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Threats to the Rainforest

written by: Edna •edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 1/16/2010

In the past 50 years, almost two thirds of the world's temperate and tropical rainforests have been destroyed. The main cause of permanent rainforest destruction is the ruthless exploitation of rainforest resources. Often, the causes of deforestation are closely interconnected.

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    Deforestation of the forests

    The biggest contributors to the destruction of rainforests are logging of tropical hardwoods and slash-and-burn agriculture. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 70% of tropical rainforest deforestation due to slash-and-burn is precipitated by logging and mining roads.

    FAO defines deforestation as "the conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of the tree canopy cover below the minimum 10 percent threshold. Deforestation includes areas of forest converted to agriculture, pasture, water reservoirs and urban areas," but the term "specifically excludes areas where the trees have been removed as a result of harvesting or logging and where the forest is expected to regenerate naturally or with the aid of silvicultural measures." Logging is considered forest degradation and thus is not included in FAO deforestation statistics. Not surprisingly,forest degradation rates are considerably higher than deforestation rates.

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    Other causes of deforestation

    Causes of deforestation vary from rainforest continent to continent, country to country, and also within countries. In Africa, deforestation occurs due to logging, mining, shifting cultivation and fuel wood harvesting. In Indonesia, the dominant causes are logging and palm oil plantations. In South America, a combination of large scale farming -- soy, orange juice, corn, biofuels -- to supply overseas markets, logging, mining and subsistence agriculture all contribute to rainforest loss. The incessant need for resources often creates a domino effect. In the Amazon trees are cut down for timber; cleared land is then used as pasture for cattle, followed by soybean plantations. In Indonesia, developers often establish new palm oil plantations on forested land, mitigating the initial investments required by selling the timber.

    Soy -- is grown for a variety of purposes to produce oil, to make biofuels, tofu, and to feed livestock like chicken and pigs. Although many countries, like the United States already produce soy the demand for soy also keeps increasing. Not surprisingly, as soy prices increase in Paraguay and Brazil so does deforestation.

    Palm Oil ---is used extensively in food and cosmetic products, from chocolate bars to soaps. In supermarkets its' often labelled as ‘vegetable oil’. A small percent of palm oil is used to make biofuel, but as demand for alternative fuels increase, so will palm oil production.

    Biofuels --- are fuels derived from plant or animal matter. Ethanol can be made from corn and sugarcane crops and biodiesel is made from vegetable oils including palm, rapeseed, soy and sunflower oil. As energy prices increase, demand and supply of biofuels is also driven by different government mandates to increase production of alternative fuels and lower dependence on fossil fuels.

    Cattle Farming --- is a huge industry in Brazil, which is the world's largest exporter of beef. About 70% of the land that is cleared is used for pasture to graze cattle. As the demand for beef grows in developing countries like China and India, local farmers are clearing more of the rainforests to make a living.

    Other -- Mining, infrastructure development and wood fuel collection also play a part in deforestation. Many rainforest nations have valuable mineral deposits which national and foreign countries have developed infrastructure into forests to set up mining operations. Wood is collected by local residents to provide energy for cooking and heating, who often live in poverty in the rainforest.