The Deforestation of Tropical Rainforests and its Effects



Smokes rises from forest fires in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 27, 2019. – (Photo by Joao Laet / AFP)

Paul Siebert


In the past century, humans have been continuously destroying rainforests to satisfy their hunger for industrial and agricultural success; in short: money. Today, two thirds of all original tropical rainforest cover around the world is either gone or severely damaged. That has led to many scientists exclaiming that it is too late for us, that we have gone too far. But why even are rainforests so important for the planet and the species living on it, including us? And is it really too late for us to change and save the rainforests? 

Why are rainforests so important?

Rainforests are incredibly important for our planet and thousands of species, including humanity. Rainforests not only absorb carbon dioxide and, by doing so, help stabilize the earth’s climate but also release oxygen that is essential to our and other species’ survival. We also use many products which come directly from rainforests; for example: At least 80% of the developed world’s diet originated in the rainforest; over 3,000 different fruits can be found there, only 200 of which are in use in the Western World at the moment. Tropical rainforests around the world also hold large percentages of all fresh water, with the Amazon basin alone containing 20% of the world’s fresh water. And this water helps maintain the world’s water cycle by adding water to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration, which creates clouds. In these clouds, the water travels around the world and is responsible for many rainfalls without which droughts would become more common. With droughts becoming more frequent, we would have to expect widespread famine and disease.

The reasons listed above are all important to humans and other species all over the planet but there are also species and indigenous people living directly in rainforests which/who are affected by the deforestation of rainforests even more. After all, tropical rainforests hold over half of the Earth’s wildlife and more than two thirds of its plant species. These species can only be found in rainforests and not only deserve to survive but can also save human lives. See, about 25% of products in modern medicine originate from tropical plants and we have only explored 1% of all the species in the rainforest, so there is still so much more to be found. And there are humans living in rainforests; to be exact: tens of millions of indigenous people, who are having to find new shelter and food every time a bigger part of a rainforest is cut or burnt down. So, rainforests are not “only” the only home to thousands of species and indigenous people but also have a great impact on our lives at home, wherever we may be living in this world. 


Where are the biggest rainforests?

Covering an area of over 1.35 billion acres, the Amazon rainforest represents over half of the rainforest on the planet; it spans over 9 countries, including Brazil, which is home to the largest chunk of the rainforest, Peru, and Colombia and makes up around 40% of all of South America. The second largest rainforest in the world is the Congo Basin which encompasses 6 countries in West and Central Africa and, at 500 million acres, is larger than the state of Alaska by a sizable amount. Many species which call the Congo rainforest home are found nowhere else on earth. Following that, we have the New Guinea rainforest, which is 195 million acres big and found in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Other rainforests can be found in southeast Asia, in countries such as Malaysia or Thailand, and in northern Australia. As you can see, there are many rainforests in the world which are worth talking about but since the Amazon is by far the biggest, it will be the main focus of this article. So, to the important questions: how have we been treating rainforests in the past century or so? 


Why and how are we destroying rainforests?

Mass deforestation of rainforests began in the early 20th century to meet the increased need for rubber to supply the mass production of cars, mostly for tires. Since then, deforestation has been increasing almost yearly, but the reasons have changed. Today, the primary drivers of deforestation around the globe are agriculture, logging, and mining; in short: human consumption is to blame. 

This human consumption has led to tropical rainforests only covering 6.5 percent of the Earth’s surface. Yes, they still hold more than half of the planet’s biological diversity. But before we started cutting down the rainforests, they covered 14% of the world’s surface; imagine the amount of carbon that could be stored and the biological diversity that could be found there. Sounds beautiful, does it not? Well, over the next quarter century, nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals, and microorganisms will most likely be destroyed or severely threatened. Thanks to deforestation.

As said above, deforestation has been increasing almost yearly so we have been seeing new records constantly but recently, a pretty special record has been set in the Amazon: deforestation there saw a jump of 64% in the first three months of 2022 compared to a year earlier. According to the national space research agency Inpe, an area about the size of NYC was lost in the first three months of 2022, making it the biggest rainforest area lost in that timespan since the data series began in 2015. 

