Forest ecosystems are being fragmented, degraded, and destroyed primarily as a result of (1) the conversion of forests to permanent or semi-permanent agriculture, plantation and pasture; and (2) the unsustainable harvesting of trees and other forest products for timber, fuel, fiber and food. The Canadian International Development Agency states that “deforestation is a process that involves a competition amongst different land users for scarce resources, a process exacerbated by counter-productive policies and weak institutions. It creates wealth for some, causes hardships for others, and almost always brings serious consequences for the environment”.

The Food and Agriculture Organization defines deforestation as “the conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of the tree canopy cover below the minimum 10 percent threshold” with canopy reductions above this minimum considered as degradation. Since 1990, the FAO states that we have been losing 7-10 million hectares of the world’s forests to deforestation annually. Many would argue that this figure is grossly underestimated for a variety of reasons such as the absurdly low 10% threshold and the inclusion of single species plantations as forest.

Legal and illegal logging, species-selective and clear-cut, is perhaps the most prominent cause of degradation and deforestation respectively in both temperate and tropical forest ecosystems. However, in the tropics, cutting down forests for commercial agriculture and livestock pasture is now by far the leading cause of deforestation. Shifting or “slash-and-burn” farming and grazing has traditionally been practiced on a rotational basis but as population and other pressures shorten clearing/grazing cycles, tropical forests are no longer able to recover from their degraded status. Other anthropogenic causes of degradation and deforestation in these ecosystems include oil, gas and mining, urbanization/development, roads, and water/air pollution.

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