Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: January 27, 2015

“The [Millennium Ecosystem] assessment concluded that human activity has disrupted natural ecosystems more extensively in the past 50 years than in the entire course of human history, as large areas on all continents have been converted to farmland, forests have been felled for timber and to make way for pasture and the growing of crops, and the seas have been plundered for fish and other marine products.”

—Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein, editors of the textbook Sustaining Life

The last agricultural frontier of Guatemala, Petén is the largest of 22 national regions or departments. Petén has grown from 21,000 inhabitants in 1960 to more than 600,000 today, reaching a growth rate of 10 percent a year in the 1990s. Approximately two-thirds of that growth was due to the influx of internally displaced people who fled violence from a bloody civil war. The remaining third was due to extremely high fertility.

Only later, in 1989, once communities were established and half of Petén’s forests were bare did certain areas within the region become protected, relegating dwellers to illegal squatters. A relocation effort was successful in moving only 10 percent of those inhabitants outside the new Mayan Biosphere Reserve, so the vast majority remains and is impossibly difficult to reach with consumer goods, infrastructure, and health services, including family planning. David Carr, professor of geography at UC Santa Barbara, forecasts that at the current rate of destruction, Petén’s forests will be gone by 2015.

The Current Situation

More than 80 percent of the world’s old-growth forests have been destroyed, taking with them the habitats of countless species. Each year, humans cut down an additional 32 million acres of forest, although that figure has been slowly shrinking in recent years due to local and international forest conservation efforts.

The destruction of forests in its most severe form leads to the desertification of vulnerable land. Where forests once stood, dirt and sand spread out for miles, creating virtual dead zones where most life cannot survive. According to the UN, over 250 million people are directly affected by desertification. One billion people in over 100 countries are at risk.

People cut or burn down forests for a variety of reasons, most of them survival related. Although the relationship between deforestation, harmful policies, poverty, and population growth is complicated, the fact remains that rapidly growing populations of people place growing demands on existing forests.

While it may not be possible to prevent poor people from using the resources they have on hand, it is possible to reduce some of the stress that population growth places on natural resources through voluntary family planning. Many conservation groups have found that the people they work with in high-biodiversity and high-growth communities desperately want family planning. When these organizations partner with reproductive health NGOs, progress in conservation is accelerated and health indicators improve.

Charcoal Production

In many less developed parts of the world, wood is the only available fuel. Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have difficulty enforcing laws against illegal charcoal production, which uses wood from protected forests. Virunga National Park is located in DRC and small sections of Uganda and Rwanda. The park is home to approximately 81 mountain gorillas. The greater region encompassed by these three countries is home to the entire global mountain gorilla population of 720. This close relative to humans is seriously threatened by our insatiable demand for the trees that shelter and feed them.

Charcoal made from Virunga trees is a critical commodity for survival and also represents one of very few livelihoods available in the region. In fact, charcoal production is a $15 million industry.

FAO Senior Officer, Alain Marcoux, writes, “The impact of population growth on fuelwood consumption is direct, since energy needs are essentially proportional to population size.” According to a more recent report by FAO, in Africa, between 1990 and 2010, “Woodfuel removals jumped as a result of the rising population in the region.”

Crops and Grazing

Food needs drive much of the slash and burn deforestation in developing countries. Rural residents clear land for crops and for livestock grazing. Cattle ranching is actually the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, much of which is export-driven. Between August 2009 and July 2010, 2,490 square miles of the Amazon Rainforest were destroyed.

As cropland is depleted of nutrients through overuse, new land must be cleared to provide fertile farmland to feed rural residents and export to urban centers. According to Marcoux, “Clearly, population growth is a major determinant of land clearing in shifting cultivation, through the growth in requirements for food and other agricultural products. Demand for cultivable land, fuelwood and other forest products, for the needs of a growing agricultural population. This demand is clearly population-driven— and, as we have seen, it often is the predominant factor of deforestation.”

Commercial Logging

In the Brazilian Amazon village of Tailândia, sawmills are reopening illegally, after a government crackdown in 2008 halted operations. Between 70 percent and 95 percent of the residents are dependent on the income generated from logging. Those who lost their jobs when the sawmills closed have been relegated to begging.

Eleven million acres of forest per year are cut for commercial purposes. As the largest importer of wood products, the United States plays a large role in the illegal logging industry. As the population of consumers continues to grow here, greater demands are placed on international forests. Already at 312 million, the population of the United States is on track to reach 400 million by 2050

The International Year of Forests

The Sahel, the semi-arid grasslands region that stretches across the African continent just south of the Sahara Desert, is turning to desert, primarily due to human activities and climatic variations. Plans are underway to plant a “Great Green Wall” of trees as a barrier between the desert and the grasslands. This 10 mile-wide, 5,000 mile-long reforestation project is designed to halt desertification. In early 2011, groups at the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification in Bonn, Germany agreed to invest more than $3 billion in the project.

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. Population stabilization should be considered one of the core mitigation strategies, given its inextricable link with deforestation.

Facts and Figures
  • Forests cover 31 percent of the earth’s land area.
  • Deforestation produces 17 percent of global carbon emissions
  • Forests contain over 60 percent of the world’s biodiversity
  • The 3 percent annual growth of wood removals in Africa is in line with population growth
  • At the global level, woodfuel accounts for half of removed wood.