CIESIN Thematic Guides * Provisional Release *

The Causes and Processes of Deforestation

One of the prerequisites for understanding the causes of deforestation is identifying the factors responsible for land-use changes throughout the world. Identifying these factors sets the stage for process analysis, policy definition, action plan formulation, and subsequent intervention.

In Relating Land Use and Global Land-Cover Change, Turner, Moss, and Skole (1992) maintain that human causes of land-use changes and other causes of deforestation include two sets of factors. Proximate sources are activities that affect land cover dynamics, such as agricultural expansion and cattle raising. These activities, in turn, are the result of underlying driving forces--policies and attitudes of socioeconomic and political institutions that motivate and constrain production and consumption.

An excellent reference on the various proximate causes of forest conversion in the developing world is Myers' (1980) The Conversion of Tropical Moist Forests. Chapter 3 covers the role of agriculture; Chapter 4, the timber trade; and Chapter 5, cattle raising. The report also offers a region by region review of the world's forested areas.

In "The Causes of Deforestation in Developing Countries," Allen and Barnes (1985) present a panel matrix (including 28 countries in Asia, Africa, and South America) that indicates deforestation in these countries results from agricultural expansion caused by population growth. A study of the "Changes in the Landscape of Latin America between 1850 and 1985," attributes deforestation to human settlement as evidenced by expansion of pasture, croplands, and shifting cultivation (Houghton, Skole, and Lefkowitz 1991). Smil (1983) also identifies these processes as major factors of "Deforestation in China." Ranjitsinh (1979) maintains agricultural expansion and timber extraction are the primary causes of deforestation in Asia and Southeast Asia in "Forest Destruction in Asia and the South Pacific."

Many authors consider the role of firewood cutting in conversion of moist forests inconsequential. Myers (1980) explains that in many parts of the world firewood is obtained mostly from Savannah scrubs and patches and local woodlots in "Conversion of Tropical Moist Forests." In the "Charcoal of Carajas," however, Fearnside (1989) explores substantial destruction of forested areas in the eastern Amazon to provide raw materials for charcoal to be used in smelting pig iron. Anderson (1990) illustrates the role of industrial development--and the demand for fuelwood--in destruction of Amazon Basin forests in "Smokestacks in the Rainforest." Goodland and Irwin (1975) provide an in-depth analysis of the environmental impact of highway construction in the Amazon Basin in "Amazon Jungle: Green Hell to Red Desert."

Deforestation-induced land degradation in developing countries is a direct result of land tenure systems that facilitate property-right acquisition in idle lands, according to Southgate (1990) in "The Causes of Land Degradation along `Spontaneously' Expanding Agricultural Frontiers in the Third World." Southgate and Runge (1990) reach a similar conclusion in "The Institutional Origins of Deforestation in Latin America."

In India, population changes in the form of large-scale migration on the outskirts of large cities proved to be a major factor in "Deforestation around Urban Centers in India," according to Borronder, Prasad, and Unni (1987).

Kummer (1992) briefly reviews many of the factors involved in deforestation in the comprehensive paper "Tropical Deforestation: A Literature Review."