4.1. What are the natural causes of forest cover loss?
There are both direct and indirect causes of deforestation.
Some are the result of human activity, while others are the result
of natural phenomena.
The most common natural causes of loss of forest cover are from:
During the 20th century, chestnut blight killed
nearly all wild chestnuts in US forests. In the United Kingdom,
Dutch Elm disease has transformed the landscape.
Natural regeneration usually allows recovery from
storm damage. In the case of diseases such as the Dutch Elm disease
or the chestnut blight, there may be irreversible long term changes
in the species composition of the forest but the overall area of
forest cover is rarely affected.
4.1.3. Natural fires
The loss of forests to fire can be from both natural
causes—a spark set off during drought conditions, or lightning—and
from human activity. The impact on forests of fires started by human
activity is studied further in the text.
Fires set off in forested areas by lightning and
dry conditions are a natural phenomenon and many forest ecosystems
are well adapted to fire, with trees evolving thick fire-resistant
bark and seeds which germinate in the ash on the forest floor after
4.2.1. Conversion of forest land to agricultural uses?
"From earliest times, humans have cleared land
for settlements and agriculture. Conversion of forests to agricultural
land takes place as individuals and families open land to feed themselves
and their families. It also takes place on a large scale with programs
planned and implemented by governments and agricultural industries
to resettle populations and to increase agricultural production,
often of cash crops for export.
In developing countries, and especially in tropical
forests, land is cleared under traditional agricultural systems
known as ‘swidden’ (also referred to as ‘slash
and burn’ systems because of their reliance on clearing and
burning a patch of forest to prepare land for cultivation) and also
by migrants moving from other rural areas where land is scarce.
Swidden cultivation has been blamed for deforestation.
Research over the last thirty years indicates that traditional swidden
systems could be quite sustainable, but that in many places population
growth, in-migration, and changing markets have made them less sustainable.
The area of forest affected by swidden cultivation is quite small
in comparison with other factors affecting rates of deforestation.
A more urgent problem is posed by people who move from outside forested
areas and whose farming techniques are poorly adapted to the slopes
and soils and conditions of forested land, sometimes causing wildfires,
loss of soil fertility, and erosion.
See: Brown, D. and Kathrin Schreckenberg
Cultivators as Agents of Deforestation: assessing the evidence"
1998. London. Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Natural Resource
Perspective # 29
Subsistence agriculture may not be the most extensive
threat to forests. Over the last twenty years, large-scale migration
and agricultural development programs promoted by the governments
of some developing countries have had an impact on a far greater
area of forestland. FAO concludes that "Most tropical deforestation
is … a result of rapid, planned or large-scale conversion
to other land uses, mainly agriculture."
In Indonesia, for example, "… the government’s
own five-year economic plan (REPELITA VI) calls for the establishment
km² per year of additional oil palm plantations, and for
very substantial new areas of other tree crops."
Shortly after Independence from the Netherlands,
the Indonesian government launched a program of transmigration to
resettle landless people from the overcrowded areas of the central
island of Java to some of the less densely populated islands in
the archipelago. In Kalimantan (Borneo) and Irian Jaya (the western
half of the island of New Guinea) in particular, settlers cleared
large areas of forest to establish their villages and fields.
Indonesian Government sources estimate that by 1998, over 1.7 million
families (6.7 million people) had been resettled under this program
which had received significant funding during the 1970s and 1980s
from the World Bank and other international donors.
Large scale, planned movements of population and
the expansion of cash crop agriculture have proved to be both environmentally
disruptive and to have dramatic, unintended social and economic
consequences. Chinese researchers studying the impacts of state-owned
rubber and pineapple plantations in the Prefecture of Xishuangbanna
in the southwestern province of Yunnan have documented increased
erosion, changes in ambient temperature, and changes in the hydrology
(cycles of water flow).
See: Xu Jianchu, Jefferson Fox, Lu Xing, Nancy Podger, Stephen Leisz
& Ai Xihui. 2000. "Effects
of swidden cultivation, state policies, and customary institutions
on land cover in a Hani village, Yunnan, China."
At least some of the recent increases in ethnic
violence in West Kalimantan (Borneo) and Irian Jaya (New Guinea)
in Indonesia are related to tensions between indigenous people and
settlers brought to the islands under the transmigration program.
