Trees aren’t just nice to have: they’re crucial to the survival of most species on earth. As world temperatures continue to rise with devastating consequences, there is no doubt the planet desperately needs its trees to sequester excess climate change-causing carbon dioxide. Even more immediately, those trees provide habitat to animal and insect species in serious danger of extinction.
Yet last year was catastrophic for tropical forests, with around 39 million acres of trees destroyed1. To put that into perspective, that’s an area of forest roughly the size of Bangladesh, home to 163 million people. There are different reasons why people destroy forests, but the damage is happening across the world.
According to this article in the New York Times, forest fires set by farmers and ranchers in Brazil to clear land for agriculture wiped out more than 3 million acres in 2017 as drought conditions helped flames spread out of control. The newspaper also reported how a peace deal between the government and a rebel group in Colombia led to mass deforestation to make way for mining, logging, and farming.
Globally, forests are routinely destroyed to provide land for pastures, roads, infrastructure, and soy and palm oil plantations. Sadly, when ecosystems are cleared to make room for plantations, it destroys critical habitat for endangered species such as orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers. Monarch butterfly populations are suffering too, with at least 27% fewer butterflies completing their migration route to Mexico in the 2016/2017 season according to a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), and others. According to non-profit organization Pollinator Partnership, pollinator insects, such as monarch butterflies, add 217 billion dollars to the global economy, with somewhere between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants on the earth needing help with pollination.
While some governments have protected forestland and regulated forestry practices to protect woods that are harvested, those regulations often go unrespected. WWF highlights2 how illegally and unsustainably logged wood can be found in major consumption markets in the US and EU thanks to our appetite for pulp, paper, furniture, fuelwood, and other products. Each day the US produces 3,000 tons of waste from paper towels alone.
Meanwhile, palm oil, a major motivator for deforestation in southeast Asia, is found in 40-50% of household products, from chocolate to toothpaste. In 2015, The Union Of Concerned Scientists produced a scorecard to rate major US companies for their efforts to use sustainably-sourced palm oil in products. You can see who fared well – and who didn’t – here.
Alarmingly, as climate change continues to impact the world, there will likely be increased deforestation. When forests become drier due to a changing climate, they are far more vulnerable to fire.
What can you do to help?
- Check out deforestationfreefunds.org to find out what hidden investments you have in the palm oil industry. You can easily divest from the corporations driving deforestation with our deforestation screen.
- Cut back or eliminate meat from your diet and opt for more plant-based foods. The United State’s insatiable taste for beef is one of the reasons so many trees are cleared for agriculture (plus, methane emissions from cattle are another major factor in climate change).
- Reduce your palm oil consumption by taking the 28-Day Palm Oil Challenge, a program designed to lower your environmental impact on forests. The WWF also has this guide to the everyday products that contain palm oil.
- Think about the supply chain and impact for all your purchases. Can you choose sustainably-sourced furniture or swap paper towels for a Wet-it Cloth?