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Rainforest Information Centre Educational Supplement



The following issues are discussed:

1. Immediate Causes


Agriculture-Shifted Cultivators

Agricultures-Cash Crops & Cattle Ranching


Large Dams

Mining and Industry

Colonisation Schemes


2. Underlying Causes

Development and Overconsumtion: the Basis Cause


Exploitation by Industrialised Countries

The Debt Burden

The Role of Poverty and Overpopulation

3. Additional Information

For more on the causes of rainforest destruction, link to World Rainforest Movement

"Deforestation, in other words, is an expression of social injustice "
- Marcus Colchester

According to Professor Norman Myers, one of the foremost authorities on rates of deforestation in tropical forests, "the annual destruction rate seems set to accelerate yet further, and could well double in another decade" (Myers 1992).

As Myers points out, "we still have half of all tropical forests that ever existed". The struggle to save the world's rainforests continues, and there is a growing worldwide concern about the issue. In order to save rainforests, we need to know why they are being destroyed.

Nobody knows exactly how much of the world's rainforests have already been destroyed and continue to be razed each year. Data is often imprecise and subject to differing interpretations. However, it is obvious that the area of tropical rainforest is diminishing and the rate of tropical rainforest destruction is escalating worldwide, despite increased environmental activism and awareness. A 1992 study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) placed the global rate of tropical deforestation at 17 million ha. per year. A study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) suggests that the figure could be as high as 20.4 million ha. per year.

1. Immediate Causes

The immediate causes of rainforest destruction are clear. The main causes of total clearance are agriculture and in drier areas, fuelwood collection. The main cause of forest degradation is logging. Mining, industrial development and large dams also have a serious impact. Tourism is becoming a larger threat to the forests.

1.1 Logging

Commercial logging companies cut down mature trees that have been selected for their timber. The timber trade defends itself by saying that this method of 'selective' logging ensures that the forest regrows naturally and in time, is once again ready for their 'safe' logging practices (WWF).

In most cases, this is untrue due to the nature of rainforests and of logging practices.

Large areas of rainforest are destroyed in order to remove only a few logs. The heavy machinery used to penetrate the forests and build roads causes extensive damage. Trees are felled and soil is compacted by heavy machinery, decreasing the forest's chance for regeneration.

The felling of one 'selected' tree, tears down with it climbers, vines, epiphytes and lianas. A large hole is left in the canopy and complete regeneration takes hundreds of years.

Removing a felled tree from the forest causes even further destruction, especially when it is carried out carelessly. It is believed that in many South East Asian countries 'between 45-74% of trees remaining after logging have been substantially damaged or destroyed' (WWF).

The tracks made by heavy machinery and the clearings left behind by loggers are sites of extreme soil disturbance which begin to erode in heavy rain. This causes siltation of the forests, rivers and streams. The lives and life support systems of indigenous people are disrupted as is the habitat of hundreds of birds and animals.

Little if any industrial logging of tropical forests is sustainable. The International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), the body established to regulate the international trade in tropical timber, found in 1988 that the amount of sustainable logging was "on a world scale, negligible".

"Logging roads are used by landless farmers to gain access to rainforest areas. For this reason, commercial logging is considered by many to be the biggest single agent of tropical deforestation"

Apart from its direct impact, logging plays a major role in deforestation through the building of roads which are subsequently used by landless farmers to gain access to rainforest areas. These displaced people then clear the forest by slashing and burning to grow enough food to keep them and their families alive, a practice which is called subsistence farming. This problem is so widespread that Robert Repetto of the World Resources Institute ranks commercial logging as the biggest agent of tropical deforestation. This view was supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature's 1996 study, Bad Harvest?, which surveyed logging in the world's tropical forests.

Most of the rainforest timber on the international market is exported to rich countries. There, it is sold for hundreds of times the price that is paid to the indigenous people whose forests have been plundered. The timber is used in the construction of doors, window frames, crates, coffins, furniture, plywood sheets, chopsticks, household utensils and other items.

Solutions: For all purposes for which tropical timber is used, other woods or materials could be substituted.

We can stop using tropical timber and urge others to do the same. As long as there is a market for tropical timbers, trees will continue to be cut down. Labelling schemes, aimed at helping consumers to chose environmental friendly timbers, are currently being discussed in many countries.