Vietnam’s rapid expansion of coffee plantations has had a
severe disruptive impact on world coffee markets causing the collapse
of prices for robusta coffee and economic hardship for smallholder
coffee growers, particularly in Latin America and East Africa.
During the 1980s, growing demand for cheap beef
in the US led to the charge that US fast food companies were responsible
for deforestation in Central and South America in order to create
pastureland for cattle to produce cheap beef for export. This ‘hamburger
connection’ has become less of an issue in recent years, as
governments have changed legislation to make it less profitable
to convert forest to pasture. The rate of conversion to pasture
in tropical forests has slowed in recent years and fast food companies
have adopted policies that limit or prohibit the use of beef from
While his decision has been contested, the judge
in a court case in the United Kingdom ruled in 1997 that the defendants
wrongly claimed that MacDonald’s was destroying rainforest
to produce cheap beef . The judge’s verdict can be found on
the website of the ongoing campaign in support of the defendants
and against the MacDonald’s Company:
Fast food chains in the US and Canada now have written policies
against buying beef from rainforest countries. One example (from
MacDonald’s, Canada) can be found at:
A study by the United Nations University has reviewed
the controversy and concluded that while there are many urgent questions
about the social and ecological impacts of pasture development in
tropical forests, the ‘hamburger connection’ "was
tenuous even in Central America"
Nigel J.H. Smith, Emanuel Adilson S. Serrão, Paulo T. Alvim,
and Italo C. Falesi. "Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of
the Land and its People". 1995. Tokyo, The United Nations University.
Chapter 7. "Ranching problems and potential on the uplands.".
The full text of the study can be downloaded from:
See also: Kaimowitz, D. 1996. "Livestock
and Deforestation in Central America in the 1980s and 1990s: a policy
perspective". Jakarta. Centre for International Forestry
4.2.2. Conversion due to infrastructure development
One type of conversion of forestland is for infrastructure
development such as road-building, hydroelectric dam construction,
mining operations and other infrastructure development activities.
Road construction affects the extent of forest cover
directly where forest is cleared to build roads. Indirectly, roads
provide a route for population movement and further clearance for
subsistence agriculture and the growth of urban centers. The area
of forest cleared directly by road-building may not be very large
but clearance and fragmentation of forestland following road-building
are significant, particularly in Amazonia, Indonesia, and in Central
Africa (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic
of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon).
An overlay of 1975 and 1992 satellite pictures of
the same roaded area of Rondonia in Brazil shows the pattern of
forest clearance around urban areas and roads.
Road-building in forested areas leads to fragmentation
of the forest over time which can, ultimately, lead to complete
clearance of forest. Since this is a slow process, and because of
the difficulty of defining when ‘fragmentation’ becomes
‘clearance’, there is little data available to estimate
the impact of road building on deforestation. An official Brazilian
study found that 86% of Amazonian forest lost between 1991 and 1996
was within 25km of land cleared along major roads (referred to in
PAGE. 2000. "Forest
Extent and Change". pg. 22.)
Reports are available online of an ongoing study
in Central Africa of fragmentation associated with road access.
Africa Regional Program on the Environment (CARPE) is a joint
program of the World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, and
the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP).
Dam construction can also affect forests and is
mostly an issue in Southeast and East Asia. The environmental impacts
of dam construction are more related to displacement of people than
to the area of forest lost directly to the dam.
Past studies of the environmental impacts of dams
have shown that displaced people may move to—or are resettled
in—environmentally sensitive areas, leading to deforestation,
degradation of existing forests, and increased erosion from intensified
land use practices (http://www.damsreport.org/docs/kbase/
Mining can also have an impact on forests: usually
on areas immediately adjacent to the mine. There can, however, be
significant impacts from sudden increases in population in and around
mining settlements and from the effects of mining such as flooding
and damage from mine tailings.
Discoveries of minerals, particularly gold, over
the last thirty years in the Brazilian Amazon, have triggered bouts
of ‘Gold Fever’ in which large numbers of migrants have
moved into forested areas to seek their fortunes. Their activities
have caused chemical pollution of the rivers, while the growth of
mining settlements and towns has directly contributed to forest
clearance as well as indirectly contributing to clearance for fuelwood
and for farming to support the settlements.
