Home > Level 3 > Question 4

Facts on Forests and Forestry

  NEW: Read GreenFacts' new Digest on Forests:

1 Introduction – Measuring progress towards sustainable forest management
2 How much forest is there on the planet and at what rate is it disappearing?
3 How can forests affect climate change?
4 What is the biological diversity of the world’s forests?
5 How healthy are the world’s forests?
6 What products are extracted from forests?
7 What are the protective effects of forests?
8 What are the economic and social benefits of forests?
9 Are forests managed in a sustainable way?
10 Conclusions

  A faithful summary of the "Global Forest Resources Assessment"
  produced in 2005 by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). More...



Previous Question Level 1 Questions Next Question
Move to top of screen

4. What is driving these losses in forest cover?

The term ‘deforestation’ is sometimes loosely used to describe changes in the structure and composition of an area of forest after there has been some form of human intervention such as logging. ‘Deforestation’ is used here in the more restricted, specific meaning of a permanent change from tree cover to some other form of land use.

Satellite pictures demonstrating processes of change in forest cover (both permanent conversion to other uses and regrowth) are available from the University of California.

Some of the disagreements over the extent of ‘deforestation’, its causes, and possible solutions to the problem are more a function of different definitions of ‘deforestation’ than of disagreement over whether or not there are changes in forest cover.

In North America and northern Europe, many conservation groups are concerned that while the overall area of forest cover may be increasing, the remaining area of ‘old growth forest’ (forest which has been essentially unmodified by human activity) is still declining with continued logging. They argue that forest plantations or regenerated forests do not have the same diversity and ecological functions as an old growth forest and that logging in old growth forests is therefore a form of deforestation. More mainstream conservation organizations agree that the logging of old growth forests is an important issue and that plantations or regenerated forest cannot replace old growth forest, but many of them accept that such changes in forest composition would not constitute deforestation in the sense of a permanent loss of forest vegetation.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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:

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

4.1.1. Storms

In October 1987, a windstorm hit the United Kingdom destroying significant areas of forest and woodland. In a report to Parliament on May 13, 1988, Lord Douglas-Hamilton reported that the storm destroyed some 160 km² of forest in the Eastern England Conservancy.
External linkhttp://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk

In France, the Département des Eaux et des Forêts estimated that a similar storm during the night of 26th and 27th December 1999 destroyed up to 5,000 km², or 110 million cubic meters of wood (equivalent to three years of normal timber production for the whole country).

See the article in Le Monde dated Friday 7 January, 2000:
External linkhttp://www.ac-strasbourg.fr/microsites/hist_geo01/

A study of forest damage and regeneration after a cyclone in Samoa can be found at:
External linkhttp://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art10
with a summary of the main conclusions at:
External linkhttp://

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

4.1.2. Disease

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.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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 fires.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

4.2. How is forest cover affected by human activities?

Human activity affects forest cover directly through activities such as harvesting for timber and clearance for agriculture. Social and economic forces also have important indirect impacts by encouraging policies and courses of action that can initiate chains of activities leading to deforestation.

The categories mentioned here help to describe the major threats to forests, but in most cases there will be a number of different and interrelated factors operating on any particular area of forest.

The Land Use and Land Cover Change project of the Department of Geography of the Université de Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium has carried out detailed analyses of 152 sub-regional case studies of the causes of land use change and deforestation in tropical forests. The study indicates that in most cases, there are at least two factors leading to deforestation and that those factors, in turn, may be the outcome of broader social and economic dynamics not directly related to forests. The report can be downloaded from: External linkhttp://www.geo.ucl.ac.be/LUCC/home.html

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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
External link"Shifting 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."
External linkFAO pg. 344.

In Indonesia, for example, "… the government’s own five-year economic plan (REPELITA VI) calls for the establishment of 7,000 km² per year of additional oil palm plantations, and for very substantial new areas of other tree crops."
External linkhttp://www.odifpeg.org.uk/publications/policybriefs/nrp/nrp-28.pdf

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.

External linkhttp://www.dfa-deplu.go.id/view/transmigration/issues.htm

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. External link"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 converted rainforest.

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:External link http://www.mcspotlight.org/case/index.html

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:
External linkhttp://www.mcdonalds.ca/en/aboutus/faq.asp#q12

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:
External linkhttp://www.unu.edu/unupress/unubooks/80906e/80906E0d.htm

See also: Kaimowitz, D. 1996. External link"Livestock and Deforestation in Central America in the 1980s and 1990s: a policy perspective". Jakarta. Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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.

  • Roads

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.
External linkhttp://www.junglephotos.com/satimages/rondoniapics/rondonia.html

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. External link"Forest Extent and Change". pg. 22.)

Reports are available online of an ongoing study in Central Africa of fragmentation associated with road access. The External linkCentral 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).

  • Dams

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.
External linkhttp://www.geo.ucl.ac.be/LUCC/home.html.