Note: The Rainforest Information Centre provides information to consumers wishing to avoid tropical and other environmentally damaging timbers. Look at the Good Wood Guide on our website,

1.2 Agriculture - Shifted Cultivators

'Shifted cultivators' is the term used for people who have moved into rainforest areas and established small-scale farming operations. These are the landless peasants who have followed roads into already damaged rainforest areas. The additional damage they are causing is extensive. Shifted cultivators are currently being blamed for 60% of tropical forest loss (Colchester & Lohmann).

The reason these people are referred to as 'shifted' cultivators is that most of them people have been forced off their own land. For example, in Guatemala, rainforest land was cleared for coffee and sugar plantations. The indigenous people had their land stolen by government and corporations. They became 'shifted cultivators', moving into rainforest areas of which they had no previous knowledge in order to sustain themselves and their families (Colchester & Lohmann).

Large-scale agriculture, logging, hydroelectric dams, mining, and industrial development are all responsible for the dispossession of poor farmers.

"One of the primary forces pushing landless migrants into the forests is the inequitable distribution of agricultural land" (WRI 1992, Colchester & Lohmann). In Brazil, approximately 42% of cultivated land is owned by a mere 1% of the population. Landless peasants make up half of Brazil's population (WRM).

Once displaced, the 'shifted cultivators' move into forest areas, often with the encouragement of their government. In Brazil, a slogan was developed to help persuade the people to move into the forests. It read "Land without men for men without land" (WRM).

After a time, these farmers encounter the same problems as the cash crop growers. The soil does not remain fertile for long. They are forced to move on, to shift again, going further into the rainforest and destroying more and more of it.

It is evident that the shifted cultivators "have become the agents for destruction but not the cause" (Westoby 1987: Colchester). Shifted cultivators do not move into pristine areas of undisturbed rainforests. They follow roads made principally for logging operations. "Shifted cultivators are often used by the timber industry as scapegoats" (Orams and McQuire). Yet logging roads lead to an estimated 90% of the destruction caused by the slash-and-burn farmers (Martin 1991: Colchester).

Solutions: Land reform is essential if this problem is to be addressed. However, according to Colchester and Lohmann, "an enduring shift of power in favour of the peasants" is also needed for such reforms to endure (Colchester &Lohmann).

1.3 Agriculture - Cash Crops and Cattle Ranching

Undisturbed and logged rainforest areas are being totally cleared to provide land for food crops, tree plantations or for grazing cattle (Colchester & Lohmann). Much of this produce is exported to rich industrialised countries and in many cases, crops are grown for export while the local populace goes hungry.

Due to the delicate nature of rainforest soil and the destructive nature of present day agricultural practices, the productivity of cash crops grown on rainforest soils declines rapidly after a few years.

Monoculture plantations - those that produce only one species of tree or one type of food - on rainforest soil are examples of non-sustainable agriculture.

They are referred to as cash crops because the main reason for their planting is to make money quickly, with little concern about the environmental damage that they are causing.

Modern machinery, fertilisers and pesticides are used to maximise profits. The land is farmed intensively. In many cases, cattle damage the land to such an extent that it is of no use to cattle ranchers any more, and they move on, destroying more and more rainforest. Not only have the forests been destroyed but the land is exploited, stripped of nutrients and left barren, sustaining no-one.

Solutions:"Reducing the demand for Southern-produced agribusiness crops and alleviating the pressure from externally-financed development projects and assistance is the essential first step" (Colchester and Lohmann).

1.4 Fuelwood

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that '1.5 billion of the 2 billion people worldwide who rely on fuelwood for cooking and heating are overcutting forests'. This problem is worst in drier regions of the tropics. Solutions will probably involve a return to local peoples' control of the forests they depend on.

1.5 Large Dams

In India and South America, hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests have been destroyed by the building of hydro-electric dams. It was the dominant view that new dams had to be built or otherwise these countries would suffer an energy crisis. However, a recent study by the World Bank in Brazil has shown that 'sufficient generating capacity already exists to satisfy the expected rise in demand for power over the medium term, provided that the energy is used more efficiently' (WRM).