David Cleary. 1990. ‘Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush’
Iowa City. University of Iowa Press
In Irian Jaya, mining has been carried out on a
large scale by international corporations benefiting from concessions
allocated by the Indonesian authorities. While the corporations
involved insist that they are operating in an environmentally responsible
way, there are reports pointing to erosion and flooding and water
pollution from mining activities. The extent of direct forest loss
may only be clear when the mining operations come to an end and
the success or otherwise of the company’s proposed rehabilitation
program becomes apparent.
The World Rainforest Movement, based in Montevideo,
Uruguay, tracks issues related to mining and tropical forests at:
IUCN - The World Conservation Union also provides
information on the impacts of mining on forests and the environment:
4.2.3. Harvesting forest for timber
Harvesting represents an important component of
the global loss of forest cover, but it is difficult to make a precise
estimate of the extent of deforestation caused directly by harvesting.
Harvesting may take place in plantation forests. Not all harvested
areas are completely cleared of forest (timber companies may only
remove trees of the valuable commercial species). Some areas of
harvested forest are left to regenerate and are not converted to
a non-forest use (representing a change in forest condition rather
than a change in forest extent).
Distinguishing between changes in forest extent
and changes in forest condition is particularly important in temperate
countries. Logging old growth timber continues in North America
and northern Europe, but most of the logged area is likely to be
replanted or left to regenerate naturally and is unlikely to be
converted to another land use.
In these areas, there may be little long-term change
in the area of forest, but plantation forests will be very different
in structure and biodiversity, and even where forest is allowed
to regenerate naturally, it will take a long time to return to the
condition of the forest before logging.
A FAO survey of 43 tropical countries which account
for approximately 90% of the world’s tropical forest resources
showed that timber harvesting takes place on about 110,000
km² of tropical forests each year (0.28% of total forest
cover) (FAO, FRA
2000. pg. 347).
"FAO (1993) reports that there are almost 60,000
km² logged annually in the tropics and that the rate of
logging has doubled in the last 30 years. Like most forest sector
statistics, these estimates are not precise due to the poor record
keeping and lack of field supervision of logging operations. The
greatest increase in activity can be found in Asia and Latin America
while the annual area logged in Africa has remained somewhat constant.
(…). Without question, logging continues to be the principal
cause of forest degradation in the tropics but not one of the principal
causes of deforestation.
(…). In terms of its contribution to deforestation, the single
most important failing of governments and forest products companies
has been their inability to maintain a permanent forest estate.
Sustainable forest management assumes that once the forest has been
logged, it will remain a forest until the end of the rotation or
to the end of the next cutting cycle and beyond. In most cases,
this does not happen. When the logging is finished, the farmers,
agribusiness agents, ranchers, and fuelwood collectors move in to
clear the land for other economic uses. Previously inaccessible
tracts of frontier forest are opened up by logging companies when
they build new haul roads, open new skid trails, and remove a portion
of the forest biomass, making it easy for the other land users to
clear the remaining trees. In short, logging provides them access
to the forests. Throughout the tropics, production forests are inadequately
protected from this type of encroachment, despite the fact that
management plans and concession agreements oblige both government
and industry to do so."
From the Canadian Forest service web site:
4.2.4. Harvesting forests for pulp and paper production
Paper manufacture accounts for about 14 per cent
of the total world wood harvest (including fuelwood), or about one-third
of the world's total harvest of wood for industrial uses. Most of
the wood fibre used for pulp comes from managed, temperate forests
and plantations, with only about 2 percent of the pulp coming from
natural hardwood or tropical forests.
The most detailed analysis of the global pulp and
paper industry is the FAO Global Fibre Supply Model (1999). The
Model gives data by country, by source of fibre, and by end use
and provides much of the raw data for other analyses.
A study on "The Sustainable Paper Cycle"
published in 1993 by the International Institute for the Environment
and Development (IIED) in London found that:
- managed natural regeneration forests are the
single largest source of wood fibre (37 per cent)
- unmanaged natural regeneration forests account
for 17 per cent of wood fibre supply
- plantations provide 29 per cent of global wood
- original [‘natural’ or ‘old
growth’] conifer forests account for 15 per cent of total
- tropical rainforests provide only 1 per cent
of global wood pulp, and original hardwood forests elsewhere in
the world provide another 1 per cent.
In Europe, North America, and Japan, recycled paper
is now a very significant and increasing source of fibre for the
pulp and paper industry.
Nevertheless, there are some situations where inappropriate
pricing of forest resources and credit policies have led to investments
in pulp and paper mills which use natural forests in an unsustainable
way. The recent Southeast Asian economic crisis revealed a number
of such cases, particularly in Indonesia.
