Photo: Clear-cuts are planted with manioc, a very inefficient way to farm

Clear-cut swaths of the Amazon rain forest in Quiandeua, Brazil, are often planted with manioc, or cassava, a shrub grown for its starchy root. Farmers slash-and-burn large parcels of forest every year to create grazing and crop lands, but the forest's nutrient-poor soil often renders the land ill-suited for agriculture, and within a year or two, the farmers move on.

Photograph by Joel Sartore

More than half of Earth’s rain forests have already been lost forever to the insatiable human demand for wood and arable land. Rain forests that once grew over 14 percent of the land on Earth now cover only about 6 percent. And if current deforestation rates continue, these critical habitats could disappear from the planet completely within the next hundred years.

The reasons for plundering rain forests are mainly economic. Wealthy nations drive demand for tropical timber, and cash-strapped governments often grant logging concessions at a fraction of the land’s true value. “Homesteader” policies also encourage citizens to clear-cut forests for farms. Sustainable logging and harvesting rather than clear-cutting are among the strategies key to halting rain forest loss.

Threats

  • Logging interests cut down rain forest trees for timber used in flooring, furniture, and other items.
  • Power plants and other industries cut and burn trees to generate electricity.
  • The paper industry turns huge tracts of rain forest trees into pulp.
  • The cattle industry uses slash-and-burn techniques to clear ranch land.
  • Agricultural interests, particularly the soy industry, clear forests for cropland.
  • Subsistence farmers slash-and-burn rain forest for firewood and to make room for crops and grazing lands.
  • Mining operations clear forest to build roads and dig mines.
  • Governments and industry clear-cut forests to make way for service and transit roads.
  • Hydroelectric projects flood acres of rain forest.

Solutions

  • Sustainable-logging regimes that selectively cull trees rather than clear-cut them would save millions of acres of rain forest every year.
  • Campaigns that educate people about the destruction caused by rain forest timber and encourage purchasing of sustainable rain forest products could drive demand down enough to slow deforestation.
  • Encouraging people who live near rain forests to harvest its bounty (nuts, fruits, medicines) rather than clear-cutting it for farmland would save million of acres.
  • Government moratoriums on road building and large infrastructure projects in the rain forest would save many acres.

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