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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder4. Forests under attack
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View the documentDeforestation in the 20th century
View the documentRain-forest environments
View the documentTemperate forests

Deforestation in the 20th century

In this century, deforestation processes in Latin America have proceeded at a much faster rate. By the 1970s, most of the Araucaria forests of the Planalto in Brazil and the forests of the western foothills of the Amazon basin from Colombia to Bolivia had been partially or totally eliminated. More recently, new forest areas have been logged or burned in eastern Paraguay, Mato Grosso in Brazil, and Santa Cruz in Bolivia to make room for cattle and soybean and rice plantations. For the last decade, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region has been occurring at the rate of about 21 thousand square kilometres every year (Feamside et al. 1990), bringing the total area cleared to more than half a million square kilometres in the last two centuries.

In Africa, deforestation activity was widespread, particularly along the Guinean coast, to make way for peanut, cocoa, coconut, and banana plantations. Other areas affected included the central highlands (from Rwanda and Burundi to Uganda) and the tropical forests of south-central Africa from Angola to southern Tanzania. Today, African rain forests are greatly reduced to less than 1 million square kilometres, barely 4% of the total area of the continent and less than 20% of their original area.

In Mali, the use of wood for firewood, charcoal, and construction has resulted in deforestation. Annual wood use in this region is estimated at about 300 kilograms per person (360 kilograms in urban areas and 270 kilograms in rural areas) for a total of 1.7 million tonnes per year. Of this amount, more than 200 thousand tonnes per year are used in the Bamako metropolitan area, which has resulted in the forest retreating toward the southern part of the country. In the Mopti region, the burning of wood to smoke fish is also contributing to rapid deforestation and environmental degradation. Although some reforestation projects have been carried out (often giving priority to exotic instead of more appropriate indigenous trees), the general trend has clearly been toward deforestation. In Sudan, more than 48 million cubic metres of wood is cut every year for charcoal production or for use as fuel.

Deforestation has also been intense in southern and Southeast Asia. The trend has accelerated during the last few decades, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, where large, previously untouched areas of Sumatra, Borneo, New Guinea, and the Malaccan Peninsula have suffered extensive forest degradation.

The increasing demand for timber during the first half of the 20th century was met by a resource base mainly composed of natural or semi-natural forests (see Perez Arrarte 1993). During this period, the value of a forest was related to its logging potential. Over the last few decades, however, new potential values of forests have been emphasized: as ecotouristic resources, as sources of biodiversity, etc. This change in attitude has promoted a different approach to forest management and exploitation. Native people in Canada and the United States, who are reluctant to allow logging on their traditional lands, have found important allies in many environmental groups. Pro-logging lobbies are losing their influence, and exploitation of temperate forests in North America and Scandinavia is becoming more difficult.

Besides being “politically incorrect,” logging in the North is also becoming uneconomic. In temperate climates, trees grow very slowly. In many areas downwind of industrial centres, wood stands are being affected by acid rain, further complicating things for forestry companies in the northern countries. Profitability among Canadian lumber companies decreased substantially from 1990 to 1993. The growth of a strong paper-recycling industry is also affecting the forest business, accelerating this trend. These tendencies have resulted in a decrease in the production of timber and paper pulp from northern forests and a substitution of material from more competitive artificial plantations in warmer latitudes, such as the southern United States, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.

In many Third World countries, natural forests have also been beset by continuous logging, without allowing time for regeneration. As a result, the amount of material coming from natural tropical forests in these areas has also decreased. In some cases, new artificial forests were planted in place of the natural forests (southern Chile and Misiones in Argentina). In most cases, the newly planted areas are monospecific plantations of exotic trees. In some areas, cleared land has been converted to agriculture or animal production.

Globalization processes are promoting the gradual substitution of natural forests by artificial systems. The redistribution of economic roles is having an effect on the forestry industry at all levels. Some countries that were traditional producers are withdrawing from the international scene, while others that have not been producers are increasing their exports.

These trends are taking place at a time when the demand for timber and paper pulp is increasing worldwide. In spite of this, increased production - from 2.7 billion cubic metres in 1977 to 3.4 billion in 1988 - has been sufficient to meet the demand. Particularly important was the increase in paper pulp production (about 30% for the same period), which appears to be related to the increasing worldwide consumption of paper promoted by the information revolution. Wood and charcoal production increased 33% between 1977 and 1988 (Perez Arrarte 1993, p. 15).