In Indonesia, World Bank and IMF loans appear to
have encouraged excessive investment in pulp and paper mills—with
processing capacity in excess of the production of pulp from their
plantations. In order to continue to feed their mills, the companies
have turned to natural forests for their sources of material.
See the following article from the Asia Times:
A useful website linking many of the key players
in the pulp and paper industries is at:
4.2.5. Cutting of trees for fuel-wood and charcoal
Wood and charcoal are still the major source of
energy for most people in developing countries. Cutting trees for
fuel visibly has impacts on forests, particularly near urban areas,
but most observers now believe that this is not a major cause of
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were
reports of deforestation due to cutting of trees for fuel in developing
countries . The timing of these reports—often describing fuelwood
shortages as ‘the other energy crisis’, coincided with
the 1970s energy crises and with the concerns about desertification
following the Sahel droughts of the 1970s. These reports triggered
detailed studies of energy supplies and markets in developing countries,
of desertification, and of alternatives to wood energy. This research
suggests that while woodcutting for fuel has affected and continues
to affect forest cover, particularly in areas supplying fuel to
urban areas, the ‘wood energy crisis’ is more a crisis
of the ability of poor people—especially women—to get
access to reliable and affordable supplies of fuel than an ecological
crisis threatening global forest cover.
There is no single authoritative summary of the
issues related to wood energy, but there is a consensus on some
basic conclusions from research over the last twenty-five years
- Wood and charcoal are vital sources of energy
for large numbers of people in developing countries. It is estimated
that some 80% of the population of Africa south of the equator
depend on woodfuel for cooking, heating, and lighting.
- Urban use of woodfuel places the heaviest pressure
on forest resources, especially as cities in developing countries
grow rapidly and attract migrants from rural areas.
- The main source for wood and charcoal are dry
tropical woodlands rather than moist forests (‘rainforests’)
and particularly those in areas accessible by truck or other forms
of transport serving urban areas.
- Programs to popularize ‘fuel efficient
stoves’ have had a very modest impact: they often require
significant changes in food preparation techniques, and in some
cases do not, in fact, offer a significant saving in fuel consumption
- Programs to promote the planting of fuel in woodlots,
and improved charcoal burning technologies may be a more effective
approach to easing the problem of scarcity of wood fuel.
4.2.6. Acid rain and atmospheric pollutants
The most common form of atmospheric pollution believed to affect
forests is ‘acid rain’ or ‘acid deposition’,
"a form of precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, or hail) containing
high levels of sulfuric or nitric acids (pH below 5.5–5.6).
Produced when sulfur dioxide and various nitrogen oxides combine
with atmospheric moisture, acid rain can contaminate drinking water,
damage vegetation and aquatic life, and erode buildings and monuments."
rain." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
© 1994, 2000, 2001, 2002 on Infoplease.com ; © 2002 Learning
8 Apr. 2002
There is a general consensus that air pollution
damages forest vegetation. However there is little agreement on
the exact degree of damage caused to forests by different forms
of air pollution. Where air quality has improved, there is evidence
that damage to forests can be reversed. Atmospheric pollution is
more likely to be a cause of forest degradation than a cause of
deforestation although research on air pollution and deforestation
The extent of damage depends on the nature and severity
of pollution as well as on the species of the trees (for example,
deciduous trees which lose their leaves every winter may not accumulate
pollutants in the same way as conifers which retain their leaves)
and on the chemical composition of the soil.
In the industrial centers of the former Soviet-bloc
countries of Eastern Europe, pollution controls were minimal and
subject to weak enforcement. In these areas, there was severe atmospheric
pollution from toxic substances including heavy metals such as mercury.
Over the last decade, research in Eastern Europe has added to the
understanding of ways in which atmospheric pollution affects forest
vegetation and, more broadly, human health. With significant improvements
in air quality over the last decade, continuing research is also
beginning to show that forests can recover from damage from pollution,
although where damage has been particularly severe, recovery is
likely to be very slow.
Long-term research is, for instance, under way in
the mountains of Krusne Hory in the Czech Republic on the border
with Germany. In 1989, up to 50% of the forest had died in areas
downwind of sources of pollution. By 1997, there was evidence of
some forest recovery as levels of pollution decreased.