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 (Adobe Acrobat Documenthttp://www.damsreport.org/docs/kbase/ studies/drafts/zzdraftx.pdf ).

  • Mining

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:
External linkhttp://www.wrm.org.uy/deforestation/mining.html

IUCN - The World Conservation Union also provides information on the impacts of mining on forests and the environment:
External linkhttp://www.iucn.org/themes/fcp/activities/mining1.html

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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, External linkFRA 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:
External linkhttp://www.rcfa-cfan.org/english/issues.12-5.html

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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.
External linkhttp://www.fao.org/forestry/fop/fopw/GFSM/gfsmint-e.stm

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 pulp
  • original [‘natural’ or ‘old growth’] conifer forests account for 15 per cent of total wood pulp
  • tropical rainforests provide only 1 per cent of global wood pulp, and original hardwood forests elsewhere in the world provide another 1 per cent.

External linkhttp://www.poptel.org.uk/iied/enveco/p_paper.html

In Europe, North America, and Japan, recycled paper is now a very significant and increasing source of fibre for the pulp and paper industry.
External linkhttp://europa.eu.int/comm/research/growth/gcc/projects/sustainability-pp.html#01

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:
External linkhttp://www.atimes.com/se-asia/CJ27Ae02.html

A useful website linking many of the key players in the pulp and paper industries is at:
External linkhttp://home.about.com/industry/

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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 deforestation.

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 or so:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 .
  5. 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.
Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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’, defined as:
"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."
External link"acid rain." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
© 1994, 2000, 2001, 2002 on Infoplease.com ; © 2002 Learning Network.
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 continues.

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:
External linkhttp://www.ambio.kva.se/1997/Nr3_97/may97_5.html

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.
External linkhttp://www.greenfacts.org/studies/climate_change/l_3/climate_change_5.htm#1p2
External linkhttp://www.efi.fi/events/1997/a2b.html

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.
External linkhttp://www.fao.org/forestry/foda/wforcong/publi/v1/t5e/3-16.htm

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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 agricultural use.

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.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen 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)
External linkhttp://www.fao.org/forestry/fon/fonp/fire/firesit.stm

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.
External linkhttp://www.itto.or.jp/inside/fire_alarm/index.html

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:External linkhttp://www.odi.org.uk/nrp/28.html

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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 Vietnam war
  • Burning forests to ‘flush out the enemy’ in civil conflicts in Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka

Some references:

Angola: "War destroys forests in Angola. Deforestation has become one of Angola's most important environmental problems … "
External linkwww.wrm.org.uy/bulletin/28/Angola.html

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 Studies Programme.

Rwanda: S. Kanyamibwa. 1998. Impact of war on conservation: Rwandan environment and wildlife in agony. Biodiversity and Conservation. 7 (11) 1399 - 1406

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

4.3. What are some indirect factors causing deforestation?

The analysis of indirect factors leading to deforestation is complicated by the difficulty of determining causes and effects, and of measuring the impacts of specific factors.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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 damaging practices.

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 include:

Dasgupta P. and K.G. Mäler. 1994. Poverty, institutions and the environmental resource base. Washington D.C. World Bank

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.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

4.3.3. Is there a link between land tenure systems and forest clearance?

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. Adobe Acrobat DocumentThe 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 them.

"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:
External linkhttp://www.ciesin.org/docs/002-407/002-407.html

An ongoing research program coordinated by the External linkConsultative 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.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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).
External linkhttp://www.ncseonline.org/NLE/CRSreports/Forests/

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.

External linkhttp://www.fao.org/docrep/w9950e/w9950e06.htm

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 University Press.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
  Next Sub-Question Top
Move to top of screen

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. Adobe Acrobat DocumentThe 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.

External linkhttp://www.cifor.cgiar.org/

Kahn J.R. and MacDonald, J.A. 1995. Third World Debt and tropical deforestation. Ecological Economics. 12. 107 – 124.

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
Move to top of screen

4.3.6. Does poor governance encourage flouting forest conservation policies?

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 cover.
External linkhttp://www.fao.org/docrep/003/y0900e/y0900e08.htm#P0_0

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 English at:
External linkhttp://www.transparency.org/newsletters/2000.2/editorial.html

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 forest management.
External linkhttp://www.cid.harvard.edu/esd/fin/fin.html

Global Forest Watch
External linkhttp://www.globalforestwatch.org/english/about/index.htm

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, Indonesia:

Arnoldo Contreras-Hermosilla. 2000. The Underlying Causes of Forest Decline. Bogor. CIFOR (Occasional Paper No. 30). The paper can be downloaded from:
Adobe Acrobat Documenthttp://www.cifor.cgiar.org/publications/pdf_files/OccPapers/OP-030.pdf

Back to Details Level 3 Questions  
Previous Question Level 1 Questions Next Question
Send this page  Subscribe to GreenFacts newsletter Download this Digest

  Read GreenFacts' recent Digests:

Provided by GreenFacts  


Contact | Copyright Top