We can protect tropical forests

The threat of tropical deforestation is escalating but we can make a difference through national and state policy


Sammy Herdman

Former Save The Boreal Forest Campaign, Associate, Environment America

Photo credit: Dr. Morley Read via Shutterstock

This blog was coauthored by Conservation Intern, Abby Vander Graaff


Around the world, clear-cutting for agriculture is putting biodiversity and the climate at risk. The United States has the ability to make a difference for rain forests at the equator. From beef and soy to palm oil, the American economy relies on commodities produced from tropical forests. As long as we are contributing to the demand for these products, it is critical that our leaders work to protect our global forests.

On the federal level, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) introduced the Fostering Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade (FOREST) Act, which would require importers of high-risk agricultural commodities and products to analyze supply chains and show evidence that their imports are not contributing to illegal deforestation. U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer introduced the America Mitigating and Achieving Zero-emissions Originating from Nature for the 21st Century (AMAZON21) Act, which would establish a $9 billion trust fund to tackle climate emissions caused by deforestation in developing nations. These bills are both steps in the right direction.

State legislators can also propose bills to protect our national and international forests, such as the Deforestation-Free Procurement Act proposed by California Assembly member Ash Kalra. If the bill wasn’t vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom in October, California would be the first U.S. state to take a stand against deforestation in the tropics. The bill would limit the state from entering into contracts with businesses that purchase commodities produced unsustainably at the expense of tropical forests. 

Tropical forests are being destroyed

Tropical rainforests are the oldest type of vegetation on the planet. They exist around the equator and are made up of a layer of trees that tower above thick vegetation teeming with wildlife. They are home to millions of species and absorb and store carbon.. They also regulate the weather by evaporating water, and provide the world with a vast variety of foods and medicines, such as coffee and quinine, a drug used to treat malaria.

Despite their vast importance, rainforests are being destroyed at an alarming rate due to agriculture, logging, mining and other human activities. Ten million acres of tropical forest were lost in 2020, a 12% increase from 2019.

This problem isn’t new. More than 150 million hectares of tropical forest were cleared for agriculture between the years 1980 and 2012. In 2019, 3.8 million hectares were lost, which is the equivalent of a soccer field being cleared every six seconds for a year straight.

Image: An agricultural burn in Mexico via wikimedia commons

Tropical deforestation is caused in large part by humans and is contributing to climate change and threatening biodiversity. People, plants and animals around the world are negatively impacted.

Agriculture is a major factor

A large amount of tropical deforestation occurs due to clear-cutting for agriculture. Clear cutting happens when farmers cut down all or most of the trees in a given area to make space for crops and livestock. The results include gaps in animal habitats, increased soil erosion and diminished new forest growth. An abundance of downed trees in the forest also creates fuel for wildfires, which lead to more deforestation.

Beef and soy production drives more than two-thirds of habitat loss in South American tropical forests. Up to 75% of the soy that’s produced is used for livestock feed, including for cattle. Other contributors to deforestation include palm oil and wood pellet production.

Experts predict that tropical deforestation will continue to worsen as the global food demand increases along with human population growth. 

Tropical forests crucial in fight against climate change

During photosynthesis, growing trees can absorb surplus amounts of carbon dioxide, which are stored in their trunks, roots and soil. This carbon is released back into the atmosphere when the trees are cut down. The past year’s tropical forest loss is estimated to have  discharged more than two and a half billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s twice the amount released by cars in the United States each year. 

These emissions will only exacerbate the threats to biodiversity in the midst of a mass extinction caused by climate change and other human-driven environmental issues. Tropical deforestation is threatening some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, such as the Amazon Rainforest and the Congo Basin where sloths, spider monkeys and harpy eagles live.

Image: Harpy eagle via wikimedia commons

Tropical forests cover less than 10% of the Earth’s land surface, but are responsible for two-thirds of global biodiversity. Due to habitat loss, among other factors, 60% of all primate species, which include gorillas, chimpanzees and lemurs, are currently threatened with extinction and 75% of primate populations are declining

Non-human primates are indicator species, meaning that their wellbeing directly reflects the wellbeing of their ecosystems. In other words, every plant and animal that shares a habitat with an endangered primate is also in danger. This includes humans, as we rely on forests for food, water, oxygen and climate control.

Change is possible

Governments can mitigate this problem by regulating logging and deforestation more stringently. Currently, more than 400 million hectares, or about 25% of tropical forests, are in selective logging zones. Without regulations, they are unlikely to be harvested sustainably.

Although the vast majority of power lies with lawmakers and corporations, individuals can stand up for forests by electing politicians that support policies such as the FOREST Act, AMAZON21 and the Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, avoiding unsustainably sourced products like beef and palm oil, and speaking out about the negative impacts of deforestation.


Sammy Herdman

Former Save The Boreal Forest Campaign, Associate, Environment America