Deforestation Essay

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At local , reg ional , and global scales, deforestation is significantly altering land cover, perhaps at an accelerating pace. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program, tropical forests are disappearing at a rate of 7.6 million hectares per year (as of year 2000): 4.4 million hectares a year in Latin America, 1.8 million hectares a year in Asia, and 1.4 million hectares a year in Africa. Trends suggest that deforestation of tropical forests is occurring at the greatest absolute rate in history. This transformation of the earth’s surface is linked to a variety of scientific and policy issues that revolve around the human dimensions of land use/land cover change and the causes and consequences of such changes. As forests are converted to alternate land uses and/ or degraded, forests and their ecological services also are profoundly transformed. Further, deforestation changes the nature of population-environment relationships and alters the feedback mechanisms that subsequently influence human decision-making and future trajectories of land use dynamics. On a global basis, forests are essential as a major carbon sink. They regulate climate and mediate greenhouse gases, influence the natural flora and fauna and protect the land and their regenerative properties, as well as impact human behavior and agency in fundamental ways.

Problems of Definition

At a fundamental level, deforestation is the transformation, or conversion, of forested areas to nonforested areas. Depending upon the space-time relations, the context of scale, and the particular circumstances of the transformation, the definition and determinants of deforestation are subject to a considerable degree of complexity. The mediating effects of indirect (through perhaps ultimate causes, such as, market forces) and proximate (direct modalities of change, such as access to chainsaws) influences further contextualize the definition, description, and explanation of deforestation.

Forested areas are converted to a variety of alternate land uses, including a change to subsistence or commercial crops; agro-forestry; grasslands for pasture; impoundments of water for lakes, ponds, and reservoirs; human settlements of households and communities; and shifting agriculture. Often, the loss of biodiversity and ecological services are associated with environmental degradation and deforestation. Forests also evolve through secondary forest succession and other mechanisms that influence forests over space and time. Successional forests can sequester carbon, possibly at a higher rate than the forests they replace, depending upon species, age structure, and site conditions; but the ecological services that successional forests provide are substantially different than what they replaced. Sustainable forestry offers context to deforestation, as timber management practiced relative to conservation goals, versus development scenarios, yield very different outcomes for population and the environment. Forest habitat fragmentation and the edge-effects of remnant forests also mediate the impacts of forest disturbances, for instance, through logging and fire.

Integrated And Complex Processes

Deforestation can be viewed, not as a single action or event, but as a set of integrated and complex processes and feedback mechanisms. For instance, deforestation can occur through natural and/or anthropogenic processes that exhibit sets of spatial patterns and time scales. Ecological disturbances, such as insect infestation, wildland fire, wind blow-down, and snow and rock avalanches can shape the composition, age structure, density, and spatial pattern of forests, as well as the timing, type, and degree of ecological services that they provide. Large-scale forest fires, more severe in the tropical regions during El Nino events, have severe implications for forest degradation and the release of carbon through forest fire emissions. Human actions and policies also affect forests and forest resources, through the conversions of forest to agricultural land uses, protection of forests in designated conservation areas, and the maintenance of riparian corridors through laws and regulations.

In addition, the direct and indirect effects of deforestation suggest other confounding issues, at least in the processes as well as the dichotomy of natural vs. anthropogenic factors of forest change. The distinctions between natural versus anthropogenic forest disturbance factors are becoming at times blurred and indistinct, such as in the case of the emerald ash borer that arrived in the Great Lakes region of the United States in wooden pallets from Asia, and are now rapidly decimating the ash tree population. Clearly, human agency has worked inadvertently to initiate a natural (through “exotic”) disturbance process. In another instance, anthropogenic fires are significant in newly colonized, frontier areas such as the Amazon Basin, where positive feedback mechanisms between forest fragmentation, forest fires, and selective logging impact the probability of large and severe fires. Exogenous factors such as climate change, air pollution originating locally or over remote regions, environmental policies set by distant groups and organizations, international market prices for local commodities-these factors and others influence the driving forces of deforestation, the space-time lags of the interactions, as well as the scale and spatial context of forest conversions. Endogenous considerations such as land tenure systems, private vs. common property, resource endowments of sites, and culture and context further serve to mediate the description and meaning of forest and deforestation.


