Deforestation and Forest Degradation

Overview

Deforestation for cattle ranching in the Amazon

Forests cover nearly one-third of the land area on our planet and are home to most of the world’s life on land. They are also essential to human health, purifying our water and air and serving as our first line of defense against new infectious diseases. Additionally, forests provide more than 86 million green jobs and resources such as food and fuel that support billions of people’s livelihoods. Forests also play a critical role in mitigating climate change because they act as carbon sinks—soaking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere and contributing to ongoing changes in climate patterns. 

But forests across the globe are under threat, jeopardizing these benefits. The threats manifest themselves in the form of deforestation and forest degradation. The leading cause of deforestation is agriculture, with poorly planned infrastructure another significant contributor to global deforestation. In 2022, the world lost more than 16 million acres of forest—an area bigger than West Virginia—according to the 2023 Forest Declaration Assessment. The primary causes of forest degradation are logging activities, livestock grazing, and the construction of roads.

Deforestation is a particular concern in tropical rain forests because these forests are home to much of the world’s biodiversity. In the Amazon alone, around 17% of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mainly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching. Deforestation in this region is especially rampant near more populated areas, roads, and rivers, but remote areas have also been encroached upon with the discovery of valuable resources like gold and oil.

WWF has been working to protect forests for more than 50 years, partnering with governments, companies, communities, and other stakeholders to promote responsible management of forests and agricultural land, combat illegal logging, reform trade policies, protect forested areas, and more.

In southern Tanzania, conservation strengthens community resilience while uplifting women

The CARE-WWF Alliance Nachingwea project took a multi-pronged approach, aiming to expand climate-smart agricultural practices, support sustainable livelihood opportunities for women, invest in community-based conservation, and bolster participatory governance.

Two women smile as they tie up newly harvested plants

Causes

Deforestation in Tesso Nilo, Sumatra

A forest in Sumatra, Indonesia, is clear-cut to make way for an oil palm plantation.

Deforestation can happen quickly, such as when a fire sweeps through the landscape or the forest is clear-cut to make way for an oil palm plantation. While deforestation appears to be declining in some countries, it remains disturbingly high in others—including Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Two-thirds of global forest cover loss is occurring in the tropic and subtropic regions of the world, where vast clusters of deforestation hot spots—also known as "deforestation fronts"—are destroying the important ecosystem services forests provide. There are 24 of these hot spots that are spread across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

Fuelwood Harvesting

Around the world, wood is still a popular fuel choice for cooking and heating, and about half of the illegal removal of timber from forests is thought to be for fuelwood.

Conversion to Agriculture

Expanding agriculture, due to increased demand and shifts in diet toward greater meat consumption, is responsible for most of the world’s deforestation. In addition, agricultural products, such as soy and palm oil, are used in an ever-increasing list of products, from animal feed to lipstick to biofuels. Rising demand has created incentives to convert forests to farmland and ranch land. Once a forest is lost to agriculture, it is usually gone forever—along with many of the plants and animals that once lived there.

Fires

Forest fire

Fires are a natural and beneficial element of many forest landscapes, but they are problematic when they occur in the wrong place, at the wrong frequency, or at the wrong severity. Climate change and wildfires also mutually reinforce each other, and the fires burning today in much of the world are bigger, more intense, and longer lasting than before. Each year, millions of acres of forest are destroyed or degraded by fire. Fire is often used to clear land for other purposes like planting crops. These fires not only alter the structure and composition of forests, but they can open up forests to invasive species, threaten biological diversity, alter water cycles and soil fertility, and destroy the livelihoods of the people who live in and around the forests.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure—particularly linear infrastructure (such as roads, railways, power lines, and canals) and dams—is a leading driver of deforestation. Transportation and energy infrastructure are considered essential elements of a thriving economy, but they are often a major cause of negative environmental impacts, particularly when poorly planned or built. Forests are especially vulnerable to these impacts because many of the world’s remaining forest areas are targeted for expanding agriculture, livestock, and timber production and contain rich deposits of oil, coal, natural gas, and minerals. Developing the infrastructure required for commodity production and resource extraction—including access roads, railroads, hydropower dams, ports, and power lines—can cause severe environmental damage. This includes the fragmentation and destruction of forest and freshwater habitats, interruption of wildlife migration routes, erosion, air and land pollution, and other indirect impacts associated with making previously inaccessible areas more reachable. In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, 95% of deforestation occurs within about three and a half miles of a road.