A nonprofit organization called Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) has also been observing the deforestation of rainforests and it has calculated that about 34% of the original 5,560,000 sq mi of tropical rainforest cover on our planet is gone and another 30% remains in various forms of degradation. That leaves only ⅓ of all original tropical rainforests intact. According to RFN, the area of rainforest lost between 2002 and 2019 is about the size of France but Anders Krogh, a tropical forest researcher and author of the report, said that not all is bad since “we have an area half the size of Europe that is still completely intact. However, the remaining tropical rainforests are either severely damaged or increasingly fragmented.” 

The country of Brazil hosts about 60% of the Amazon rainforest and it is the world’s largest exporter of beans and soy. So, the country’s government and large companies are destroying the forest to make way for fields to grow plants; that has been happening for a long time but the recent increase in deforestation is mostly due to the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro who took office in 2019 and has been weakening environmental protections since then. According to him, these protections hinder economic development which could possibly lead to a reduction of poverty in certain regions of the country. But now we have gotten to the point where the Amazon rainforest is officially producing more greenhouse gas emissions than it is absorbing. Well, not the forest itself but the humans burning it down are producing more CO2 than the forest can absorb. A group of international scientists have calculated this through their year-long research, which they published in the journal “nature” in mid-2021. According to the scientists, the results of the decade-long deforestation are greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and less trees to absorb them. In specific numbers: the fires produce about 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2 a year while healthy trees “only” absorb about half a billion tons. And not only that, the researchers have also calculated that carbon emissions are 10 times higher in places where deforestation is 30% or higher than in places where deforestation is still under 20%. The lead study author Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, said that the forest “could be a carbon sink” if we prohibited fires in the Amazon. “But we are doing the opposite – we are accelerating climate change.” 

Now, you might not think deforestation makes up a big part of global emissions compared to fossil fuels but it should not be underestimated because it makes up quite a substantial amount of about 11%. A difference of 11% in global greenhouse gas emissions should be quite a big deal and is definitely one that can be felt by all of us. But we are not only releasing more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, we are also killing millions of animals a year by burning down rainforests. Dr. Mariana Napolitano Ferreira, head of science at WWF-Brazil explained that there were 22,000 separate fires recorded in 2020 and a team led by Walfrido Moraes Tomas, an ecologist from the research institute Embrapa Pantanal in Brasilia estimated that 17 million animals were killed by these fires in the Amazon in 2020 alone. All this of course leads up to the next question: 


What does that mean for the planet and humanity?

By chopping these once vast forests into smaller and smaller pieces, we, as humans, are undermining their ability to store carbon, cool the planet, produce rain, and provide habitats to many now endangered species. In a nutshell, the results of the decade-long deforestation are greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and less trees to absorb them. Krogh, the author of the RFN report, said: “These highly specialized ecosystems are suffering from constant and persistent abuse, through our bottomless appetite for land and resources.” 

 The diverse ecosystems in rainforests store more carbon in live biomass than any other, meaning further destruction and degradation of tropical rainforests can accelerate human-caused global warming. Global warming was mentioned in this article before and it was said that, without rainforests, it would be significantly accelerated. It was also said that that would lead to the world experiencing less rainfalls, less important and rare species being alive, and more carbon dioxide on our planet. But what exactly would a world without rainforests look like? Well, first of all, the earth’s climate would completely change; it would become much warmer on earth because greenhouse gasses would destroy the earth’s ozone layer even further, which would allow the sun to warm the earth faster and easier. That on the other hand could lead to the melting of the poles, which would lead to the flooding of several countries and a decrease in temperature in the countries where the melted ice passes. The increased temperature in many countries would lead to billions of people having to worry whether they will be able to prevent themselves and their families from starving to death because of widespread famine and the absence of rainforests would also lead to us living in a world without the right medicine, which could save lives. We would go back decades in terms of recent advances in medicine. 

Deforestation also means that the number of 10 million indigenous people living in the Amazonian rainforest five centuries ago has now decreased to 220,000 and the number will only decrease further if we continue destroying the rainforests. European colonists alone have destroyed more than 90 indigenous tribes and their knowledge of the medicinal value of rainforest species since the 1900s. And when a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world loses thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants. So we do not only lose plants which are important for the field of medicine by destroying rainforests, we are also losing knowledge that could be of great help. 

