Causes of Deforestation

updated January 2017

Extracting timber, mineral and fossil fuel resources from a forest prior to its clearance for agriculture remains the irresistible business model that powerful investors have relished since colonial times. Amongst these direct causes of deforestation agriculture has become the most important, its profile varying in each forest region.

The dominant forces in Latin America are cattle ranching and soy crops, so that farming accounts for about 70% of all deforestation in the region. Oil palm plantations are the main culprit in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia and Malaysia supply 85% of the global market. In Vietnam, shrimp farming has halved the scale of coastal mangrove forests.

Palm oil has become the lubricant of consumerism, a core ingredient of about half of our packaged supermarket products. Its global consumption has increased by 7% per annum over 20 years.

In sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation and forest degradation have been driven by the imperatives of extreme poverty that preclude sound management of natural resources. For example, poor farming communities often seek quick returns through “slash and burn” methods of shifting cultivation at the forest periphery.

The widespread lack of rural energy utilities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is a further direct cause of deforestation. It is very difficult to prevent the use of forest timber for charcoal and wood fuel in the absence of any alternative energy source – 2.9 billion people rely on traditional biomass methods of cooking, a figure that continues to rise. There are 1.1 billion people without access to electricity – countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone provide no electricity beyond the major cities.

The significance of poverty draws attention to the fact that most tropical forests are located in developing countries. Weak national institutions are ill-equipped to protect the rights of forest communities whose political voice is constrained by extreme poverty.

For example, most tropical forests are owned by the state, often perceived as a potential source of national revenue, as though devoid of human presence. Forest peoples lack the security of legal tenure, their traditional livelihoods too easily brushed aside by powerful state-supported individuals or corporations, fuelled by the kickbacks of timber concessions or infrastructure development.

Laws designed to protect forests and their communities therefore tend to remain unenforced. According to a recent report, illegal deforestation accounts for a third of global trade in tropical timber. Countries contributing the most to this statistic are Indonesia, Brazil and Malaysia. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, around 90% of timber exports are sourced illegally.

These indirect causes of deforestation – shortcomings of governance and laws – are within the powers of respective governments to rectify. There are even more powerful indirect forces that lie beyond their control; global population growth and rising household incomes in richer countries will continue to boost demand for both forest resources and food production. The inevitable long term rise in world commodity prices lies in wait to trigger the economic forces which may ultimately destroy tropical forest assets.

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With no electricity available in rural Malawi, poor households have no choice but to collect firewood for their energy needs, illustrating a significant cause of forest degradation

more Forests briefings
Importance of Tropical Forests
Deforestation and Forest Degradation
Tropical Forests and Climate Change
Sustainable Development Goal for Deforestation
Consumer Solutions to Deforestation
Rights-based Solutions to Deforestation
Market-based Solutions to Deforestation
Source material and useful links

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