What is forest degradation and why is it bad for people and wildlife?

degraded land WW286701 Tim Cornin

Deforestation and forest degradation are urgent matters when it comes to our world’s forests: about 47% of the world’s forests are at high risk for deforestation or degradation by 2030. While both are damaging to forest health, there is a difference between deforestation and forest degradation.

Deforestation refers to the clearing of a forest, entirely removing it to put something else in its place. The main driver of deforestation is unsustainable and illegal agriculture—making room for cash crops like palm oil and rubber. The realities of deforestation are staggering; we’re losing forests at a rate equivalent to 27 soccer fields per minute.

western lowland gorilla WW22719 Jabruson

When a forest is degraded it still exists, but it can no longer function well. It becomes a shell of its former self; its health declines until it can no longer support people and wildlife by, for example, filtering the air we breathe and water we drink or providing animals with food and places to live. Forest degradation, in terms of land mass, is an even bigger problem than deforestation: about 6.5 million square miles of forest are at high risk of degradation in the next 10 years.

There are a few main drivers of forest degradation. One is climate change: higher temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns increase the risk and severity of forest fires, pest infestation, and disease. But the main cause of forest degradation is unsustainable and illegal logging. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry, built on the increased demand for cheap lumber, paper products, and fuel.

When not done responsibly, loggers bulldoze roads into forests, extract as many high-value trees as possible, and drag the wood back out of the forest to sell. A forest degraded by illegal and unsustainable logging will have bare clearings, a spiderweb of roads, ravaged vegetation and undergrowth, and trenches carved into the forest floor.

Forest degradation is also a stepping-stone to deforestation. Once one logging company starts making roads deep into a forest, others follow behind. More loggers will come, but also miners, ranchers, and farmers who would not otherwise have had access.

Deforestation in the Cerrado in Brazil, one of the world’s oldest and most diverse tropical ecosystems and one of the most endangered on the planet. One million hectares of forest are lost in the Cerrado each year to make way for soy plantations for food, animal feed, and biofuels.

There is hope for stopping forest degradation. WWF is working around the world to establish a coordinated, no-tolerance response to unsustainable and illegal logging. We work internationally to strengthen and enforce laws, and in the US to keep illegal wood products out of the country. WWF also assists some of the world’s biggest companies to invest in and demand wood that is harvested, processed, transported and traded legally and responsibly, shifting the entire market toward better practices.  

And the good news is that consumers can do their part by purchasing wood and paper products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC label guarantees that trees were harvested in an environmentally and socially conscious way, including provisions to ensure adherence with local, national and international laws. This simple action, when combined with the work of governments, businesses, and organizations like WWF, is the best way to stop forest degradation and ensure our forests remain healthy and productive for people and wildlife.