What is the deforestation effect on humans?

by Zoe Brown

Forests are disappearing at a shocking rate, and this loss comes at a major cost to people all across the world. It’s well known that forest destruction is a driving force behind the extinction of plants and animals.1 But what, exactly, is the deforestation effect on humans?

It’s important to acknowledge that as humans, we are hugely dependent on forests for their ability to take-up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air.1 Planting more trees and restoring forests (afforestation and reforestation) would absorb more CO2, and thus could be part of global measures to mitigate climate change.

Imagine then that all the trees were lost. We’d lose the potential for this mitigation measure to be used.2 The impacts of climate change – water shortage, more extreme weather and food insecurity – would be a lot more intense. Of course, the consequences for humans do not end there. Deforestation puts many parts of our daily lives at risk – from the air we breathe down to our morning coffee.3

But before going any further, let’s have a quick recap of deforestation.

What is Deforestation?

Deforestation is the process of clearing away forests to make way for other uses, such as roads, agriculture or palm oil plantations.4

Satellite data shows that tropical forests are being lost at a rate of about 31,000 square miles per year.5 In Brazil’s Amazon rainforest alone, an area about the size of New York City was cleared between January and March of this year.6

Communities living within forests depend most directly on them for income, food and shelter. That said, everyone, no matter where they reside on the planet, benefits from the services provided by forests.7

Effect on Humans

So what is the deforestation effect on humans? First and foremost, deforestation leads to a reduction in CO2 uptake. The resultant increase in greenhouse gas concentrations results in global warming, leading to such impacts as desertification and a loss of food.2

Food stability is also threatened by the impact of soil erosion. This means that when the soil-binding roots are removed in the process of forest clearance, the exposed soil is vulnerable to strong winds, rain and floods. This can eradicate all the nutrients necessary to grow crops, endangering our food supply.2

Health Concerns

Deforestation also poses a number of health-related risks, the first being the loss of air purification. Trees filter chemical pollutants out of the air, thus the oxygen they expel during photosynthesis is clean and safe for humans to breathe. Fewer trees means more contaminated air.8

On top of this, there is an increased risk of disease breakout. Clearing away forest habitat means some animals – such as fruit bats – are forced to find food elsewhere, carrying with them deadly diseases such as the Nipah Virus. In addition, edges of cleared rainforest provide ideal breeding ground for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes.9

These diseases are usually confined to wildlife and can exist harmlessly, having co-evolved with their host animals. By clearing forest habitat however, humans are disturbing this natural order and putting themselves at risk.9

Finally, the ingredients for modern pharmaceuticals (medicinal drugs) are often found deep within forests. Clearing forest habitat therefore risks the extinction of plant species potentially holding the cure to diseases such as cancer and HIV.8

And what of your morning coffee? Many wild coffee plants are at an increasing risk of extinction due to drought. This comes as a consequence of global warming, enhanced by the removal of forests.3 Though seemingly trivial, the threat of losing such a popular hot drink surely can only reinforce the importance of encouraging those responsible to preserve what forests remain.

References

  1. Nunez, C. (2019) Deforestation explained [Online] National Geographic [Accessed June 2020]
  2. WWF (2020) Deforestation and Forest Degradation [Online] WWF [Accessed June 2020]
  3. Mega, E.R. (2019) News: Wild coffee species threatened by climate change and deforestation [Online] Nature [Accessed June 2020].
  4. IUCN (2020] Deforestation and forest degradation. [Online] IUCN [Accessed June 2020]
  5. Conservation International (2020) Deforestation: 11 facts you need to know [Online] Conservation International
  6. Iglesias, S.P. (2020) Politics: Brazil to Boost Amazon Forest Oversight as Deforestation Jumps [Online] Bloomberg Green [Accessed June 2020].
  7. FAO (2020) The state of the world’s forests [Online] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [Accessed June 2020].
  8. WWF (2010) Human health linked directly to forest health [Online] WWF [Accessed June 2020].
  9. Zimmer, K. (2019) Deforestation is leading to more infectious diseases in humans [Online] National Geographic [Accessed June 2020].