The world’s forest area has been declining for centuries, though its impact has been understood with concern that the process has accelerated to alarming proportions only in the last half of the 20th century. Since the 1960s there has been a major change in the rate at which tropical forests are being cleared. In contrast, the area of temperate forests in developed countries grew by 0.1 per cent in the 1980s. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has estimated that the annual rates of deforestation in developing countries were at 15.5 million hectares for the period 1980-1990 and 13.7 million hectares for 1990-1995. The total forest area lost during the 15year period was approximately 200 million hectares. The tragedy lies in the fact that most of these deforested lands are not suited for long-term farming or grazing and they quickly degrade once the forest has been cut and burnt. In fact, throughout the tropics, very few of the forested lands that are left have any potential for sustainable agriculture.
It is important to distinguish between the agents of deforestation and its causes. The “agents” are those individuals, corporations, government agencies, or development projects that clear the forests as opposed to the forces that motivate them. There are four aspects of the causes of deforestation:
1. Predisposing conditions:
These conditions create an environment where deforestation can occur. They are conditions created by society, at times intentionally and at times the consequence of human activities. They are some of the systemic, most difficult issues that frustrate human progress and sustainable development. Another predisposing condition of deforestation is poverty, particularly in rural areas. Although poverty is not a “cause” of deforestation, it is a condition of life that the majority of people in this world must endure. While greed and power can be the motivations of some groups in society to deforest, survival and the desire to escape from poverty also drives most people towards deforestation^
2. Direct causes:
These are the most visible, easily identified and readily associated with the agents of deforestation. They are driven by the other less visible, socioeconomic forces — the indirect causes. The direct causes include Commercial Agriculture, Cattle Ranching/Livestock Grazing and Mining and Petroleum Exploration.
3. Indirect causes:
These include Fiscal and Development Policies, Land Access, Land Tenure and Market Pressures. Often mentioned as causes of deforestation are the demand for forest products and the demand for other goods (mostly food) that are produced on deforested lands (clearly, without any demand there would be no economic reason for cutting down the trees), undervaluation of natural forests, forest exploitation and plantation development in the loss of natural forests.
4. Social factors:
Faced with political decisions about urban migration, food production, reform, employment generation, national security, economic structural adjustment, and all the other issues that demand their attention; unfortunately, many governments have opted to ignore deforestation.
However, it must be remembered that firewood collection and logging are not direct causes of deforestation. These do produce a change in the composition of the natural forest and can increase the risk of a subsequent transition in favor of other land uses. In some circumstances, deforestation can result when harvesting occurs under very sensitive environmental conditions or when it is very intense over a long period. In the case of tree plantations, replacing the natural forest with plantations results in a loss of natural forest area but it does not cause deforestation because there has been no permanent change in land use.
One of the lessons of the last 30 years in trying to contain deforestation is that the people who are meant to benefit from the forests must be full partners in the process of identifying and implementing solutions.
Interestingly, it may be noted that in some cases, deforestation can be beneficial. Given the right mix of social needs, economic opportunities, and environmental conditions, it can be a rational conversion from one type of land use to a more productive one. The tragedy lies in the fact that most lands that have been deforested in recent decades are not suited for long-term farming or ranching and they quickly degrade once the forest has been cut and burnt. Unlike the fertile soils of temperate latitudes, most tropical forest soils cannot sustain annual cropping. The carrying capacity of the land does not support intensive annual cropping without rapid, irreversible degradation. Similarly, intensive cattle grazing cannot be supported because grasses grown on forest soils do not have the same productivity levels as those on arable soils.
The social consequences of deforestation are many, often with devastating long-term impacts. For “indigenous” communities, the arrival of “civilization” usually means destruction of their traditional life-style and breakdown of their social institutions. Individual and collective rights to the forest resource have been frequently ignored and indigenous peoples and local communities have typically been excluded from the decisions that directly have impact upon their lives. In many cases, political decision-makers knowingly permit deforestation to continue because it acts as a social and economic safety valve. By giving people free access to forested lands, the pressure is taken off politicians to resolve the more politically sensitive problems that face developing countries, such as land reform, rural development, power-sharing, and so on.
Probably the most serious and most shortsighted consequence of deforestation is the loss of biodiversity. The phrase “loss of biodiversity” masks the fact that the annual destruction of millions of hectares of tropical forests means the extinction of hundreds of species and varieties of plants and animals, many of which have never been cataloged scientifically. In addition, deforestation is an important contributor to global warming. The rate of deforestation can be slowed down considerably and its negative socio economic and environmental impacts minimized. Towards this, the agriculture sector must be challenged to find appropriate solutions.
Any effort to combat deforestation must be based on a complete understanding of who the agents of deforestation are and what its direct and underlying causes are. The circumstances vary from country to county and from region to region. Through improved protection and management of the remaining forests, well-targeted socio economic development programmes and policy/ institutional reforms, deforestation can be brought under control. While forests will continue to be lost for decades to come, it is critically important that the fight against deforestation be done in the most rational way possible. Only then will the long-term benefits to humankind be favorable and the costs to the environment minimal. It is time for all peoples to renew their commitment to live in harmony with the tropical forests before they are lost forever.