Ambio. 1997. 26 (3) pp. 158 – 166. Abstract of the article
is available at:
On the other hand, there is also evidence that growth
rates of forests in Europe are now increasing, possibly due to increases
in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which may be counteracting some
of the effects of acid deposition.
Another form of pollution is radiation, which is
a different, potentially significant, form of pollution. The University
of Voronezh in Russia estimates that some 70,000
km² of forest in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine have been
‘degraded’ following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.
In this case, radiation has affected regeneration of the forest
and made it impossible for humans to use the forest although forest
vegetation is still present.
4.2.7. Loss of forests to fire
Some of the areas burned can recover if there is
no further human settlement or conversion to other land uses, but
recovery can be slow. Since fires open large areas of forest and
the ash temporarily increases the fertility of the soil, burned
areas are very vulnerable to further clearance and conversion to
The areas of most concern are the Mediterranean
forests (because of their small remaining surface area and their
proximity to relatively densely populated areas) and tropical forests.
But boreal forests in northern China and Siberia have also recently
experienced uncontrolled fires.
As human activities have expanded, fires may be
set off when land is being cleared, by careless use of matches and
fires, or even deliberately. In dry conditions or in the presence
of fuels such as dead wood, timber, or houses, fires can burn out
of control over long periods of time, covering very large areas,
making it difficult for the forest to recover as it might do following
a ‘natural’ fire.
18.104.22.168. Extent of forest fires related to the El Niño
event of 1997 - 1998 in Indonesia
The scale and causes of large, uncontrolled forest
fires can be the subject of disagreement, as demonstrated by analysis
of the fires related to the El Niño event of 1997 - 1998
in Sumatra and Borneo (Indonesia). At the time of the fires, the
Indonesian authorities initially claimed that only about 1,700
km² of forest had burnt, while estimates by environmental
NGOs were up to ten times higher. A final consensus based on analyses
of satellite data is that up to 20,000
km² of land burned.
FAO has proposed a figure of 20,000
km² in Indonesia alone, based on satellite data from the
US NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO)
refers to a figure as high as 50,000
km² in its report on the effects of fire on tropical forests.
One factor in the disputed figures is that most
of the land burned appears to have been land that had already been
cleared for agriculture—often for large scale plantations
of oil palm and other cash crops. Only a portion of the land was,
in fact, tropical forest.
The Indonesian authorities initially accused indigenous
people and smallholder farmers practicing ‘slash and burn’
agriculture of setting off the fires. Later investigations showed
that areas designated by the government for plantations were cleared
by fire with little attention given to keeping the fires under control.
At the same time, local people appear to have set fires in some
places as a deliberate form of protest against the loss of their
land to plantations. A number of different social, economic, and
policy factors combined with the dry conditions of the El Niño
event to create the disaster.
A summary of the factors which led to the Indonesian
forest fires can be found in:
Neil Byron & Gill Shepherd, 1998. ODI Natural Resource Perspective
# 28 on the 1997 - 1998 Indonesian Forest Fires. London, Overseas
Development Institute (ODI).
Byron and Shepherd conclude:
"Local people fear that if they do not secure
rights to their traditional lands, they will lose them in a race
against migrants and big companies for land at the forest frontier.
Since government acquires land for large-scale agricultural, tree-crop
or forestry development programs by using fire and then planting,
so local people have decided that they must clear forest and plant
cash-crop trees as a mechanism for confirming local land-use rights
in a way recognized nationally.
Thus while the weather conditions that make forests
more flammable are quite natural, the factors which have created
a 'disaster' are very much man-made - the outcomes of social, economic
and political decisions to encourage conversion of forests to tree-crop
estates and rice-fields, and of deliberate policies of unpreparedness
and inaction in the face of warnings of extreme fire danger".
From Byron and Shepherd, 1998.
The paper can be downloaded from:http://www.odi.org.uk/nrp/28.html
4.2.8. Destruction of forests in the course or warfare
Warfare is rarely considered as a cause of forest
destruction, but it is a scar of warfare that lasts long after conflict
has ended. Forest vegetation may be lost as a result of fires in
the course of battle, or it may deliberately be cleared to prevent
enemy troops from hiding under the cover of forest.
Recent examples include:
- The use of defoliants by US forces during the
- Burning forests to ‘flush out the enemy’
in civil conflicts in Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka
Angola: "War destroys forests in Angola.
