Possible solutions to the problem of tropical deforestation are offered in this article.

by John Revington 

"If there is to be even a small chance to relay the pressures on tropical biota, fundamental changes in the World Trade system and the basic relationships between rich and poor nations must take place." (Anne and Paul Ehrlich 1988) [1]

As described in an article in the last issue (The Causes of Tropical Deforestation) the basic cause of most rain forest destruction is misguided development. Any "solutions" to the problem which fail to recognise the underlying cause can at best have limited success, and in many cases, they make the situation worse. Realistic solutions must be based on the realisation that tropical deforestation characteristically involves the disempowerment of traditional landowners, and their rights must be respected.

False Solutions: 1. "Sustainable" Commercial Logging On a governmental level, attempted solutions to deforestation caused by the timber industry have emphasised the necessity of supporting sustainable timber extraction. Such approaches assume, without supporting evidence, that rainforests can be used as an industrial resource base for timber on a sustainable basis. This has resulted in more rather than less deforestation. The International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) has had to acknowledge that serious attempts at sustainable management of tropical rainforests for timber production are on a world scale, "negligible".

As well as the technical obstacles to sustainability, the industry has shown itself to be unable to operate free from corruption. The only systematic attempt to disclose such corruption has been in Papua New Guinea, where a recent inquire concluded that "there can be no doubt that the timber industry, by its very nature, is conducive to acts of a criminal nature and acts contrary to law and proper government administration. [3]

2. The Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), the first major international initiative to tackle tropical deforestation, was launched in 1985 by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), The World Resources Institute, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. It claimed to offer a cure for tropical deforestation and its supposed causes, but its flaws were apparent from the outset. It was based on the assumption that poverty and overpopulation are the main underlying causes of tropical deforestation and failed to recognise the role of the developed countries. It paid lip service to the role of' landlessness and destructive development, but made no real attempt to deal with them. The TFAP regarded deforestation as a result of too little government control and called for all rainforests to eventually come under government jurisdiction. Rather than calling for reforms to inequitable land ownership, the TFAP often requires annexation of traditional lands for government forestry estates. [4]

The issue over which the TFAP has been most criticised is its encouragement of increased logging. The TFAP sees forest destruction as a result of poverty, and the timber industry is assumed to alleviate poverty in rural areas. Logging is therefore seen as directly reducing the main underlying cause of deforestation. To the FAO, the controlling body for TFAP, the degradation caused by logging, can be seen as a tolerable trade-off.

Donor countries are becoming unwilling to fund TFAP projects. Peru, Colombia, Panama and Argentina have received less than 10% of the funding required for their national TFAP projects. The US Senate is now refusing to fund the TFAP at all, and Britain has said it will withdraw from the Plan entirely unless coordination of the TFAP is moved out of the FAO.

3. The Limits of Reserve Strategies

A significant proportion of tropical biodiversity would already be lost if nature reserves, often initiated by private conservation organisations, had not been established. However, all too often indigenous peoples, living harmoniously with their environment, have been expelled from protected areas or subjected to controls that have led to the disintegration of their cultures. [5] It is a misconception to believe that nature reserves can conserve the greater proportion of the genetic diversity of tropical rainforests, where the number of individuals of each species per unit area tends to be low, but the total number of species can be enormous. On average, ten hectares of lowland tropical rainforest in South East Asia will contain more tree species than the whole of North America. [6] It is therefore inevitable that any large-scale projects which destroy rainforests will lead to the extinction of hundreds of species.

Only by providing the widest possible protection for the remaining primary rainforests will it be possible to save the greater part of the Earth's biological diversity from extinction. Strictly protected nature reserves can only be a supportive measure in an overall programme for the protection of rainforest ecosystems. The creation of nature reserves must not be used as justification for the destructive exploitation of unprotected rainforest areas. [7]

4. The International Biodiversity Programme

The World Bank is pursuing the goal of a global "Biodiversity Action Programme". Like the TFAP, this plan fails to confront underlying causes of biodiversity loss, and is likely to worsen the problem it is supposed to solve. Loss of biodiversity in tropical regions is due to the trend towards replacement of traditional species-rich agriculture and forestry with monocultures. Yet under the Biodiversity Programme, monocultures would be encouraged. The Programme sees the setting aside of reserves as the solution to the problem, but the minimum size required for viable areas of tropical forest is unknown. Worse, the setting aside of reserves is likely to be used as an excuse for the unrestricted exploitation of unprotected areas. The Programme would also increase the control of biodiversity by the North at the expense of the South.


Alternatives to destructive exploitation of tropical forests are to be found in small-scale initiatives coming from the grass roots in tropical countries, not from ill-conceived large-scale prestige projects such as the TFAP

1. Recognising the Rights of Traditional Owners.

The Australian Rainforest Memorandum, produced by the Rainforest Information Centre and endorsed by over 40 non-governmental organisations, asserts that: "The right to cultural survival for all tribal peoples is inviolable. All possible efforts should be made to support and safeguard their rights and those of other forest dwellers, in particular the right to security of land tenure." [9] About one thousand rainforest cultures still exist. Nearly all of them are in conflict with the development strategies of the dominant social classes and international development agencies that have taken control of their lands and who consistently ignore their basic rights and often even their very existence.