Additionally, it is bad for the infrastructure when planning and design neglect to fully consider natural systems. If planners, engineers, and financiers account for the important services intact and healthy ecosystems provide to the long-term viability of infrastructure, they can reduce costly risks caused by landslides, flooding, erosion, and other hazards to people and the infrastructure they rely upon. Projects are more likely to fail or increase significantly in cost when they do not account for social concerns and ecological and climate factors.

Impacts

Forest in Ecuador

Forests are more than just a collection of trees and other plants—they are integrated ecosystems and home to some of the most diverse life on Earth. They are also principal players in the carbon and water cycles that make life possible. When forests are lost or degraded, their destruction sets off a series of changes that affect life locally and around the world.

Reduced Biodiversity

Most of the documented land-based species can be found in forests. When species lose their forest homes, they are often unable to survive in the fragments of forested land left behind. They become more accessible to hunters and poachers, their numbers dwindle, and some eventually go extinct. Even localized deforestation can result in extinctions as many unique species exist in small, isolated locations.

Increased Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Forests are carbon sinks and, therefore, help mitigate the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Tropical forests alone hold more than 228 to 247 gigatons of carbon, more than seven times the amount emitted by human activities annually.

But when forests are cut, burned, or otherwise removed, they emit carbon instead of absorbing carbon. In 2022, deforestation accounted for about 7% of global emissions. In some parts of the Amazon from 2010 to 2018, emissions from deforestation and forest fires exceeded how much carbon forests sequestered, turning them into a net source of carbon emissions rather than a carbon sink. These greenhouse gas emissions contribute to rising temperatures, changes in weather and water patterns, and an increased frequency of extreme weather events. For example, in Sumatra, rainforests on deep peatlands are being cleared, drained, and converted to pulp plantations, contributing to Indonesia’s high greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in climate can also affect forest-dwelling creatures by altering their habitats and decreasing the availability of food and water. Some will adapt by moving to higher elevations or latitudes, but others will not.

Disruption of Water Cycles

Healthy forests play a vital role in the local water cycle by helping to create local rainfall. But when deforestation or degradation occurs, forests are less capable of fulfilling this role, resulting in changes in precipitation and river flow.

Increased Soil Erosion

Soil erosion in Central African Republic

Soil erosion in Africa.

Without trees to anchor fertile soil, erosion can occur and sweep the land into rivers. The agricultural plants that often replace the trees cannot hold onto the soil as effectively. Many of these crops—such as coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean, and wheat—can actually exacerbate soil erosion. Scientists have estimated that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost through soil erosion and other types of degradation since 1960. As fertile soil washes away, agricultural producers move on, clearing more forest and continuing the cycle of soil loss.

Disrupted Livelihoods

Billions of people rely on forests for shelter, livelihoods, water, fuel, and food security. Indigenous peoples and local communities are vital custodians of the planet’s remaining natural landscapes, with at least 15.5% (nearly 2 million square miles) of the total forest area formally and traditionally governed by them. But deforestation disrupts the lives of these people, sometimes with devastating consequences. In the Greater Mekong in Southeast Asia, where land tenure systems are weak, deforestation has contributed to social conflict and migration. In Brazil, land grabbing and illegal deforestation on Indigenous peoples' lands are affecting the availability of resources they need to survive.

What WWF Is Doing

Indonesian tropical rainforest

To stop deforestation, WWF works with companies, communities, government leaders, academics, and others.

Motivating the Marketplace

Partnerships are central to our approach. We collaborate with top-tier businesses across sectors—from pulp and paper industry leaders to major healthcare and technology companies. We engage them through Forests Forward, a signature WWF program for corporate action in support of nature, climate, and people. WWF’s local and global experts advise companies on everything from sourcing responsibly to supporting landscape efforts like restoration and improved management. In doing so, WWF helps corporate partners unlock the power of forests to achieve complex goals with meaningful results for our planet.

Legally harvested timber

WWF's Forests Forward program works with companies to identify legal sources of timber.

Channeling Finance for Conservation

To slow, halt, and reverse the rate of deforestation, WWF engages with governments, local communities, and other stakeholders in countries’ forest landscapes through Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) programs. REDD+ is an approach in which financial incentives are offered to developing countries that create and implement strategies to manage and use their forests responsibly.