The construction of dams not only destroys the forest but often uproots tens of thousands of people, destroying both their land and their culture. The rates of waterborne diseases increase rapidly. Downstream ecosystems are damaged by dams which trap silt, holding back valuable nutrients. Reduced silt leads to coastal erosion. The sheer weight of water in dams has in Chile, Zimbabwe, and Greece led to earthquakes. The irrigation and industrial projects powered by dams lead to further environmental damage. Irrigation leads to salination of soils and industry leads to pollution.

Solutions: Aid organisations like the World Bank have traditionally favoured spectacular large-scale irrigation and hydro-electric projects. In all cases when such projects are proposed, there has been massive opposition from local people. Reform of the World Bank and other such organisations, and support for campaigns against large-scale dams is needed.

1.6 Mining and Industry

Mining and industrial development lead to direct forest loss due to the clearing of land to establish projects. Indigenous people are displaced. Roads are constructed through previously inaccessible land, opening up the rainforest. Severe water, air and land pollution occurs from mining and industry.

Solutions: Local campaigns against mining and industrial development, and the campaigns to reform the large aid agencies which fund such schemes, should be supported.

1.7 Colonisation Schemes

Governments and international aid agencies for a time believed that by encouraging colonisation and trans-migration schemes into rainforest areas, they could alleviate some of the poverty felt by the people of the financially poorer countries. It has since become increasingly obvious that such schemes have failed, hurting the indigenous people and the environment (Colchester & Lohmann).

These schemes involve the relocation of millions of people into sparsely populated and forested areas. In Indonesia, the Transmigrasi Program, begun in 1974, is believed to be 'the greatest cause of forest loss in Indonesia', directly causing an average annual loss of 200,000 hectares (Colchester & Lohmann).

The resettled people suffered the same problems as 'shifted cultivators'. The soil is not fertile enough to be able to sustain them for very long.

Even after such projects have officially ended, the flow of 'shifted cultivators' continues as the area remains opened up. "The World Bank estimates that for every colonist resettled under the official transmigration project, two or more unofficially move into the forest due to the drawing effect of the program" (Colchester & Lohmann).

1.8 Tourism

The creation of national parks has undoubtedly helped to protect rainforests. Yet, as national parks are open to the public, tourism is damaging some of these areas.

Often, national parks are advertised to tourists before adequate management plans have been developed and implemented. Inadequate funding is allocated for preservation of forests by government departments. Governments see tourism as an easy way to make money, and therefore tourism is encouraged whilst strict management strategies are given far less government support.

Ecotourism, or environmentally friendly tourism, should educate the tourists to be environmentally aware. It should also be of low impact to its environment. Unfortunately, many companies and resorts who advertise themselves as eco-tourist establishments are in fact exploiting the environment for profit.

In Cape Tribulation, Australia, for example, the rainforest is being threatened by excessive tourism. Clearing for roads and pollution of waterways are two of the major problems in this area. The Wet Tropics Management Authority which oversees the surrounding World Heritage Area is promoting tourism to the area before any management plans have been formulated, before any effective waste management strategy has been devised and before any ecofriendly power alternatives have been fully explored.

Solutions: The rights of indigenous forest dwellers and others who depend on intact forests must be upheld. In instances where there are campaigns opposing specific tourist developments, they should be supported. Genuine ecotourism should be preferred to other tourist enterprises.

2. Underlying Causes

More Than Just Poverty and Overpopulation

Poverty and overpopulation are believed to be the main causes of forest loss, according to the international agencies such as the FAO and intergovernmental bodies. They believe they can solve the problem by encouraging development and trying to reduce population growth. However, the World Rainforest Movement and many other non-governmental organisations hold unrestrained development and the excessive consumption habits of rich industrialised countries directly responsible for most forest loss.

2.1 Development and Overconsumption: the Basic Causes

The World Rainforest Movement's Emergency Call to Action for the Forests and Their Peoples asserts that "deforestation is the inevitable result of the current social and economic policies being carried out in the name development". It is the push for development which gives rise to commercial logging, cash crops, cattle ranching, large dams, colonisation schemes, the dispossession of peasants and indigenous people and the promotion of tourism.

Harrison Ngau, an indigenous tribesman from Sarawak, Malaysia and winner of the Goldman Environment Award in 1990, has this to say about why tropical forests are being destroyed:

The roots of the problem of deforestation and waste of resources are located in the industrialised countries, where most of our resources, such as tropical timber end up. The rich nations with one quarter of the world's population consume four fifth of the world's resources. It is the throw away culture of the industrialised countries, now advertised in and forced on to the Third World countries that is leading to the throwing away of the world. Such so-called progress leads to destruction and despair![World Rainforest Movement]

2.2 Colonialism

Tropical rainforests are found mainly in the Third World countries, Australia and Hawaii being the only exceptions. All of these countries have indigenous populations who had their own system of land management and/or ownership in place for thousand of years before the intervention of colonists from rich industrialised nations. The colonial powers (Britain, France, Spain and Portugal), whilst exploiting the resources of many of these countries, attempted to destroy indigenous peoples' rights to remain on their land. Colonialism turned previously self-sufficient economies into zones of agriculture export production (Colchester and Lohmann). This process continues today and the situation is worsening.

2.3 Exploitation by Industrialised Countries

Wealthy countries have been consuming so much of their own resources that they are no longer sustaining their growing populations and increasingly, they are turning to the resources of the financially poorer countries. "Twenty per cent of the world's population is using 80 % of the world's resources" (Orams & McQuire).

Currently, although many indigenous people are claiming their culture and rights, they face stubborn opposition, as the governments in their own countries have often 'adopted the same growth-syndrome as their Western neighbours, with the emphasis on maximising exports, revenues and exploiting resources for short-term gain. Corruption in government, the military and economic powers is well known' (Orams & McQuire).

The problem is made worse by the low price for most Third World exports on the international market. The United States has been accused of manipulating prices for agricultural commodities for its own benefit at the expense of tropical countries (WRR).

2.4 The Debt Burden

The governments of the financially poorer countries feel they need to make money in order to repay their huge international debts. In the 1970's and 80's, they borrowed vast sums of money from development agencies in industrialised countries in order to improve their own economies. Most are still battling to make repayments due to escalating interest rates (Orams & McQuire).

Since 1987, the flow of debt repayments from Third World countries to rich countries has exceeded the flow of aid money going to Third World countries (RIC). Poor countries feel compelled to exploit their natural resources, including their forests, partly to earn foreign exchange for servicing their debts. Non-government organisations in Third World countries have for many years been pointing out that there is no chance of stopping impoverishment and destruction of nature without a solution to the debt crisis.

For example, in some countries in South-East Asia, the construction of roads for logging operations was funded by Japanese aid. Later, the forests were exploited by Japanese timber companies. The timber companies made the profits and the South-East Asian countries were left owing Japan money for the construction of the roads (Orams & Maquire).

2.5 The Role of Poverty and Overpopulation

Poverty, while undeniably responsible for much of the damage to rainforests, has to a large extent been brought about by the greed of the rich industrialised nations and the Third World elites who seek to emulate them. Development, which is often seen as the solution to world poverty, seldom helps those whose need is greatest. It is often the cause rather than the cure for poverty.

The claim that overpopulation is the cause of deforestation is used by many governments and aid agencies as an excuse for inaction. In tropical countries, pressure from human settlement comes about more from inequitable land distribution that from population pressure. In general, most of the land is owned by a small but powerful elite which displaces poor farmers into rainforest areas. So long as these elites maintain their grip on power, lasting land reform will be difficult to achieve.

Overpopulation is not a problem exclusive to Third World countries. An individual in an industrialised country is likely to consume in the order of sixty times as much of the world's resources as a person in a poor country. The growing populations in rich industrialised nations are therefore responsible for much of the exploitation of the earth, and there is a clear link between the overconsumption in rich countries and deforestation in the tropics.

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Colchester and Lohmann (Ed), The struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forest, 1993, Zed Books, London.

World Rainforest Movement, Rainforest Destruction: Causes, Effects and False Solutions, 1990, World Rainforest Movement, Penang.

Myers, N., The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and Our Future (updated for the Nineties), 1992, Norton, New York.

Rainforest Information Centre, The Australian Rainforests of West Africa: Ecology, Threats, Conservation, 1991, Birkhauser, Basle.

Collins, Sayer & Whitmore (Ed), The Conversation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Asia, 1992, Macmillan, London.