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The top ten drivers of deforestation
Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change and environmental damage. See what is causing the gradual destruction of the world's woodlands.
March 29, 2015
Commercial Agriculture (1/10)
Combine harvesters in formation harvest soybeans in Mato Grosso state in western Brazil. Soybean is one of several cash crops grown on a commercial scale to satisfy international markets which are increasingly important drivers of deforestation, accounting for 68% of forest loss in Latin America and about 40% worldwide. Commercial agriculture is the largest driver of deforestation, involving forest clearing for cropland, pasture and tree plantation.
It has been forecast that sugarcane and soya alone will be responsible for a 20 million hectare expansion of agricultural land in Brazil over the next 40 years (more than twice the size of Hungary).
Cattle Ranching (2/10)
Cattle graze amid the remains of a burned-out forest outside Boa Vista, northern Brazil. Rising living standards worldwide have increased local and global demand for meat, driving deforestation as ranchers and agribusinesses demand grazing pasture and also land to grow feed for livestock (such as soybean).
Brazil has become one of the largest exporters of beef in the world. According to the Global Canopy Programme, 75% of deforestation in Brazil is linked to the cattle industry, with the cattle herd in the Amazon growing by 140% from 1990 to 2003.
Palm Oil Production (3/10)
A truck drives through a plantation of oil palm trees in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province. Soaring global demand for palm oil as a cheap raw material for products ranging from cooking oil, margarine, cereals, and baked goods to soaps and cosmetics has led to Indonesia having some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Plantations have been financed by the sale of timber from cleared forests.
Indonesia and Malaysia supply the vast majority of the world’s palm oil, although plantations are now also springing up in parts of Africa. Palm oil grown on cleared peat lands and turned into biofuels has a carbon footprint five times as big as diesel, reports the Global Canopy Programme.
Subsistence farming (4/10)
Martha Mafa, a subsistence farmer, stacks her crop of maize in Chivi, Zimbabwe. Farming by smallholders is related to about 33% of deforestation and deforestation in Africa is still largely driven by small-scale subsistence farming.
Deforestation is driven by cultivation of staple crops like maize, manioc, rice and small-scale cultivation of cash crops like coffee, cocoa, and cotton while forest degradation occurs when livestock are grazed in wooded areas.
Logging for Timber (5/10)
Legal and illegal logging are major causes of forest degradation, accounting for more than 70% of total forest degradation in Latin America and Asia. In Brazil and Indonesia, some 80% to 90% of timber extraction is deemed illegal.
According to the WWF, up to 28% of the EU’s timber imports could be illegal. Well-regulated, selective logging, however, need not trigger deforestation. Expanding plantation forestry can also provide an alternative to illegal timber.
Infrastructure Building (6/10)
The construction of the Interoceanic Highway connecting Peru and Brazil cuts a swathe through the Amazon jungle. Infrastructure projects such as roads are linked to about 10% of total deforestation in the developing world.
Road construction perhaps contributes the most to eventual levels of deforestation and degradation because roads encourage urbanization (itself responsible for a further 10% of deforestation) and the spread of agriculture into forests, particularly in remote areas where property rights are unclear or poorly regulated.
A giant opencast gold mine dominates the landscape in Indonesia's rainforested Papua province. Many forested areas are rich in minerals and therefore vulnerable to deforestation. The Congo Basin, for instance, contains vast untapped reserves of gold, coltan (used in mobile phones), diamonds, uranium, manganese, and copper.
Mining accounts for about 7% of deforestation in developing nations with Asia and Africa more affected than Latin America. Apart from clearing trees to make way for the mine itself, mining may also use sizeable amounts of timber or charcoal, contributing to forest degradation through direct use and localised population expansion.
Indians from the Xingu National Park in Brazil inspect the smoldering remains of forest land near their reserve. Forest fires release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and clouds of soot that can disrupt normal rainfall patterns, although natural fires have always played a part regenerating forest soils and vegetation and rarely result in permanent deforestation of an area.
However, the spread of agriculture, poor logging practices, and urban expansion make forests more vulnerable to uncontrolled fires that result in forest degradation. An analysis of the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in 100 countries published in 2012 by academics from Japan, the Netherlands, the US, Indonesia and Norway estimates that uncontrolled fires were responsible for about 9% of total forest degradation between 2000 and 2010.
Charcoal Production (9/10)
Charcoal bags stacked beside a traditional charcoal factory in the Ivory Coast. Charcoal production primarily occurs in the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty drives many to cut down trees for fuel for cooking. Charcoal production is one of the two main drivers of forest degradation in Africa. Together with fuelwood collection it accounts for about 48% of degradation. Charcoal made from old-growth hardwood trees is the most valuable because it burns hotter and longer.
Firewood Collection (10/10)
Boys gather firewood in Guinea. One third of the world’s population uses biomass fuels, mainly firewood, to cook and to heat their homes. Firewood collection and charcoal production are the largest drivers of forest degradation in Africa, together linked to about 48% of total degradation.
Together with population growth and rapid urban expansion, this can have a devastating effect on forests in poor countries. Wood meets 80% of all the Democratic Republic of Congo’s energy needs and has been the main cause of deforestation in the area. In Sudan’s Darfur region, a sudden influx of refugees had a catastrophic effect on local forests according to the UN.