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What is deforestation?

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The term deforestation refers to the clearing, or thinning, of large sections of forest or woodland by humans. It is a rather common practice, with an estimated 1.3. million square kilometres of forest being felled between 1990 and 2016, an area larger than South Africa. Forests are removed for various reasons, but by far the most common cause is to create agricultural land. Deforestation often involves clear-cutting, where large sections of a woodland are removed in one go, but it can sometimes involve thinning, to the point where a woodland dramatically loses its structure.

Deforestation and agriculture

Since humans began developing agricultural communities around 10,000 years ago, a large proportion of the world’s forest has been removed, be it over the last several thousand years throughout much of Asia and Europe, since the 1600s in North America, or presently across much of tropical South America and the humid regions of Africa. A 2015 study in Nature estimates that the global number of trees has fallen by 46% since human civilization began, demonstrating the vast extent of deforestation on the Earth’s surface. It has played a key part in creating vast croplands and grasslands.

In modern times, agriculture remains a large driver of deforestation; the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that around 80% of current deforestation is due to agricultural practices. Around a third of all agriculture-related deforestation is caused by local peasant farmers, but a larger proportion – around 40% – is due to large-scale commercial agriculture, where forests are destroyed in order to create large monocultures of various cash crops. However, there are other drivers behind large-scale deforestation, including the expansion of cities into forested areas, the construction of roads and other infrastructure projects, open-cast mining, and commercial logging.

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Deforestation often involves a slash-and-burn method, in which forests are simply burned and thus cleared on a large scale. It is a preferred method of forest clearance because it is quick, and ash from dead trees is used to fertilise future crop fields. However, after a few years, the soil is depleted of its nutrients, meaning that another forested land has to be cleared to make way for further agricultural land.

Read more: Top 10 causes of deforestation

Deforesting forest ecosystems through thinning

However, deforestation is not just limited to removing an entire forest – it can also refer to a significant thinning of a woodland ecosystem. Although the careful thinning of forests can be used as a more environmentally sustainable method of cutting down trees for timber, the structure of a forest can be removed if it is depleted too much. Protecting a forest’s biodiversity and natural ecology, as well as preventing negative impacts such as soil erosion, often require a more complex structure.

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