Apropos indigenous people: at the moment, representatives of 100 indigenous tribes have come together in Brazil’s capital Brasilia to demand more protection for their land. They are trying to convince the Brazilian Congress to not approve bills that would allow even further exploitation of the rainforest. So there are people fighting against deforestation; it is simply not enough yet. Experts estimate that, if we continue destroying rainforests at the same rate as we currently are, they could be fully consumed within the next 40 years. 


Are there any solutions?

Of course, it is understandable that the Brazilian people want to earn money and pull their country out of poverty. And farming might seem like the obvious solution to that problem; especially in Brazil. But experts actually agree that leaving the rainforest intact and harvesting its many fruits, nuts, oil-producing plants, and medicinal plants is more economically viable than cutting it down to make space for more grazing land for cattle or for timber. To prove this theory, here are a few numbers: rainforest land converted to cattle operations yields the owner $60 per acre and if timber is harvested, an acre will yield the owner about $400. But if renewable and sustainable sources are harvested, each acre will yield the land owner $2,400. So, letting rainforests regrow is not only the best option morally, but also economically. 

Of course, the average farmer in Brazil does most likely not know how to best use rainforest land to their advantage, so the Brazilian government would have to teach the farmers how to harvest certain products but that will bring the country far greater long-term economic success than cattle or timber ever could. For this to actually work, sufficient demand of sustainable and ecologically harvested rainforest products is necessary though. So, purchasing sustainable rainforest products can effect positive change by creating a market for these products while supporting the native people’s economy and providing the economic solution and alternative to cutting the forest just for the value of its timber. 


Is there still hope?

According to a group of 90 researchers from all over the world, who worked together under the Food and Agricultural organization of the United Nations, there is still hope. They say the potential for regrowth of tropical forests is substantial if they are left untouched by humans for 20 years. According to their data, which they gathered from three continents, 77 sites, and 2,275 plots of land in the Americas and West Africa and with the help of 12 specific criteria with which they modeled the data (they would have had to wait 100 years without that), soil takes 10 years to recover its previous status, plant community and animal biodiversity take 60 years, and overall biomass takes a total of 120. To be fair, these numbers seem quite high on first glance but it is a great sign that tropical forests can even return to their previous state after they were severely damaged by humans. And you can already see big differences after 20 years since up to 78% of the forests can regrow within 20 years; the following 100 years only make up around 22% of the regrowth process. This is due to a natural process known as “secondary succession.” During this process, old forest and fauna help a new generation of forest grow, which significantly speeds up the regrowth process. And as we just heard, it is possible for humans to leave rainforests relatively untouched while still earning money with them, so it is actually possible that rainforests could return to their original state. 

The findings of the study mentioned above, which was released in the renowned journal “Science,” offer actionable advice on how to act next and suggest that it is not too late to undo the damage that was inflicted upon earth, specifically rainforests, by humanity. According to Lourens Poorter, the lead author of the paper and professor in functional ecology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, natural regeneration of forests yields better results than restoration plantings, especially in terms of biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and recovering nutrients. She also mentioned that trees planted to restore forests can only house certain species and can not mimic the natural biodiversity of forests; that can only be mimicked through a natural regrowth process. But she did admit that replanting is sometimes the right decision: “My plea is to use natural regrowth where you can and plant actively and restore actively where you need to. There’s a case-by-case approach, and this all depends on the local conditions and also on the local needs of the people because they live in these landscapes.” In the end, it has to be said that these numbers are of course only calculations and certain things can be misinterpreted but the study has shown that at least some parts of rainforests can regrow in a relatively short timespan and that is already great news, no matter whether it is actually 78% or a bit less. 



This article may show you that, while things might look hopeless, there is no reason to give up on our planet. That is never a good idea; especially when it is scientifically proven that rainforests can recover. It might take decades upon decades for rainforests to return to their original state and they might never return to that state but if deforestation could only be slowed down, that would already be a huge victory for the environment and everyone who cares about it. So, even when too many people seem to think that it is all too late, it is not. Not yet!