Deforestation has become one of Angola's most important environmental
problems … "
Myanmar: C. Ashley. 1992. Refugees and the Environment:
war, logging and displacement in Burma (Myanmar). Refugee Participation
Network. 12. pp. 24 - 27. Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, Refugee
Rwanda: S. Kanyamibwa. 1998. Impact of war on
conservation: Rwandan environment and wildlife in agony. Biodiversity
and Conservation. 7 (11) 1399 - 1406
4.3.1. What is the impact of population pressure?
"Population pressure is frequently referred
to as a main cause of deforestation - and many observers consider
it to be a direct cause of deforestation. The evidence however is
mixed, with cases of increases in population occurring at the same
time as deforestation, no change in the area of forest, and even
increases in forest area. The outcome of increased population densities
appears to depend on economic opportunities available to rural people,
agricultural and cropping systems, and access to markets for timber
and non-timber products, as well as for other forms of production.
In areas such as the Amazon, increased deforestation
and population growth happen at almost the same time. But most of
the population growth comes from migrants arriving from other regions
(see the preceding sections 4.2.1. & 4.2.2. on ‘Conversion
to agricultural uses’ and ‘Conversion of forest land
due to infrastructure development’). In other parts of the
world, there are also documented examples of increased population
leading to more intensive agricultural systems and in increases
in the tree cover. The populations of Europe and North America have
increased significantly over the last century—and so has the
area of forest.
In Kenya, some of the most densely populated areas
of the country appear to have more tree cover today than they did
some thirty to forty years ago. The World Agroforestry Centre -
ICRAF has mapped some of these changes and observed that where the
density of population increases, there is in fact often a corresponding
increase in tree planting and overall tree cover. The landscape
begins to take on some of the ecological functions of a forest such
as soil protection, the regulation of water flows, and improved
soil fertility. A longer-term study of Machakos district southeast
of Nairobi reaches the same conclusion. See:
Tiffen, Mary, Michael Mortimore and Francis Gichuki. 1994. "More
People, Less Erosion". Nairobi and London, ACTS Press and ODI.
It should be noted that the increase in tree cover
observed in these cases in Kenya has been in the form of planted
trees included in agricultural smallholdings and planted to mark
the boundary of fields (see the section on ‘Agroforestry’
below). The trees do not replace natural forests, but by providing
most of farmers’ domestic needs for fuel, they may reduce
pressure on remaining forests.
For similar processes in West Africa, see: Leach,
M. and J. Fairhead, 2000. Challenging neo-Malthusian deforestation
analyses in West Africa’s dynamic forest landscapes. Population
and Development Review. 26 (1) 17 – 41
4.3.2. Is there a link between poverty and deforestation?
"In rural areas, poor people may be forced
to open new land in order to produce enough food for their families.
It is also likely that the poor are forced to consider short-term
survival rather than long-term sustainability of their land use
practices leading to forest clearance and other environmentally
As with other ‘indirect causes’, the
links between poverty and deforestation are not easy to measure
or to quantify, and the relationships between poverty and other
factors such as population or land tenure (see below) are extremely
difficult to disentangle in different locations. Some recent attempts
Dasgupta P. and K.G. Mäler. 1994. Poverty,
institutions and the environmental resource base. Washington D.C.
Ekbom, A. and J. Bojö. 1999. Poverty and environment: evidence
of links and integration in the country assistance strategy process.
Washington D.C. World Bank.
4.3.3. Is there a link between land tenure systems and forest
In many countries, the law and land tenure systems
make it easy to take over ‘unutilized’ forestland.
"In many countries there has been a requirement
to demonstrate use of public lands to obtain legal property rights
over those lands". Such policies provide an incentive to clear
forest - often by burning."
Arnoldo Contreras-Hermosilla. 2000. The
Underlying Causes of Forest Decline. Bogor. CIFOR (Occasional
Paper No. 30).
Insecure land tenure systems are a further disincentive,
especially to poor farmers, to make the long term investments required
to plant and manage trees and forest lands.
Some countries are now changing these policies in
order to develop incentives to conserve forests rather than to clear
"The Institutional Origins of Deforestation
in Latin America" by Douglas Southgate and C. Ford Runge (1990)
is a case study of how tenure regimes and property law affect deforestation
in one country (Ecuador). The study can be downloaded from:
An ongoing research program coordinated by the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is beginning
to shed light on the role played by land tenure arrangements in
land use management in developing countries.