Time is also a central element in the debate over deforestation and in its description. In tropical forests, as well as other biomes of the world, deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate, but land change has commonly and consistently accompanied human developments. In the Amazon Basin, for instance, deforestation is occurring over broad geographic areas and at a staggering rate, driven by the complex interplay of socio-economic, demographic, and geographic factors that are distal and proximate to the basin. Many places around the world have experienced change with a distinct environment and time signature. The deforestation of the U.S. Great Lakes region in the early part of the 20th century is one example of land use/land cover patterns that have shaped today’s land use, as is the deforestation in southeast Asia, which is driven by factors such as the expansion of upland field crops-primarily cassava-to meet the demands for high-calorie animal feed in Europe beginning in Thailand in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other factors include fuelwood consumption, commercial logging, shifting cultivation, and forest degradation through grazing and fire. Within southeast Asia more broadly, population increase-affects the direct and indirect impacts of deforestation. Clearing land for grazing also contributes in important ways to deforestation in this region; for example, by destroying or degrading undergrowth and seedlings that succeed mature trees that are cut for fuelwood.

The grain and extent of deforestation also enters into the understanding of deforestation. Grain is the ecological, or areal dimension, of the measurement unit (measured at a 10-meter or 1-kilometer cell), whereas the extent is the dimension of the geographic context (a farm, province, national park, or a watershed). These concepts help to contextualize gaps in forests that may be caused by an individual tree-fall, or by the transformation of extensive forest tracts leaving only forest remnants.

The relative degree of connection between forest patches or remnants through ecological corridors is often used to describe the spatial organization of forest that has been transformed within a spatial-ecological context. Forest patch dynamics is a useful approach for appraising forests over space and time by considering forest resilience in the face of disturbances. In many definitions of deforestation, plantation forests are excluded, as they suggest a periodicity to the land transformation and the notion of a forest “crop” with an implied cycle of harvest and re-growth. Forest plantations offer very different ecological services than the forests that they may have replaced.

Complex Causes

The causes of deforestation are aslo complex and varied. Most of the deforestation caused by anthropogenic actions has been related to the direct and indirect affects of agricultural land conversion, including the cultivation of crops, grazing of cattle, and fire. Land conversion may vary from peasant farmers who generally influence relatively small geographic areas (although their collective effects are substantial) to intensive, highly-mechanized agriculture that affects substantially large geographic areas, and often in a more profound way. Commercial logging is another common process of deforestation. The mode of timber harvest (e.g., selective cutting vs. forest clear-cutting) has severe implications for the environment. An interconnected and competitive global economy can further challenge forest resources, as they are often exploited to meet the demands of national and international markets and a consumptive population. Selling logging concessions, population in-migration into restricted or inaccessible areas, nonsustainable forest practices, mining, and urbanization alter the forested landscape slowly or suddenly and continuously or episodically. Some deforestation is deliberate, such as associated with urbanization, or unintentional, related to uncontrolled grazing of animals. Deforestation also occurs through wildland fire, volcanism, desertification, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural catastrophes. Feedbacks between natural and human processes such as air pollution, soil erosion, depletion of ground water, and over-use of forests further affect forests and the processes of change.

The influence of direct and indirect effects on forest resources is important. Direct effects include the removal or degradation of forests through fire or logging, whereas indirect effects are seen when forest remnants are overly fragmented, resulting in loss of subsequent forest habitat; reduction in the ability of the forest to provide critical ecological services such as biodiversity; and land degradation, further aggravating hydrological processes and carbon sequestration. Conversely, forest practices that sustain and rehabilitate a forest are important to the health, density, and structure of the forest and its overall resilience. From a social perspective, deforestation can influence human cultures, such as the practice of traditional subsistence agriculture and the hunting and gathering of forest resources by indigenous people.

Land Use or Land Cover

Deforestation is also influenced by whether the forest resource is considered a land use or a land cover. Land use implies a “use” of the land for some sort of activity. An example is the retention of trees to provide shade from the hot tropical sun for farmers and their animals. In this case, the isolated trees of small patches of trees are considered a component of the pasture. Land cover implies a “cover” unrelated to its use, such as a community forest or trees retained near settlements to provide firewood, shade, and related forest resources. Furthermore, if forests are assessed using remote sensing technology, images representing a single “snapshot” in time offer a time-dependent characterization of the landscape, whereas time-series images can be used to examine intraor inter-annual changes, rates, and patterns of forest change, degree of deforestation and reforestation, the nature of forest succession, and the historical context of deforestation. Comparing vegetation and landscape change patterns across different sensor systems with varying resolutions and design specifications can introduce bias and uncertainties in the forest change reports, so caution is urged.

