World Rainforest Movement

The causes of deforestation and those responsible for it

Over the ten years following the Earth Summit, governments have been engrossed in a series of international processes with the declared objective of ensuring forest conservation. However they will be able to show little or no concrete results at the Johannesburg Summit Meeting, for the simple reason that forests have continued to disappear.

In the best case, a few governments –in particular, European ones– can argue that their countries have managed to reverse the process and that they have more “forests” than before. However this hides two fundamentally important facts. On the one hand, that the extension of their “forested area” refers in fact to monoculture tree plantations that have little to do with their original forests. On the other hand, it hides an even more important fact: that conservation of its forests has been achieved at the expense of the forests of other countries, in particular those of the South.

Additionally, both these and the other Northern countries are directly responsible for the serious deforestation processes that have taken place and continue to take place in the South, through the imposition of a development model that has generated poverty and environmental degradation in the euphemistically called “developing countries.”

We doubt whether there is any government that can seriously dare to state at Johannesburg that it has not only conserved its own forests but also has not contributed to forest loss in other countries. Even countries such as China and Thailand, which have decreed a prohibition against felling their forests, are now clearly responsible for deforestation processes in third party countries.

In order to understand the above statements it is necessary to understand the different causes of deforestation and forest degradation, that may be grouped into direct causes and underlying (or indirect) causes. The direct causes are easier to see and are those that, in most cases, are attributed the responsibility for deforestation. However, in fact it is the other causes –the so-called “underlying” causes– that determine that the direct causes take place.

As an example, increasingly, a large number of peasants clear-cut or fire forests to use the soil for agricultural crops and stock-raising. This is a direct cause of deforestation. However, the reason for peasants emigrating to the forest is because they do not have land in their place of origin which they can cultivate and this arises from an unjust policy regarding land distribution. This is an underlying cause. Furthermore, if the peasants come to the forests it is because the government or the logging or mining companies have opened up roads. This –the opening up of roads– is another underlying cause. In many cases, the government promotes migration, aiming at the expansion of the agricultural frontier in order to increase exports. This implicitly has various underlying causes: inter alia, the need to pay foreign debt, policies imposed by international financial institutions, the existence of consumer markets in rich countries.

The motor behind the direct causes.

The most important direct causes of deforestation include the conversion of forest lands for agriculture and cattle-raising, urbanization, road construction, industrial logging, mining, oil expoitation, construction of oil and gas pipelines, shrimp farming (in the case of mangroves), fires and the construction of huge hydroelectric dams. Large-scale monoculture tree plantations to ensure the global paper industry with cheap raw material, are also a direct cause of deforestation as in many cases they have been preceded by firing or clearcutting of native forests.

However, the real motor behind all these activities being carried out in an unsustainable and predatory way, is the “development” model currently in force. This model implies the unrestricted exploitation of the totality of the planet’s resources, with the aim of feeding an ever-growing consumer market, in particular in the Northern industrialised countries. Inequality in terms of exchange between North and South that has generated an increasing and unpayable foreign debt, obliging more and more resources to be exploited and extracted, just to pay off its service, has increased devastation. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, regional multilateral banks and the World Trade Organisation have been fundamental in this process, promoting and supporting governments to centre their efforts to orient production towards exports, with the aim of complying with the foreign debt service. Furthermore, structural adjustment programmes imposed by these organisms has implied that the States have “shrunk”, with the consequence that there is a lack of human and financial resources at State level to address forest protection and sustainable management.

In most cases, the hidden causes of deforestation and forests degradation are related to macro-economic strategies offering strong incentives to obtain short term profits, instead of seeking sustainability in the long term. Deeply rooted social structures are also important, causing unequal land tenure and discrimination of indigenous peoples, of subsistence farmers and of poor people in general. In other cases, political factors are at stake, such as the lack of participatory democracy, military influence and exploitation of rural zones by urban elites.

The forces behind unsustainable agriculture

According to the FAO, 90 per cent of deforestation is caused by unsustainable agricultural practices, while logging and plantation forestry play a greater role in forest degradation. However debatable these figures may be, unsustainable agriculture is undoubtedly one of the major direct causes of deforestation and forest degradation in many countries of the world. A simplistic approach to the problem would imply blaming the “ignorance” of the farmers involved in this process. The process is however more complex. Few people actually decide that they want to leave their native land, go to the forest, cut it and convert it into agricultural land. They are driven to such actions by national and international forces with interests different to theirs.

In some countries, forests act as safety-valves to avoid social uprisings, in the following way. The concentration of power and land in few hands results in large groups of dispossessed people, which may lead to confrontation. To avoid conflict, some of these people are offered free land within the forests. Access to forests is made possible through government-promoted road projects, either built to open up and “develop” the forests or resulting from the commercial activities of logging, mining, and energy generation. In the above example, it is clear that deforestation can take place only because a number of government policies –social and economic– indirectly promote it. Whilst the poor may operate the chainsaws or set the forest on fire, it is mostly governments and corporations who are behind such actions.

