Posted: 13 August 2004
The world's natural forests are experiencing land use change due to both proximate and underlying causes. Proximate drivers include immediate human land use activities that change forest cover in a local area. Key drivers include agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, wood extraction, climate change, fire and alien invasive species. Underlying causes result from social and institutional processes that may indirectly impact forest cover from a local, national, or international level. Prominent underlying causes include market failure and perverse incentives, corruption, inappropriate state policies and institutional failure, population pressure and poverty. In general, forest related land use changes have complex socio-economic, cultural and political foundations. One cannot assume simple and static cause-effect relationships.
Global wood consumption has tripled in the last hundred years, growing in rough tandem with world population. Commercial logging of forests has doubled in size as an industry since 1960. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that between five to six million hectares of tropical forest are logged annually. Logging is most damaging to forests when conducted unsustainably and contributes to deforestation in direct and indirect ways:
Over the years, researchers have identified agricultural expansion as a major factor in almost all studies on deforestation. In the 1990s, according to the United Nation's Environment Programme (UNEP), 70 per cent of total deforested areas were converted to permanent agriculture systems. Despite the compelling figure, regional differences should be noted. For example, in Latin America conversion to agriculture has been large scale and permanent whereas in Africa small-scale agricultural enterprises have predominated. In Asia, the changes have been more equally distributed between permanent agriculture and areas under shifting cultivation.
Historically, increases in food production have been at the expense of millions of hectares of forest. With the expected clearance of additional forest land in the future for this purpose it is important to plan for this reality. However, equally important is acknowledging that technological innovations can have positive effects on forest areas and could, under certain circumstances, facilitate a transition from deforestation back to reforestation. If appropriate mechanisms are put in place to lock these gains in both developed and developing countries, this could potentially set a trend for large scale forest restoration in the future.
Wood for fuel
Fuelwood and charcoal - collectively called woodfuel - account for just over half of global wood production. The FAO estimates that nearly 3 billion people depend on wood as their main source of energy. Wood provides nearly all of the energy needs of sub-Saharan African nations. Fuel is also the most important end-use of wood in Asia accounting for 92 per cent of all wood harvested in South Asia and 73 per cent in Southeast Asia.
Infrastructure development (road construction, dams, mining, power stations, etc.) is an important proximate cause of forest-related land use change. Road construction particularly, is a key factor in triggering deforestation as it tends to open up areas of undisturbed, mature forests to pioneer settlements, logging, and occasionally unsuitable forms of agriculture. The ensuing fragmentation also increases the exposure of forests to the dangers of poaching, alien invasive species, fires and pest outbreaks.
In addition, the World Commission on Dams has documented the loss of forests and wildlife habitat, the loss of species populations and the degradation of upstream catchment areas due to large dams.
Mining corporations and individual miners are also notably responsible for the clearance of large areas of forest in some countries. However, a recent study released by Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) entitled Oil Wealth and the Fate of the Forest: A Comparison of Eight Tropical Countries argues that in some cases increased incomes from oil and mining activities can have a macro-level effect on reducing the loss of tree cover in tropical countries.
Alien Invasive Species
As the global movement of people and products spreads, so does the movement of plant and animal species from one part of the world to another. When a species is introduced into a new habitat - for example, oil palm from Africa into Indonesia, Eucalyptus species from Australia into California, and rubber from Brazil into Malaysia - the alien species typically requires human intervention to survive and reproduce. Often these alien species are economically important and enhance the production of forest commodities in many parts of the world. However, in some cases species introduced intentionally become established in the wild and spread at the expense of native species, affecting entire ecosystems.
Perhaps even worse are invasive alien species that are introduced unintentionally, such as disease organisms that can devastate an entire tree species (e.g. Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight in North America) or pests that can have a major effect on native forests or plantations (e.g. gypsy moths and long-horned beetles).
As global trade grows, so does the threat from devastating invasive species of insect and pathogen. These could fundamentally alter natural forests and wipe out tree plantations, the latter being especially vulnerable because of their lower species diversity.
To know more about Alien Invasive Species, visit: IUCN Species Survival Commission website
Poverty is popularly cited as a principal driver of forest loss and degradation. In reality, however, the evidence for such a straight-forward relationship is weak and sometimes conflicting. The empirical evidence for the historical relationship between economic growth, a growing middle class, consumption levels and forest decline is perhaps a little better understood but also remains weak and fragmented. What is evident however is that there is a causal relationship, or more accurately several relationships, that need to be better understood. More reassuringly, there is some, yet again fragmented, evidence that no single trajectory is necessarily predetermined and that forest resources, under a range of circumstances, can be managed and used in such a way as to contribute to poverty reduction while keeping future options open to retain more and lose less forest biodiversity.
To know more about Poverty and Conservation, visit IUCN's Forest Conservation Programme website
Absence of good governance and rule of law
Government policies, and how those policies are enforced, both within and outside the forest sector, also ultimately impact on forest land use change. Forest land is still all too often seen as a nationally-owned asset, irrespective of the stewardship that local communities have exercised over the same resource for many years. Inequities in titling and use rights can result in forests becoming a major source of conflict and / or illegal activity.
While illegal logging and corruption may and often does exist because of pure criminality, it can, in some situations, be driven by inappropriate governance structures that turn legitimate concerns or entitlements into illegal activities. For example, in one Central American country in the early 1990s one of the main causes for bribery associated with log transport permits was not that loggers want to move illegally harvested trees but rather that they wanted to avoid long bureaucratic delays in attaining permission that would leave legally harvested trees deteriorating in forest loading yards.
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