21 April 2020

Deforestation: Overcoming a global shame

Every second, one hectare of tropical forests is destroyed. How can we fight deforestation?

By Meryl Westlake

Different coloured forest

From the lush rainforests to the fabled hide-outs of Robin Hood, we have an intimate relationship with our forests.

Is there anything more life-affirming that those green, vibrant hubs of trees, herbs, fungi, bird and insects?

But millions of hectares of forests are being bulldozed, cut down or burnt every year, destroying a haven of habitats, carbon sinks and untold numbers of undiscovered plant species.

The treetops of an Amazon scene
Amazon rainforest © Nathalia Segato/Unsplash

A global treasure trove

Around a third of the planet’s land is covered by forest growth.

Forests are dominated by trees; plants that provide an undercurrent of stability to our world.

In fact, the majority of the world’s terrestrial animals and plants can be found in forests, making them species-rich hotspots.

They trap our damaging greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide.

They are a source of food, medicine and fuel for a quarter of the world’s population and home to some 60 million indigenous people.

According to the State of the World’s Forests report, a significant portion of our renewable energy comes from wood from sustainably-managed forests – providing more than solar, hydro and wind combined.

Rainforests play an interesting role in water supplies; the water cycle moves moisture from the Atlantic to the Amazon and eventually finds its way to Brazilian cities and farms.

Forests in Indonesian New Guinea
Forests in Indonesian New Guinea, William Baker © RBG Kew
Inside a New Guinea rainforest © André Schuiteman/RBG Kew.

Where are the trees going?

Should tropical deforestation be a country, it would rank third in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, surpassed only by China and USA.

Over the next 15 years, we could lose forest areas twice the size of the state of Texas to deforestation claims a WWF report; 656 square miles of forest are at risk by 2030.

Two causes of deforestation are:

  • Land conversion for agriculture: To meet an increasing demand for food with a rapidly expanding population. From unsustainably sourced palm oil to biofuels and feed for livestock, turning forests into farmland is a lucrative business for many countries.
  • Fire: Whether humans using slash-and-burn tactics in Madagascar or rising temperatures that contributed to the Australian fires, these huge blazes can be destructive, giving opportunities for invasive species and damaging water cycles and soil quality.

Illegal and unsustainable logging, mining and climate change or extreme weather also contribute to deforestation.

Area where forest has been cleared
A clearing of forest for subsistence agriculture. Charlotte couch © RBG Kew.


  • We have lost 503,000 square miles of forest since 1990.
  • Every second, more than one hectare of tropical forests is destroyed or drastically degraded
  • An estimated 15 billion trees are cut down each year
  • 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed in the last 50 years.
  • ¾ of the world’s freshwater comes from forested watersheds.
  • The South American rainforest is home to 10% of the world’s species

What happens when forests disappear

The WWF has identified 11 hotspots they call ‘deforestation fronts’, which contain the richest biodiversity in the world and account for over 80% of projected deforestation.

Deforestation immediately causes the loss of habitats.

But the ripples go further.

The forest canopy provides vital sun protection and cooling services. Removing that shade would allow temperatures to swing between extremes and understorey species may not adapt to the change fast enough.

The flood and hurricane protection that can be enabled by forest will go, leaving areas vulnerable to damage. In extreme cases, deforestation could lead to an outbreak of rare infectious diseases.

The inter-connectedness of the role rainforests play in the water cycle could, as one study has projected cut the snowpacks of Sierra Nevada by half should they disappear entirely.

And of course, trees store carbon and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; deforestation has already led to 14% of total global carbon emissions.

Forest image from above showing large patch of cleared area
Illegal deforestation in Madagascar, Jenny Williams © RBG Kew.

Fighting deforestation

Whilst the rate of forest decline over the past decades is alarming, there is cause for hope.

The Global Forest Resource Assessment  has suggested that the pace of deforestation, whilst high, might have slowed down in the last five years, with increases in forest areas seen in Europe, North America and some parts of Asia. However, these forests might largely be planted forests for production, which is not the same as a species-rich, biodiverse forest.

Deforestation in community-managed forests can be 11 times lower than outside their borders.

Today, almost 1.5 billion local and indigenous people have secured rights to their forest; giving local people with traditional knowledge the ability to influence what’s happening to the land they know and love, just like Kew is doing in Colombia with ecotourism.

Forests are being managed and monitored better through advances in technology and international collaborations, like Global Forest Watch. In Madagascar, our scientists are using drone technology to identify illegal logging and slash-and-burn activity. 

International conventions like CITES restrict trade of vulnerable tree species that might be used in everyday objects.

Alsophila tree ferns in Indonesian New Guinea
Tree ferns (Alsophila species) in New Guinea © William J. Baker/RBG Kew


Reforestation, the replanting of trees in degraded forests, is one way we can restore forest growth – but it needs to be done appropriately, with the right mix of (mostly) native plants in order to restore the original habitat. 

We have partners in Thailand regenerating forests destroyed by land clearance for agriculture. In Turks and Caicos, a rare pine tree has been in decline from deforestation due to urbanization and invasive pests. Seeds have been banked in the Millennium Seed Bank or grown into saplings for reforestation. 

In the UK, the UK National Tree Seed Project has collected and stored 13 million seeds from over 10,000 native UK trees.

Deforestation remains a high threat to our world’s biodiversity, but our scientists and partners are passionate about the conservation of our forests, and the plants that live in them.

Grevillea ‘Coastal Sunset’

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