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The single biggest direct cause of tropical deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock to meet daily needs. The conversion to agricultural land usually results from multiple direct factors. For example, countries build roads into remote areas to improve overland transportation of goods. The road development itself causes a limited amount of deforestation. But roads also provide entry to previously inaccessible—and often unclaimed—land. Logging, both legal and illegal, often follows road expansion (and in some cases is the reason for the road expansion). When loggers have harvested an area’s valuable timber, they move on. The roads and the logged areas become a magnet for settlers—farmers and ranchers who slash and burn the remaining forest for cropland or cattle pasture, completing the deforestation chain that began with road building. In other cases, forests that have been degraded by logging become fire-prone and are eventually deforested by repeated accidental fires from adjacent farms or pastures.
Although subsistence activities have dominated agriculture-driven deforestation in the tropics to date, large-scale commercial activities are playing an increasingly significant role. In the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasingly important causes of deforestation, and in Indonesia, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial palm tree plantations to produce bio-fuels for export is a major cause of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra.
Although poverty is often cited as the underlying cause of tropical deforestation, analyses of multiple scientific studies indicate that that explanation is an oversimplification. Poverty does drive people to migrate to forest frontiers, where they engage in slash and burn forest clearing for subsistence. But rarely does one factor alone bear the sole responsibility for tropical deforestation.
State policies to encourage economic development, such as road and railway expansion projects, have caused significant, unintentional deforestation in the Amazon and Central America.
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Access to technology may either enhance or diminish deforestation. The availability of technologies that allow “industrial-scale” agriculture can spur rapid forest clearing, while inefficient technology in the logging industry increases collateral damage in surrounding forests, making subsequent deforestation more likely. Underlying factors are rarely isolated; instead, multiple global and local factors exert synergistic influences on tropical deforestation in different geographic locations.
The local level is where deforestation has the most immediate effect. With forest loss, the local community loses the system that performed valuable but often underappreciated services like ensuring the regular flow of clean water and protecting the community from flood and drought. The forest acts as a sort of sponge, soaking up rainfall brought by tropical storms while anchoring soils and releasing water at regular intervals. This regulating feature of tropical rainforests can help moderate destructive flood and drought cycles that can occur when forests are cleared.
When forest cover is lost, runoff rapidly flows into streams, elevating river levels and subjecting downstream villages, cities, and agricultural fields to flooding, especially during the rainy season. During the dry season, such areas downstream of deforestation can be prone to months-long droughts which interrupt river navigation, wreak havoc on crops, and disrupt industrial operations.
Situated on steep slopes, montane and watershed forests are especially important in ensuring water flow and inhibiting erosion, yet during the 1980s, montane formations suffered the highest deforestation rate of tropical forests.
Additionally, the forest adds to local humidity through transpiration (the process by which plants release water through their leaves), and thus adds to local rainfall. For example, 50-80 percent of the moisture in the central and western Amazon remains in the ecosystem water cycle. In the water cycle, moisture is transpired and evaporated into the atmosphere, forming rain clouds before being precipitated as rain back onto the forest. When the forests are cut down, less moisture is evapotranspired into the atmosphere resulting in the formation of fewer rain clouds. Subsequently there is a decline in rainfall, subjecting the area to drought. If rains stop falling, within a few years the area can become arid with the strong tropical sun baking down on the scrub-land. Today Madagascar is largely a red, treeless desert from generations of severe deforestation. River flows decline and smaller amounts of quality water reach cities and agricultural lands. The declining rainfall in interior West African countries has in part been attributed to excessive clearing of the coastal rainforests. Similarly, new research in Australia suggests that if it were not for human influences—specifically widespread agricultural fires—the dry outback might be a wetter, more hospitable place than it is today. The effect of vegetation change from forests that favor rainfall to grassland and bush can impact precipitation patterns. Colombia, once second in the world with freshwater reserves, has fallen to 24th due to its extensive deforestation over the past 30 years. Excessive deforestation around the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, combined with the dry conditions created by el Niño, triggered strict water rationing in 1998, and for the first time the city had to import water.
There is serious concern that widespread deforestation could lead to a significant decline in rainfall and trigger a positive-feedback process of increasing dessication for neighboring forest cover; reducing its moisture stocks and its vegetation would then further the dessication effect for the region. Eventually the effect could extend outside the region, affecting important agricultural zones and other watersheds. At the 1998 global climate treaty conference in Buenos Aires, Britain, citing a disturbing study at the Institute of Ecology in Edinburgh, suggested the Amazon rainforest could be lost in 50 years due to shifts in rainfall patterns induced by global warming and land conversion.
The newly dessicated forest becomes prone to devastating fires. Such fires materialized in 2007 and 2008 in conjunction with the dry conditions created by el Niño. Millions of acres burned as fires swept through Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, Central America, Florida, and other places. The Woods Hole Research Center warned that more than 400,000 square kilometers of Brazilian Amazonia were highly vulnerable to fire in 2010.