A number of studies have examined the causes and consequences of deforestation at the local, regional, and global levels. The deforestation of tropical forests has received considerable attention from the science community, as well as government and non-governmental organizations. Case studies have relied upon fineand coarse-grained sensor systems, country reporting of the forest area, and percent of forest area within political borders and ecological strata, as well as the change in forest conditions over time and space. Studies have also addressed the expected composition of landscapes and the spatial patterns of forests for future time periods using empirical and process models. Spatial simulation models are aslo being used to consider land change scenarios and the integrative effects of people and the environment on deforestation patterns and estimates for subsequent periods and landscape strata.

Other Factors

In these analyses, no single variable has accounted for the total observed or expected deforestation rates, patterns, and magnitudes. It is widely accepted that deforestation is the product of a host of ecological, socio-economic, demographic, and geographical factors that are linked in diverse ways. Poverty is often an important underlying cause of deforestation, as well as land tenure, plight of landless people, social inequalities, uncontrolled industrialization, globalization and transnational factors, consumptive use patterns, population migration, national debt, consumerism, and environmental policies and institutions.

Other important factors have included colonization and agriculture; infrastructure improvements; more access to markets, capital, and credit; a commercial economy; cattle raising; conversion of mangrove forests to shrimp farms; and oil and gas production. Secondary effects of these factors are important and numerous. For instance, greater participation in the commercial economy as a consequence of oil exploration in a region, and more access to isolated areas on roads built for oil exploration and to lay pipelines, is a story of frontier environments that has been well told.

What is clear is that forests are changing at an alarming rate, and deforestation’s causes are social, biophysical, and geographic in origin. Feedback mechanism and nonlinear system dynamics explain many of the compositional and pattern-oriented changes affected by the interactions of people, place, and environment.

A case in point is the land use/land cover change in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. In this region, evolution, conflict, and adaptation of social and natural systems have spatially-explicit responses and feedbacks that influence land use/land cover patterns and trajectories. Agricultural expansion, urbanization, land use intensification, deforestation, natural resource exploitation, dynamics of protected areas, and indigenous market integration and acculturation are among the most important ongoing processes of deforestation resulting from complex socio-economic, demographic, and biotic interactions between different stakeholders occurring at different scales.

Studies in the Amazon

Studies in this region use an assortment of data drawn from theories and practices across the social, natural, and spatial sciences: imagary (to characterize land use/land cover change patterns and trajectories; ecological pattern metrics to describe the spatial structure of land change; a geographic information system to characterize geographic accessibility, resource endowments, and site suitability of land parcels being transformed from forest crops, pasture, secondary forest, and urban uses; longitudinal and cross-sectional, socio-economic and demographic survey data to characterize communities; statistical methods to link distal and proximate causes and consequences of deforestation; and spatial simulation models to examine deforestation, agricultural extensification, secondary forest succession, and urbanization for historical, contemporary, and future periods. Among a great many others, these studies have examined the questions:

What are the rates, patterns, and mechanisms of deforestation, and how do they compare and contrast across space and time scales?

What are the linkages between people, place, and environment on the Ecuadorian Amazon frontier, and what are the feedback mechanisms between population and the environment that influence deforestation patterns?

How are demographic and other aspects of human behavior changing frontier settings? Do properties emerge from local nonlinear feedbacks that constrain the evolving patterns of land use?

While the fundamental causes of deforestation in the humid tropics vary, small farmers are the primary direct agents of forest change in Ecuador. In Ecuador, rapid deforestation has occurred initially as poor farmers clear small areas for annual subsistence crops and to plant perennial cash crops. Then, as they accumulate savings and soil fertility declines, they plant pasture and acquire a few head of cattle. In Ecuador, there has been virtually no abandonment of plots as land degrades; instead, farmers sell off parts of their plots to newcomers, who initiate their own pattern of land clearing. However, their plots are smaller, so they have less land for raising cattle or even to support themselves, and as a consequence, resort more to off-farm employment, often in nearby towns. These towns have been growing very rapidly, so there are close linkages between land use/land cover change and urbanization. It is not only the level of deforestation in the Amazon that is important to understand deforestation, but also changes in the spatial patterns of deforestation and agricultural extensification, and more recently, urbanization that will shape the future trajectories of change.