The far-reaching consequences of globalization

Forests are also opened up for modern large-scale agriculture or cattle-raising aimed at the export market. For example, forests have been converted for cattle in Central America, for soy bean production in Brazil and for pulpwood in Indonesia. In the first case, the process originated in the explosive development of a fast food –hamburger– market in the US which required vast amounts of low-quality cheap meat which could be produced in nearby tropical countries. The result was widespread deforestation in Central America. Subsidized and highly intensive meat production in Europe requires an ever-increasing supply of grains to feed livestock. Soy bean is one of the major inputs for such production and enormous patches of forest have been opened up in Brazil –and in many other Southern countries– to ensure the economic sustainability of that sector through the supply of cheap grain. A similar situation occurs with paper: the continued growth of paper consumption, particularly in high income countries, depends on the availability of cheap wood or pulp to feed the paper mills. Forests are thus being cleared in Indonesia –and many other parts of the world– to give way to eucalyptus plantations aimed at supplying that market with increasing amounts of cheap raw material. In the above cases, it is clear that the production of hamburgers in the US, of meat in Europe and of paper in high-income countries are a contributory cause of deforestation in Central America, Brazil and Indonesia.

Land tenure policies and inequalities

Ecuador offers an example which applies not only to most other Amazonian countries but also to many other Southern countries in other regions. Since the 1970s there has been a great influx of farmers into the Ecuadorian Amazon, one of the most precious forest areas in the world. Most of these farmers came from the Andes and coastal regions of the country, where they were faced with landlessness, unemployment, and land degradation. Migration was strongly encouraged by the Ecuadorian Government, with a provision for land titles if they could prove they were turning it to “useful” land. Demostrating this was simple: to clearcut at least 80% of the forest within the assigned area. Therefore, the real cause of this terrible process of deforestation can be found in a series of governmental policies and not in the “ignorance” or “poverty” of the farmers that migrated to the Amazon.

Consumption and production patterns

Consumption and production patterns play a key role in deforestation, as they are the answer to the question why many countries, if not the majority, changed to export oriented products. It is seldom the production of food for the poor which causes deforestation. On the contrary, the largest areas of forests converted to other uses are currently being dedicated to the production of cash crops. These products, which vary from coffee and beef to coca and soy bean, are in many cases almost exclusively produced for export markets. Export oriented production is stimulated as a way of repairing the trade balance and balance of payment distortions. Under the current free-trade oriented ideology, the standard solution of institutions like the International Monetary Fund for these problems is increasing exports, instead of decreasing imports.

A global problem with many actors

Deforestation and forest degradation occur both in Northern and Southern countries and their underlying causes also originate in both, although with varying degrees of responsibility. Industrialized countries have not only cut down or degraded their own forests in the past; many are still doing so today. This occurs either through large-scale clear-cutting –as in many areas of Canada, the US or Australia– or through the simplification –and therefore degradation– of forests reducing them to a few commercially valuable species at the expense of biodiversity –such as in Sweden, France or Finland. At the same time, problems resulting from industrialization are having a strong impact in forest degradation. In the South, some forests are being clear-felled –mostly for unsustainable export-oriented agriculture, tree and oil-palm plantations and cattle– or are being degraded as a result of the selective logging of the more commercial species –such as mahogany.

Some underlying causes originate within the country –either Northern or Southern– while others can be found outside national boundaries. In this latter situation, the main responsibility usually lies in the North. Macro-economic policies imposed on the South through a number of mechanisms can also contribute to deforestation. One of the more obvious results of such policies has been the increasing incorporation of Southern agricultural exports to markets in Northern countries, usually at the expense of forests. The same macro-economic policies have resulted in the concentration of wealth in the North which, coupled with strong incentives to consumerism, have created unsustainable consumption patterns which have a strong impact particularly –though not exclusively– on Southern forests.

Southern governments and elites also hold responsibility for some deeper causes of deforestation. Government policies on indigenous peoples’ rights –particularly those affecting territorial rights– have been the cause of much deforestation which would not have occurred if those rights had been recognized. Policies over land tenure rights in general have resulted in the concentration of the best agricultural lands in a few hands and the consequent migration of poor peasants into the forests, resulting in large-scale felling of trees. In most cases however government policies are linked to external actors such as multilateral institutions, “co-operation” agencies and transnational corporations who must share the blame. It is known that building access roads is one of the main underlying causes of deforestation. The road then opens up the forest to loggers, landless peasants, mining companies and many other actors, resulting in generalized deforestation. Road-building is one of the activities promoted and funded by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and other regional multilateral banks and it allows governments to comply with the International Monetary Fund’s policies to increase exports. Road-building is also linked to transnational corporations’ interests, as they can thereby access natural resources and incorporate them into the global market.

Looking towards the future

The above is a brief summary of some of the causes of deforestation and forest degradation, proving that their conservation is not a merely “technical” issue of appropriate forest management. Forests are not disappearing because the people and their governments are ignorant or because there are no suitable management plans. The forests are disappearing because a series of inter-connected national and international policies prepare the way for this to happen. Therefore, it is at this level that solutions must be found.

At the present time, the predominant economic model is exacerbating the causes even further –both direct and underlying– that are at the root of the problem, while the actors involved –governments, companies and multilateral organisations– continue to mislead public opinion, assuring it that the problem is being tackled.

The way of avoiding this deception is to inform that self-same public opinion about the real causes –and those responsible for them– of the loss of forests, as a way of generating social pressure that will oblige these actors to adopt the necessary measures, both at national and international level, to ensure forest conservation.

The present summit meeting in Johannesburg is an excellent opportunity to place the issue on the agenda and to unmask the false discourse of those who dress in environmental green, while their sole interest is the green banknote of the United States.