Forests Essay

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Forests are one of the dominant forms of land cover on earth, and forested landscapes are central in constituting human environment relatioships. Human relations with forests are also highly specific, complex, and dynamic, featuring considerable historical and geographical variation, making a universal definition of what actually constitutes a forest difficult.

Nevertheless, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) does attempt to define and track forest cover: “Land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ.” Even in this basic definition, there is evidence of some subjectivity and convention, as these standards would seemingly exclude much of the far northern boreal forests. Forested regions are generally broken down into boreal, temperate, and arid and moist tropical types, although there is tremendous variation within these categories. Forests are also often classified according to whether they are dominated by coniferous trees (softwoods), deciduous trees (hardwoods), or a mix of each.

Overall, the FAO reports net deforestation on a global level, estimated to have amounted to the loss of 7.3 million hectares per year between 2000-2005. The primary driver of this loss continues to be conversion to agriculture, although the rate of net deforestation has slowed since the 1990s. In terms of forest use, roughly half of global demand for wood continues to come from fuel wood demands, driven by the dependence of one-third to one-half of the world’s population on biomass as a primary fuel for heating and cooking. Other significant sources of demand for wood come from industry for the production of wood products such as pulp and paper, lumber, and veneer. Roughly one-third of global forests are managed specifically for the purposes of producing wood and non-wood products and commodities.

Forest Cover and Spatial Trends

Beneath the aggregate trends, however, there are pronounced regional disparities in both rates and drivers of forest cover conversion. For instance, there is actually net afforestation in parts of Europe and in Asia, particularly in China, driven by large-scale planting programs. The FAO also notes conversion in forest types within the forested category, generally from what the FAO calls “primary” or unmanaged forests and from what are called “modified natural forests” to plantation forest types. Although actual plantation forests only account for 4 percent of global forested area according to the FAO, relatively large increases in plantation forest area have been witnessed in the last 15 years in Asia and in North America. Attempts to track the conversion of species-rich, complex forests to typically simpler, plantation-style forests is important because of the pronounced implications for forest biodiversity and worldwide rapid rates of species loss.

Spatial unevenness disguised by these aggregate numbers, and the juxtaposition of net deforestation in some places with net afforestation in others, affirms the importance of understanding regional processes in and of themselves as well as in relation to one another. This includes critical interrogation of the ways in which afforestation may be enabled by or linked to deforestation in others (such as afforestation driven by recreational and conservation policies in one place abetted by the substitution of fiber from distant places). In addition, regional disparities and afforestation in some places reinforces that overgeneralizations about deforestation as a condition of human interface simply cannot be sustained, particularly when this interface is conceptualized in terms of raw population, e.g., “less people equals more forests.” Things are just not that simple. Consider, for instance, that the defining feature of European land use since the development of agriculture, and later industry, may well be the clearing of woodlands. Yet over the much more recent past, Europe has become home to the most rapid rates of afforestation on earth, particularly of less intentionally managed forests that are reclaiming significant areas. The political ecology of small, fragmented savannah woodlands in Africa links the misinterpretation of these fragments as signs of deforestation (rather than as evidence of intentional afforestation by local forest users) to a pervasive global imaginary that posits forests everywhere to be in decline. Many undoubtedly are, but not all, and certainly not all for the same reasons.

Human-Forest Relationships

Forested landscapes constitute social relations and institutions, as well as of systems of meaning and representation governing human-environment relationships, in myriad and complex ways that make forests sites of rich, integrated political ecologies. For instance, forest conversion and management is not only an ecological process but also a human one, with distinct implications in the formation of property rights, political economies, and the reflection and reinforcement of ways that nature is understood. James Scott links the rationalization and ordering of European forests governed primarily for the purposes of commodity production to the territorial and administrative consolidation the modern nation-state.

These schemes represented not only ecological simplifications, but also social ones, as myriad and overlapping use rights and property claims on forested landscapes were rationalized and consolidated in the interests of efficient commodity production, and streamlined administration of increasingly simplified property claims organized in Cartesian grids of individuated and exclusive plots of land. Here we see the complex interweaving of ways of acting and understanding in relation to the natural world with ecological and political economic change. Work of this character also serves to highlight the fact that exclusive claims to individual parcels of land, whether individually owned or state controlled, are by no means typical of the ways in which forest access is controlled and managed in all social and cultural settings.

Rather, many forests (and agro-forestry systems) are characterized by complex and overlapping claims to particular forest species right down to the level of individual trees and shrubs. These specific systems of access may underpin the production of a rich array of wood and nonwood forest products, but they also reflect and reinforce social relations along axes of class, race, and gender.

In fact, the complexity and diversity of relations between humans and the nonhuman biophysical world characteristic of forested landscapes and their appropriation for spiritual, subsistence, and commercial purposes is one of the obstacles confronting seemingly objective, rationalist classification schemes used to organize knowledge of forests. These schemes tend to smuggle in culturally specific and often evaluative notions about what is and what is not a forest, what type of forest it is, and whether or not the forest is healthy or degraded. Visitors from North America to Germany’s Black Forest, for instance, often comment on the strikingly ordered, almost sanitized character of the forested landscape, with trees typically of uniform age lined up in neat rows one after another, with remarkably little undergrowth, and with almost sidewalk-smooth paths. The disconnect speaks in part to highly specific cultural connotations of “forest.” It is, evidently, not merely a word meant to convey a collection of trees.

In addition, different connotations are seldom innocent. Paul Robbins, for instance, very neatly demonstrates how specificity in knowledge of forests among different social groups can lead to very different systems of forest classification, and different measures of the extent of forest cover. He then implicates these differences in the material “production” of forested landscapes via policy incentives for land management.

Robbins examines forest cover classification in the Indian region of Rajasthan, asking local farmers and land users to classify the surrounding landscape, and then asking professional foresters to do the same. Grouping resulting classification schemes into roughly comparable typologies, he finds large disparities in the total area considered forested by these respective groups. Among the reasons is that a common but invasive woody shrub species called Mexican mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) is highly successful in the area, and is considered forest by the foresters. But the locals tend to consider this waste or scrub land, and exclude it from forest. Why?

One reason is that the species tends to crowd out all others, not least because of its poisonous effect on the soil around it, undermining local land uses. While local users tend to classify land as forested only if it is useful to them, professional foresters face institutional imperative from the state to encourage tree cover. If their views are accepted, Robbins notes, this will tend to encourage rather than curb the expansion of Mexican mesquite.

Evolving Cultural Connotations

While cultural constructs of forests may be specific, they are not static. Evidence from English literature and historical records, for instance, indicates that the prevailing connotation of forests was once quite negative, and that forested landscapes in England were represented until relatively recently as dark, mysterious, and generally foreboding places. The emergence of this negative connotation may be linked to the enclosure of forests by landed elites, effectively barring access to peasant and working classes during the 17th and 18th centuries. This enclosure was violent, and violently resisted, lending to forest areas a connotation of danger and threat, at least for those whose rights of traditional access were removed. More generally, the association of threat and evil with forests is very much connected to a negative or threatening connotation of uninhabited wilderness, or “wilde” spaces in the English literary tradition as recently as the 18th century. Only more recently, and largely in the American environmental imaginary, has wilderness taken on an unambiguously positive light. This has been attended by the elevation of old-growth forest landscapes to iconic status. All of this points to the need to approach human-environment relations in forested landscapes with great attention to local specificity and context, while attending to the ways in which the “local” articulates with broader processes of landscape transformation and representation.


  1. Barry, Environment and Social Theory (Routledge, 1999);
  2. W. Cronon, Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (W.W. Norton & Co, 1995);
  3. Demeritt, “Scientific Forest Conservation and the Statistical Picturing of Nature’s Limits in the Progressive-Era United States,” Environment and Planning 19: 2001);
  4. Fairhead and M. Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge University Press, 1996);
  5. Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (University of California Press, 1990);
  6. Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West (University of Washington Press, 1995);
  7. Rangan, Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements (Routledge, 1996);
  8. P. Robbins and Fraser, “A Forest of Contradictions: Producing the Landscapes of the Scottish Highlands,” Antipode (35(1): 2003);
  9. A. Schroeder, Shady Practices: Agroforestry and Gender Politics in the Gambia (University of California Press, 1999);
  • C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998);
  • P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (Pantheon, 1975);
  1. Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, (Princeton University Press, 2004).

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