4.3.4. Have certain economic policies promoted deforestation?
Some economic policies give perverse incentives
to clear rather than to conserve forestland.
The most widespread ‘perverse incentive’
is the practice of underpricing forest resources when government
agencies give concessions to timber companies to harvest forestland.
Underpricing may simply take the form of a very low estimate of
the value of timber compared to its market price or it may be indirect,
as in government funding of access roads for timber harvesting (as
has been alleged in the USA).
Other perverse incentives include government subsidies
to expand agriculture and to establish plantations of cash crops.
The Brazilian government, for example, has provided generous incentives
to increase soybean production that has led to clearance of forestland.
In the 1999 ‘State of the World’s Forests’
study, FAO highlighted the low cost of forest concessions offered
to timber companies as one of the most important ‘perverse
incentives’ contributing to forest clearance.
Fearnside, P. M. 2001. Soybean cultivation as a
threat to the environment in Brazil. Environmental Conservation.
2001. 28 (1) 23 – 38.
Repetto R. and M. Gillis. 1988. Public policies
and the misuse of forest resources. Cambridge and New York. Cambridge
4.3.5. Are developing countries converting forests to expand the
production of cash crops?
Many developing countries are highly indebted and
have to find sources of hard currency to repay their loans. This
may lead to conversion of forests to expand the production of cash
crops such as palm oil, rubber or coffee for export.
The case of soybean production in Brazil cited above
is one such example. As with many ‘indirect’ causes
of deforestation, there is contradictory evidence on the impact
of debt, international trade, and the Structural Adjustment Policies
which have been introduced to address economic crises in many developing
countries. Although it appears logical that highly indebted countries
would seek to liquidate natural assets to service debt obligations,
different studies have reached different conclusions about the links
between debt and deforestation. Structural Adjustment Policies also
affect many different sectors of an economy, making it difficult
to disentangle ways in which the policies affect forest cover.
The World Bank itself recognizes that since Structural
Adjustment Policies (SAPs) are designed to promote economic growth,
they may encourage faster exploitation of natural resources such
as forests and fisheries. On the other hand, SAPs have also forced
some governments such as Indonesia to withdraw financial support
from resettlement and transmigration programs, reducing pressure
on forests from these programs. The Bank notes too, that in many
cases, states have failed to apply the full package of recommended
policies which would normally also include measures to increase
protection of natural resources.
Capistrano, A. D. and C.F. Kiker. 1995. Macro-scale
economic influences on tropical forest depletion. Ecological Economics.
14. 21 – 30.
Contreras-Hermosilla, A. 2000. The
Underlying Causes of Forest Decline. Bogor. CIFOR (Occasional
Paper No. 30) pp. 13 - 15.
Kaimowitz, D., G. Thiele, and P. Pacheco. 1997.
The effects of structural adjustment on deforestation and forest
degradation in lowland Bolivia.
Kahn J.R. and MacDonald, J.A. 1995. Third World
Debt and tropical deforestation. Ecological Economics. 12. 107 –
4.3.6. Does poor governance encourage flouting forest conservation
Poor governance and corruption are making it easy
to flout forest conservation and protection policies and legislation.
But by its nature, this cause of deforestation is very difficult
to document and quantify. As international agencies pay more attention
to good governance, transparency and accountability, there is growing
recognition that corruption facilitates illegal deforestation and
that a significant proportion of deforestation occurs illegally
despite laws designed to protect forests.
For the first time ever, the FAO 2001 report on
the State of the World’s Forests devotes a full chapter to
a strongly worded analysis of the impacts of corruption on forest
International awareness of the significance of corrupt
and illegal practices in the forestry sector is growing. Agencies
that are actively publicizing the effects of corruption on the utilization
of forest resources include:
Transparency International (TI).
TI reports on corruption in the forest industry are available in
The Forest Integrity Network (FIN), based at
the Harvard Centre for International Development (CID), is a joint
project of CID, IUCN and Transparency International. The FIN website
carries updated reports on evidence of corrupt practices affecting
Global Forest Watch
Much of the discussion in this section on indirect
causes of deforestation has been drawn from a paper published by
the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor,
Arnoldo Contreras-Hermosilla. 2000. The Underlying
Causes of Forest Decline. Bogor. CIFOR (Occasional Paper No. 30).
The paper can be downloaded from: