A Look at the Harm and Benefits of Deforestation

At the close of the twentieth century, there are approximately 3.5 billion hectares of forests in the world, representing 27 per cent of land use. Of this total forest area, 2 billion hectares are found in developing countries, mostly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions. Although the original forest area is not known precisely, it is estimated that the world has lost approximately 40 per cent of the original forest area of 6 billion hectares over the last 8,000 years. Most of the loss in forest area is a direct consequence of human intervention in the 20th century. Deforestation is the permanent loss of forests to other land uses such as agriculture, grazing, new settlements, infrastructure, and dam reservoirs. Tropical deforestation is now widely recognized as one of the most critical environmental problems facing the world today, with serious long-term economic and social consequences. It is largely overlooked by the developed countries and the urban dwellers of the developing countries. The economic and environmental problems facing the developing world are staggering in their magnitude and their complexity. They are fueled by the vicious cycle of population growth and persistent poverty. Most countries face serious problems in the urban environment: overcrowding, unemployment, growing crime, lack of potable water, inadequate sewage disposal, increasing air pollution, and the inappropriate disposal of toxic wastes. In search for more rural areas, forests are cleared to provide farmland. This way the deterioration of natural resources not only destroys the environment, but also damages the foundation on which economic growth and long term prosperity depend, since agriculture and its chain employs nearly 60 percent of the population in most cases. None of the other natural resource problems is more threatening, none more in need of immediate action, than the destruction of forests.

In some cases, deforestation can be beneficial. Given the right mix of social needs, economic opportunities, and environmental conditions, it can be a rational conversion from one type of land use to a more productive one. The tragedy lies in the fact that most lands that have been deforested in recent decades are not suited for long-term farming or ranching and they quickly degrade once the forest has been cut and burnt. Unlike the fertile soils of temperate latitudes, most tropical forest soils cannot sustain annual cropping. The carrying capacity of the soil will not support intensive annual cropping without rapid, irreversible degradation. Similarly, intensive cattle grazing cannot be supported because grasses grown on forest soils do not have the same productivity levels as those on arable soils. In fact, there are very few forested soils in developing countries today that are available for future agricultural expansion, underscoring the urgent need to increase agricultural production on existing farmlands rather than converting more forests to farms. In many cases, political decision-makers knowingly permit deforestation to continue because it acts as a social and economic safety valve. By giving people free access to forested lands, the pressure is taken off politicians to resolve the more politically sensitive problems that face developing countries, such as land reform, rural development, power-sharing, and so on. Nonetheless, the problems do not go away. They persist as do the injustices associated with them.