WWF also advocates for group funding to protect forests. For instance, the World Bank established the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, a multidonor fund comprised of governments and nongovernmental entities that help countries prepare to implement REDD+ and support REDD+ results-based payments.

Strengthening and Applying Certification Standards

To ensure forests are well managed, WWF has helped strengthen and apply certification standards for products made with materials from forests through the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) certification system. Additionally, WWF ensures agricultural lands are responsibly managed and do not encroach upon forests by engaging with nonprofit organizations that develop and implement global certification standards such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil™ (RSPO) and the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS). WWF works with a consortium of leading global companies with impacts and dependencies on forests to halt and reverse forest loss.

Incorporating Sustainability into Infrastructure

WWF is both enhancing the management of natural infrastructure and addressing infrastructure-related drivers of deforestation and degradation. We do this by increasing global understanding of the natural infrastructure already delivering the services we need and how to manage and protect these systems in perpetuity. WWF works with governments and communities to help reach their development vision across landscapes in ways that will avoid deforestation and degradation of ecosystem services through careful spatial planning and innovative infrastructure design.

WWF also aims to influence the financing of roads, railroads, power lines, mines, and other infrastructure, largely by ensuring that the value of forests is factored into decisions about where and how to create or expand infrastructure. This requires a comprehensive approach that includes collaborating with local communities, experts, researchers, engineers, corporations, financial institutions, training institutions, and governments. These partnerships can influence and fundamentally transform how infrastructure is planned, built, and operated—and secure the natural infrastructure we all rely upon. The ultimate goals: Infrastructure avoids negative impacts on forests and the climate or significantly reduces its impacts where avoidance is not feasible. Natural infrastructure is well managed. And infrastructure design conserves or restores nature, maintains large intact forested areas and habitat connectivity, increases resilience, and mitigates the effects of climate change.

Creating and Properly Managing Conservation Areas

Most conservation areas (primarily parks called protected areas) are not well funded. As a result, they are not well managed, which often leads to deforestation. One way to address this challenge is to use a comprehensive conservation and financing approach known as Project Finance for Permanence (PFP). Adaptable to the needs and goals of each specific context, PFP initiatives secure all necessary policy changes and funding and bind them together in a single agreement. This ensures large-scale systems of conservation areas are well managed, sustainably financed, and benefit the communities who depend on them. By implementing core strategies for durable biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation—including community engagement, sustainable finance mechanisms, policy, and capacity-building of local and national organizations—PFPs ensure long-term conservation. WWF has already helped launch PFP initiatives in Bhutan, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru and is developing several more over the coming years.

WWF also helps safeguard biodiversity outside of formal protected areas by supporting other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs). OECMs are led by government agencies, private individuals, sectoral actors, Indigenous peoples, and/or local communities. They can include a wide range of areas, from sacred and cultural sites to intact forests. OECMs complement protected areas by conserving important biodiversity, ecological functions, and ecosystem services; promoting ecological connectivity between sites and across conservation networks; and contributing to climate resilience.

Influencing Policy

Effective policies are essential to help stop deforestation. WWF works with countries that import forest-risk commodities—such as soy, timber, cocoa, beef, rubber, and palm oil—to develop policies that improve supply chain traceability and transparency and prevent the trade of materials that drive deforestation and the conversion of critical ecosystems.

WWF further advocates for policies that ensure that US supply chains for wood-based products like paper and furniture aren’t linked to the illegal timber trade fueling global deforestation. WWF urges lawmakers to fully enforce the Lacey Act Amendments of 2008, which made the United States the first country to ban the trafficking of products containing illegally sourced wood. This law has helped reduce imports of illegally sourced wood products by 32% to 44%, but insufficient resources from the federal government and sporadic enforcement limit its effectiveness. WWF also supports legislation such as the FOREST Act that would prevent the importation of agricultural products linked to illegal deforestation.

Projects

  • Protected Areas: Key to Achieving Peace in Colombia

    Last updated: 12/4/2018

    A recently signed peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) opens the door to restoring the health of the country’s natural resources as well as preventing further damage or loss to them. 

  • Transforming the global rubber market

    Forests in Asia, home to elephants, tigers and other endangered species—are often cleared to make room for growing rubber trees. They are among the most threatened forests in the world. That’s why WWF has set an ambitious goal of transforming the global rubber market.

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