It is significant that the most successful projects to save rainforests are those which have been carried out in cooperation with the traditional owners of the forests. In Papua New Guinea and Ecuador, the Rainforest Information Centre and other organisations have been involved in schemes which support the legitimate development aspirations of traditional landowners with small-scale autonomous projects. In 1990, the Colombian Government gave back half its Amazonian territory to its rightful Indian owners, acknowledging that they were the best guardians of the forest. In Malaysia, Indonesia and the many other countries where the rights of traditional owners have been ignored, attempts to save rainforests have been uniformly unsuccessful.

2. Non-Timber Values

The economic value of keeping rainforests intact is often overlooked. Rainforests provide essential and renewable sources of fruits, fibres, starches, oils, medicines, firewood, animal products, building materials and other projects when extraction is well-managed. However, the value of rainforest goods and services to local human populations is usually ignored in the economic analyses upon which development decisions are based because these societies often operate with little involvement in the cash economy.

In many tropical countries, major sections of the population depend directly on intact rainforests for their daily needs. The people of Papua New Guinea, for instance, obtain 60% of their animal protein from rainforest areas. [10]

In large regions of West Africa, people until recently met 70% of their animal protein needs from rainforests. This situation changed as the forests were destroyed by the establishment of export plantations and the timber industry. [12]

Although the careful management of non-timber forest products has considerable national and international; potential, these resources are being lost through the destruction of the tropical forests. In the Amazon, over two million people depend on rubber, Brazil nuts and other "minor" forest products without damaging the biological integrity of the rainforest. Recent studies have shown that the value of non-timber forest products often far exceeds the value of timber in tropical forests. A study in the rainforests of Peru showed that the economic value of the minor forest products, including fruits, resins and medicines which were actually being marketed, exceeded the value of using the forest for timber by nine to one. [13]

However, assessment of the potential of non-timber forest projects to provide for the market beyond a regional level must include careful ecological auditing. Available knowledge suggests that the specific ecological characteristics and the soil and microclimate conditions of tropical rainforests limit the possibilities for sustainable exploitation to a much greater degree than in temperate ecosystems.

In fact primary rainforests have considerable economic potential as a storehouse of drugs useful in modern medicine. [14] [15]

3. The Debt Burden

As non-governmental organisations from the Third World have pointed out repeatedly, there will be no chance to stop impoverishment of people and the destruction of nature in most Third World countries without a solution to the debt crisis.

The five countries with the largest rainforest areas are also among the world's most heavily indebted countries, and pressure to cut and clear the rainforests to finance debt repayment has intensified. The conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund often force heavily indebted countries to sell their natural resources far in excess of sustainable exploitation. [16]

4. Ending Overconsumption and Economic Exploitation

A necessary initial step in ending rainforest destruction is for each of the world's over-developed countries to acknowledge the ways in which it contributes to deforestation and stop them. It is with this principle in mind that Rainforest Memoranda have been or are being produced in Germany, Austria, Australia, Belgium and the United States. The Debt Burden is a symptom of the global economic system which enables overdeveloped countries to exploit poor countries and consume the world's resources at an unsustainable rate. Any lasting solution to the problem of tropical deforestation requires an end to the present suicidal overconsumption and obsession with economic growth in the West.


1 Ehrlich, A&P., The Rainforest Times, Vol.2,1987, FoE London.
2 Poore, D., No Timber Without Trees, 1989, Earthscan, London.
3 Barnett, T., Commission of Enquiry into Aspects of the Timber Industry, 1989, Papua New Guinea.
4a The Australian Rainforest Memorandum, 1991, Rainforest Information Centre, Lismore.
4b Lohmann, L., and Colchester, D., TFAP: What Progress?, World Rainforest Movement, Penang.
5 Survival International, Expulsion from Game Reserve, 1989, London.
6 Wilson, E.O., in Biodiversity, 1988, National Academy Press
7 ref 4a
8 Rainforest Destruction, World Rainforest Movement, 1990, Penang.
9 ibid
10 Colchester, M., in Global Development and Environment Crisis, 1988, World Rainforest Movement, Penang.
11 Caufield, In the Rainforest, 1984, Univ of Chicago.

12 Martin, C., Institut für Ökologie und angewandte Ethnologie, 1985, Mönchengladbach.
13 Peters et al, 1989, Valuation of a Tropical Rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon, Nature, no. 339.
14 Wilson, E.O., The Current State of Biodiversity, in Biodiversity, 1988, National Academy Press.
15 Myers, K, The Primary Source, 1985, WW Norton, New York.
16 George, S., A Fate Worse than Debt, Pelican, London. The economic benefits from rainforest genetic material have also been left out of the cost/benefit analyses of development projects affecting rainforest areas, although the extinction of a single plant species with genes that could be used in an agricultural crop may well represent a loss of billions of dollars.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Vol. 3, Number 3 (1992) and posted on the web in November, 2000.