Natural Resource Exploitation

Natural resource exploitation in the region primarily consists of oil prospecting and extraction and, to a lesser degree, African palm plantations. These activities produce large-scale economic impacts and widespread direct and indirect effects on deforestation dynamics. Both activities are mainly controlled by exogenous forces, in the case of the oil, by international and national market forces (oil exportation provides almost half of Ecuador total revenues); and in the case of African palm, by the national market for domestic cooking oil.

These industries directly modify land use/land cover, but their main effect is indirect change. They create demand for employment and services that triggers internal migration to the area and spontaneous agricultural settlement, creating a strong nonlinear relationship between national economic development and local demographic and agricultural processes.

The deforestation that is taking place in the Ecuadorian Amazon is relatively recent. About four decades ago, this landscape was used mainly by indigenous people and very few colonists for subsistence agriculture. The discovery of oil in 1964 triggered infrastructure development and spontaneous agricultural colonization. Rapid land cover changes in the region contributed to Ecuador’s rank in 2001 as the country with the highest deforestation rate in Latin America over the last decade. Ecuador’s ranking as the country with the third-highest oil reserves in South America and the development of additional oil infrastructure in the region suggests a future of road building, community expansion, and off-farm employment, and as a consequence, more deforestation.

Growing Human Population

The ultimate driving force of deforestation throughout the world continues to be the growing human population, which is expected to stabilize at around 11-12 billion by the middle of the 21st century. It is not simply the demand human populations create for new agricultural lands that drives forest degradation and clearing. As the economies of the developing world mature and standards of living increase (e.g., China), demand for goods and services linked directly and indirectly to forests increases, usually in a nonlinear fashion (e.g., the U.S. per capita resource consumption trends in the 20th century).

One important growing concern relates to geopolitical circumstances and globalization pressures associated with energy supplies, in particular, fuel oils. Increasing petroleum scarcity due to declining reserves, growing demand, and regional conflict and political instability in areas of production is increasingly driving worldwide growth in alternative energy development.

The African palm is a case in point, as creation of plantations of this species dedicated to the production of biofuels is driving tropical deforestation in Southeast Asia, and is expected to do the same in Africa in the near future. Another example is the link between sugarcane-based ethanol production and deforestation in Brazil, a country that is rapidly decreasing its dependency on foreign crude oil imports through this strategy. Other nations are likely to follow Brazil’s path in the coming decades.

Another important complicating factor influencing humanity’s ability to understand and manage deforestation processes is global climate change, a phenomenon that is altering environmental gradients and ecotones across space-time scales, leading to greater unpredictability of the response of social and ecological systems to deforestation’s affects. Hence, it is imperative that people, from individuals to communities and nations, act proactively to effectively understand, manage, and mitigate the process of deforestation before forest ecosystems are permanently degraded and altered on a global scale.


  1. Goudie, The Human Impact on the Natural Environment: Past, Present, and Future (Blackwell Publishing, 2005);
  2. W.B. Meyer and B.L. Turner, eds., Changes in Land Use and Land Cover: A Global Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 1994);
  3. C. Millington, S.J. Walsh and P.E. Osborne, eds., GIS and Remote Sensing Applications in Biogeography and Ecology (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001);
  4. W.K.Y. Pan, S.J. Walsh, R.E. Bilsborrow, B.G. Frizzelle, C.M. Erlien, and F.D. Baquero, “Farm-Level Models of Spatial Patterns of Land Use and Land Cover Dynamics in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment (v.101, 2004);
  5. R. Rindfuss, B.L.Turner II, B. Entwisle, and S.J. Walsh, “Land Cover/Use and Population,” in G. Gutman, ed., Land Change Science: Observing, Monitoring, and Understanding Trajectories of Change on the Earth’s Surface (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004);
  6. J. Walsh and K.A. Crews-Meyer, eds., Linking People, Place, and Policy: A GIScience Approach (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002);
  7. Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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