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While billions of people worldwide have had their lives uprooted and drastically transformed by COVID-19, many societal practices from the pre-pandemic world have continued. Some of these practices are beneficial like getting an education and improving medical knowledge, while others continue to have devastating results on public health and the environment. One of these harmful practices that has not only continued but worsened during the pandemic is deforestation. We have seen deforestation efforts increase globally last year, leading to catastrophic health effects on the environment, climate, people’s everyday lives and pandemic prevention. This practice must be put to an end in order to ensure that people and the planet are safe and healthy. 

2020 was a devastating year for forests as global deforestation efforts increased by 12%. The estimated area of woodlands torn down was 10 million square acres — equating to roughly the size of Switzerland or Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey combined. The country that included the largest spike in tree removal was Brazil with an increase in deforestation by 85%. The most harmed areas were parts of the Amazon rainforest, which happens to be one of the world’s largest absorbers of carbon dioxide. 

The next logical question to ask is why is deforestation increasing? To answer that, we must look at why deforestation occurs at all. There is no sole reason as forests are removed for everything from infrastructure expansion, land-use changes, urbanization and wood extraction. The logging and forest removal industry is estimated to produce between $30 billion and $100 billion each year. The massive profits from this sector cannot be overlooked as they are one of the factors fueling the increases we have seen this past year. 

Deforestation’s effect on the environment is vast and incredibly damaging. Removing trees decreases precipitation, which disrupts the water cycle and causes changes to river and stream flows. Water is not only vital for forests but almost every living thing on the planet. A decrease in precipitation could leave species and entire ecosystems without water, forcing them to fend for themselves or migrate. The drop in the amount of water in the ecosystem also allows for potential droughts, which can disrupt ecosystems by reducing food supply. Dry conditions also contribute to an increase in forest fires, as the lack of water makes it easier for flames to catch and spread. Deforestation contributes to soil erosion, as tree roots help anchor the soil, and the trunks and branches help protect it from wind and water. Soil erosion has many negative impacts, from loss of fertile land to worsened flooding, as the ground can no longer absorb floodwaters. Between disrupting the water cycle and eroding the soil, deforestation has countless consequences on the environment.

Like many of the ways humans interact with our environment, deforestation also contributes to climate change. Not only does clearing forests release carbon dioxide stored in the trees into the atmosphere, but it also eliminates organisms that absorb carbon. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that deforestation accounted for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second-largest contributor to climate change. Forests, as a whole, absorb 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, roughly equivalent to the emissions from two million cars. Essentially, deforestation makes global warming worse and adds to climate change on two different levels. 

The ramifications of deforestation extend beyond the environment and the climate, as it affects human public health as well. Removing trees and forests directly contributes to an increase in infectious diseases that could potentially turn into epidemics and pandemics. When forests are demolished, animal habitats are destroyed and their natural inhabitants are forced to migrate into new areas. Whether those areas are near humans or just around different animals, germs and diseases are spread and can become outbreaks. Sixty percent of all infectious diseases that affect humans originate in animals. 

Moreover, when forests are destroyed, animals are forced to move closer to humans increasing the likelihood of disease spread. This has been observed in Brazil where experts believe that the rise in malaria cases is directly linked to deforestation. Between 2003 and 2015, scientists and researchers found that an increase of 10% in yearly forest loss corresponded with a 3% jump in malaria cases. One year that saw an additional 618 square miles of forests being removed resulted in an extra 10,000 cases of malaria. Clearing forests directly leads to an increase in infectious disease and increases the chances that another pandemic — like the current one — ravages the world. 

Aside from the harmful effects of deforestation, forests also offer many benefits to people and public health. One major reason is that forests are home to 300 million people and 80% of terrestrial biodiversity. Another 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods and survival. Forests are also huge mitigating factors when it comes to climate change and acts to lessen the future effects. They function to increase clean oxygen levels in the atmosphere as well as moderate global temperatures. Deforestation is a dangerous practice that must cease before even more damage is done to the environment and global health. I urge you to speak for the trees, for they have no tongues and one day you will wish there was something you could have done.

Alex Nobel is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at