity have partnered with Brazil’s Estate Registry Office to get a handle on land ownership of forests and stop the problem of falsely claimed land and illegal logging. Authentic real estate ownerships can be put on the blockchain and because this can’t be tampered with, it prevents issues that occur from illegally attained ownership through violence etc.

Special cryptocurrencies have even been created such as Earth token in Zimbabwe which offers local community members incentive payments in the form of cryptocurrency when they plant new trees. Using this special currency means that funding from carbon offsetting for example actually gets to the community which is often not the case with traditional money which is harder to track.

Perhaps the most interesting application of blockchain technology (in relation to preventing deforestation) is the project Terra Zero. This project takes advantage of the fact that some countries have put their land registry on the incorruptible blockchain. Because this technology is digital, it has no way of telling if an entry is for a human, a company or even forest itself. So what Terra Zero do is buy a bit of land and enter the owner of the land as the forest itself, so the forest, in theory, owns itself. This means that when a timber company is issued a license to chop down any trees, they give money to the forest owner (the forest itself) and the forest can regenerate itself.

In all these applications of the blockchain and cryptocurrency, it deals with issues around trust and lack of truthful records. With these problems solved, the potential of this technology to tackle issues around deforestation are vast.

7) Reforestation drones (Biocarbon Engineering)

As mentioned earlier in the article, we have to prevent ongoing deforestation before it is too late, but we must also accept that we need to start planting a large number of trees too.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI) new tree planting in tropical areas can provide 23% of climate mitigation needed over the next decade to meet Paris Climate Agreement goals.

Technology can hopefully help with this process to give us a helping hand and plant the trees at a faster rate and in harder to reach places.

Drones are being used for a huge number of applications these days and UK based company Biocarbon Engineering have found a way to put the tech to use for environmental good.

The company was founded by a NASA engineer and is quite simply a drone that shoots trees into the ground.

The drone will firstly map the area of regeneration, then it will subsequently fly 2 to 3 meters above the ground shooting seedpods into the soil. These pods are filled with not just the tree seeds but all the nutrients required the tree needs to start it’s life.

Biocarbon Engineering estimate this method speeds up planting by 10 times and reduces cost by up to 15%. With the company backing themselves to plant 1 billion trees a year by 2022. This is ambition you have to admire!

8) Mimicking leaf litter (Nucleario)

Bruno Rutman Pagnocelli grew up in Brazil and saw first hand the devastating deforestation that was occurring. He realized that planting and maintaining trees in remote areas such as the forests of Brazil was slow, inefficient and even dangerous in many cases. So inspired to do something innovative Bruno looked to nature for the answer.

This way of innovating is known as ‘biomimicry’, and is the concept of taking ideas and copying processes found in the natural world and applying that to technology and innovation.

Bruno’s idea was ‘Nucleario’ an all-in-one reforestation solution which mimics the function of leaf litter. Natural leaf litter provides many useful functions to tree saplings such as preventing soil washing away, keeping moisture levels high and protecting from predators and invasive species.

This device cuts down on the maintenance and fertilizer requirement to get the new trees started and it also increases the success rates dramatically.

Concluding remarks

With deforestation still occurring at an alarming rate, we will need technology and innovation to help stop illegal logging, help us monitor the health of forests and to aid reforestation efforts too.

However, we shouldn’t forget that we need to slow down the key drivers of deforestation in the first place. If we continue to demand palm oil in all our products, eat soy fed beef or carry on other habits that lead to deforestation we are effectively just putting a plaster on a large wound.

So whilst we must keep innovating, perhaps buying a little less new stuff, along with being more conscious of the impact of products we buy we can help slow down and hopefully reverse the trends in deforestation across the world.

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer and podcast producer for The Disruptive Environmentalist. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.
Rob Wreglesworth

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