Deforestation: causes and cures

Cute, clever, incorrect.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’s Forest Resource Assessment for 2005 uses the word “alarming” 20 times to describe the trend lines for deforestation. And, a commonplace inference is that forests are rapidly disappearing due to logging.

Yet deforestation is not necessarily the result of logging (illegal or otherwise). About half of the wood consumed in the world is for heating or cooking [Global Forest Resource Assessment 2010 – Key Findings] with much greater fire and fuelwood consumption rates in Africa and Asia. The culprit is primarily conversion to agriculture followed by wood for heating and cooking. Fires, slash and burn agriculture, mining, and hydro-electric projects also cause deforestation


It’s often done by people trying to eke livings from the land. A 1996 report by the Consultative Group on International Research (CGIAR) report states that:

[T]he main threat to tropical forests comes from poor farmers who have no other option to feeding their families other than slashing and burning a patch of forest and growing food crops until the soil is exhausted after a few harvests, which then forces them to move on to a new patch of forest land. Slash-and-burn agriculture results in the loss or degradation of some 25 million acres of land per year (10 million hectares).

“Some 350 million people in tropical countries are forest dwellers who derive half or more of their income from the forest. Forests provide directly 10 percent of the employment in developing countries,” says Jeffrey Sayer, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), based in Bogor, Indonesia, which researches better ways to manage and preserve existing forests. CIFOR is one of two CGIAR research institutes that specialize in tropical forestry.

Once the primary causes of deforestation are obvious, it becomes equally obvious that lowering the demand for wood (by using less wood or substitutes) will not make a difference in lessening world deforestation. It’s not the demand for lumber or paper that drives the cutting. It’s the demand for farm or pasture land, or the demand for heat from burning.

What’s the answer? More efficient stoves will help those using wood for heating and cooking to lower demand. As I’ve noted before, fuel-efficient Patsari stoves use 70% less firewood than open fireplaces, according to the Ecolife Foundation. (In Mexico, Ecolife installs $120 stoves and works with locals to help maintain the forest for the winter grounds of the monarch butterflies). Stopping slash and burn farming means finding better opportunities for employment. This may mean microloans to these subsistence farmers.


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