The main causes of tropical deforestation are explained in this article.

 by John Revington

"Deforestation is the inevitable result of the current social and economic policies being carried out in the name of development." -- from An Emergency Call to Action for the Forests and Their Peoples

   In 1989, a petition with 3 million signatures was presented to United Nations Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, calling for the UN to take immediate steps to stop deforestation. The massive campaign which lead to this call was based on a declaration entitled An Emergency Call to Action for the Forests and Their Peoples. This declaration was made by the World Rainforest Movement, an association of international rainforest groups. The declaration includes a summary of the basic causes of deforestation and this article is based on that summary.

The Emergency Call to Action was not heeded and a General Assembly was not held. To confront the true causes of deforestation would have required the UN and its members to question their very foundations, and they have not yet had the courage. Instead, the supposed solutions offered have been an expression of the value system which created the problem in the first place.

Pressure from Human Settlement and Its Causes

Many development institutions and politicians regard population pressure as the major factor causing rainforest destruction. Nobody can deny the serious global problem of population growth. However, the belief that this is the main cause of rainforest loss is used by many governments and businesses to imply that there is little or nothing they can do about the problem of rainforest destruction.

An examination of forest destruction on a regional basis reveals that this is not so. In fact it is large companies and the inequities of international trade which are the root causes of rainforest destruction. For instance, millions of hectares of primary rainforests are being destroyed in South East Asia by logging, and the driving force in this industry is not the local population but international demand for timber. Because landless people will follow logging roads into primary rainforest areas, it is the logging industry which is the main immediate factor responsible for colonisation of rainforest.

In Central America, 40% of all the rainforests have been cleared or burned down in the last 40 years, mostly for cattle pasture to feed the export market (often for US beefburgers). This industry in particular, and the continuing consolidation of land ownership in general, force the poor into rainforest in their search for land. Latin American environment groups have cited skewed land distribution as the most important factor frustrating the conservation and sustainable use of rainforest areas. Throughout South East Asia there are the people who have the same desperate need for land. Land reform would not only provide for the needs of the poorest people in these countries, but would also halt conversion of new areas of primary rainforest into unsustainable agricultural lands. In spite of this, the problem of wealth and resource distribution is still a taboo topic in the context of official discussions on development cooperation. A critical study of the reasons for the over-exploitation of tropical ecosystems by populations without land or employment reveals many links with the economic interests of the industrial countries. The economic exploitation of poorer countries by the world's industrialised nations underlines much of the over-exploitation of tropical ecosystems by populations without land or employment. This insight must become the foundation for the reform of bilateral and multilateral aid policies and relevant world trade practices if the tropical rainforests are to be saved. This will mean among other things, dealing with the problem of Third World Debt.

The Debt Burden

Nations of the Third World have a collective debt in excess of $US 1,300 billion. In 1987, repayments and interest charges reached $US 123.4 billion. In that year the Third World borrowed less than it repaid, resulting in a net flow to the First World of $US30 billion. The Third World is being impoverished to make the wealthy richer. In many countries a vicious circle has arisen: loans used to finance environmentally destructive projects can only be repaid through further destructive resource exploitation. Thus, the debt crisis has exacerbated environmental destruction in the Third World.

The five countries with the largest rainforest areas are also among the world's most heavily indebted countries. Hence they are now under tremendous pressure to cut and clear rainforests to finance debt repayments.

Nongovernmental organisations in the Third World have repeatedly pointed out that there is no chance to stop this impoverishment and the destruction of nature without a solution to the debt crisis. So far, worldwide appeals from nature conservation organisations, human rights groups and church bodies for a massive debt cancellation has failed to change the attitudes of creditor countries and institutions.

Commercial Logging

Commercial logging is the major cause of primary rainforest destruction in South East Asia and Africa. Worldwide, it is responsible for the destruction of 5 million ha. a year. Logging roads enable landless people to enter the forest. In Africa, 75% of land being cleared by peasant farmers is land that has been previously logged.

The World Rainforest Movement points out that "virtually all rainforest lands are managed by and provide for local cultures" and that logging is part of the development paradigm that refuses to recognise this. Logging usually involves transfer of control of the forests from the local people, who have a vested interest in their preservation, to those who are interested only in destroying them for short term profit. Such disempowerment of local people is common to much environmental destruction.

The cash crop economy is an integral part of Third World "development" and a major cause of deforestation. The best land is taken to earn export income, which is all too often used to service foreign debt. Peasants are forced onto marginal lands, resulting in deforestation, land degradation and poverty. Extensive areas of Brazil and Thailand now provide feed for Europe's cattle, much of it at the expense of the rainforest. In Malaysia, over 3.5 million ha. of forest have been cleared for rubber and oil palm plantations. Worldwide, between 1.2 and 5.5 million ha. of forest are destroyed annually to grow and cure tobacco.

Colonisation Schemes

In Indonesia, the transmigrasi program clears vast areas of rainforest for plantations or smallholdings. Rainforests are invariably unsuited to permanent agriculture, and so these often fail. One-third of Indonesia's forest has gone since 1950, and the rate of deforestation is accelerating. Many tribal groups have lost their land and been forcibly integrated into the dominant Indonesian culture. In Brazil, half of the population is composed of landless peasants, and the Government has promoted colonisation of the Amazon as a disastrous "solution" to the problem. As Brazil's former Environment Minister Jose Lutzenberger points out: "Policies for the last 30 years have deliberately gone against the interests of the peasants. The government has promoted only cash crops monoculture for export. In many cases huge estates have bought up the smallholdings and enormous soybean plantations were set up. There is no shortage of land in the south except the shortages created by the concentration of landholdings."

Mining, industrial development and hydroelectric schemes are also significant causes of deforestation, both in terms of the land they occupy and their displacement of forest people. Dams also open up previously inaccessible forest, spread water-borne diseases and damage downstream ecosystems. They are of benefit mainly to the middle classes and industry. In Brazil, the Grand Carajas Project, a huge milling development to provide cheap raw materials for the world market, will occupy 900,()00 sq km, an area the size of Britain and France combined. It is affecting 23 tribal groups, and causing extensive deforestation, soil erosion, air and water pollution.

Cattle Ranching

Ranching is a major cause of deforestation, particularly in Central and South America. In Central America, two-thirds of lowland tropical forests have been turned into pasture since 1950. Meat is too expensive for many of the poor in these beef-exporting countries, yet in some cases cattle have ousted highly productive traditional agriculture. In Brazil, ranching is used to claim title to land, often for speculative mineral development. Over half the largest ranches in Amazonia have never sent cattle to market.

Note: A subsequent article will examine some of the attempts to deal with the problem of rainforest destruction.

Sources: The above article was originally Printed in the February, 1992 issue of the World Rainforest Report (P.O. Box 638 Lismore 2480, NSW, Australia.

John Revington is the editor of the WRR and utilised "Rainforest Destruction: Causes, Effects and False Solutions", World Rainforest Movement, 1990 Penang and "The Australian Rainforest Memorandum" RIC, Box 638 Lismore 1991, as source material for the article.