Causes of Deforestation

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Deforestation is the product of the interaction of the many environmental, social, economic, cultural, and political forces at work in any given region. The mix of these forces varies from decade to decade, and from country to country. As a consequence, generalizations are dangerous. In most cases, deforestation is a process that involves a competition amongst different land users for scarce resources, a process exacerbated by counter-productive policies and weak institutions. It creates wealth for some, causes hardships for others, and almost always brings serious consequences for the environment.

This section discusses four aspects of the causes of deforestation - the predisposing conditions, the direct causes, the indirect causes, and the role of forest exploitation and plantation development in the loss of natural forests. The predisposing conditions create an environment where deforestation can occur. The direct causes are the most visible, the most easily identified and are readily associated with the agents of deforestation. They are driven by the other less visible, socioeconomic forces -- the indirect causes.

Predisposing Conditions

Predisposing conditions are those factors which combine to create an environment where deforestation can occur. They are conditions created by society, at times intentionally and at times the consequence of human nature, that pervade all aspects of society and are not just related to land use. They are some of the most systemic, most difficult issues that frustrate human progress and sustainable development.

Without a doubt, one of the most important predisposing conditions that underlies tropical deforestation and many of the world's other problems related to achieving sustainable development is our growing population. Our numbers are currently growing at the rate of 1,000 million new individuals every decade. In the last half of the 20th century, we will have more than doubled our numbers from 2,500 million to 6,000 million people (WRI, 1994). Most of the population increase is occurring in developing countries, those nations least equipped to absorb them. Nearly all of the expected 3.4 billion increase in our global population by the year 2050 will come from the developing countries (Simons, 1998) -- 3.4 billion more people requiring food, energy, shelter, water, wood, paper, and all the other goods and services that come from the forests.

Approximately 4.5 billion people, or 75 per cent of the world's population, live in the developing countries and a 1,000 million of them live in abject poverty. Most of those countries are in the tropics where deforestation is a serious problem (FAO, 1998). Furthermore, an estimated 2.8 billion live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture to meet their basic needs. The exact number of people who live by clearing the forest to plant subsistence crops is not known, but the accepted figure is at least 500 million people or about 1 person in every 12 on the planet.

Another predisposing condition of deforestation is poverty, particularly poverty 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 that deforest, survival and the desire to escape from poverty is what drives most people. Poverty is the socioeconomic environment that limits peoples' economic options, damages health, limits the formation of rural capital, reduces income generating opportunities, and limits institutional and infrastructure development. It is an underlying condition that facilitates deforestation. There is some evidence from the industrialized countries of the North that suggests as societies become more economically secure they reach a point where the economic development pressures that drive deforestation are replaced by a growing environmental concern and a...
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