WHAT IS ‘SLASH AND BURN’ FARMING AND HOW DOES IT AFFECT THE RAINFORESTS?




The term ‘Slash and Burn’ farming relates to an old agricultural practice that has historically been used throughout most of the world. It is a method which quickly creates open land through the cutting and burning of forests and woodlands to create fields for agriculture, or pasture for livestock.
This method also creates - what was otherwise a very poor soil - a soil that is rich in available plant nutrients, but this is only due to the introduction of the burned plant material back into the soil. Unfortunately - under normal cultivation – this newly released fertility quickly declines and the land is either abandoned or left for fallow to be burned again at a later time.

Today the term is mainly associated with the dramatic loss of tropical rain forests, but the ‘slash and burn’ technique is still used by between 200 and 500 million people worldwide

The biggest problem of using ‘slash and burn’ in tropical rainforests is the large scale erosion that usually occurs afterwards. Since there are few active roots in the ground or a protective tree canopy to act as temporary water storage, there is no longer anything left to prevent the surface run-off of water. Therefore, any small remaining amounts of nutrients are washed away causing the phenomenon known as ‘desertification’ - this is when no further growth of any type may arise for generations.

The world’s rainforests - and therefore the world at large - are already at risk from catastrophic climate change. In less than 50 years we have seen the destruction of over half of the worlds rainforest environment due to logging and ‘slash and burn’ farming. However the loss of the rainforest continues to progress at an alarming rate - equivalent to an area of two football fields every second!

What is often not realised is that rainforests benefit everyone, and not just the local populations of where they are found. Rainforests store water, regulate rainfall, and are home to over half the planets biodiversity, but more importantly they play a critical role in helping to limit the amount of fossil fuel emissions that build up in our atmosphere every year by absorbing CO2 as part of their normal photosynthetic process. The trouble is that when they are cut down and burned, not only are they then unable to absorb these emissions, they actually release yet more CO2 into the atmosphere. Currently, rainforest destruction accounts for 17% of global CO2 emissions which is more than the global transport sector releases.

It is these emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. In simple terms, if there were no rainforests to absorb CO2, the temperature of the earth would rise, and in turn so would global sea levels. That is the reality that the world is facing and why its effects should concern everybody.

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