Fall 2011

The Root of the Problem | Catalyst Fall 2011

By Calen May-Tobin

Humans have been using and clearing forests for thousands of years, but what was once a local practice with localized impacts is now a global problem. Tropical deforestation not only accounts for around 15 percent of the world’s heat-trapping emissions, but also affects the biodiversity and the livelihoods of forest peoples.

To stop this problem we must first understand what is driving it. As we found in our new report, The Root of the Problem,many assumptions about the “drivers” of tropical deforestation are no longer accurate, with new drivers taking precedence over traditional ones. And recent actions to deal with some of these driving forces show that deforestation can be slowed—or even stopped—in the next few decades.

Setting the Record Straight


The common narrative about tropical deforestation blames small farmers with big families who move into forested areas and clear the land for food and firewood. Recent data, however, show that small farmers do not cause the majority of deforestation globally. In fact, rural populations are stable or decreasing around much of the world.

Likewise, demand for firewood does not contribute substantially to global deforestation rates. Although rural populations in developing countries do rely heavily on firewood for heating and cooking, much of the material collected is already dead, and when they do cut live wood, it is usually shrubs and branches rather than large trees. Urban populations in the developing world tend to rely on charcoal more than firewood, and while harvesting wood for charcoal is not a primary driver of deforestation, it can contribute significantly to the degradation and destruction of forests that have already been disturbed.

Corporations Move In

The major drivers behind deforestation today are linked to the expansion of logging and large-scale industrial agriculture. To meet growing global demand, corporations are turning to tropical forests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in order to produce a variety of commodities; the ones with the greatest forest impacts are:

Timber. Though logging in tropical countries currently produces only a small portion of the world’s wood and paper products, it is likely to increase over time, since costs in such countries are lower and the climate is suited to fast-growing trees. Timber production is a particular concern in Southeast Asia, where the high density of commercially valuable species makes logging much more profitable than in other regions, and where logging often provides the capital for the expansion of plantations.

Palm oil. A popular ingredient in commercial food products, palm oil has the fastest-growing global market share for vegetable-based oil. In the last decade, production has more than doubled, while the land area harvested for palm oil in Southeast Asia has tripled.

Though palm oil plantations account for a limited amount of global deforestation in terms of area, they represent a disproportionately large source of global warming emissions because they are often established on land converted from swamp forests. When these wetlands are drained, their carbon-rich peat soils decay, releasing large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane.

Portion of the Amazon basin cleared for pastureland.

Cattle. Raising cattle for beef uses about 70 percent of all agricultural land yet provides only about 6 to 11 percent of humanity’s food. In the Amazon, where the cost of undeveloped land is low, cattle production has increased dramatically because the clearing of forest increases the value of the land five- to ten-fold—making cattle ranching profitable even though productivity (the amount of meat produced per acre of land per year) is often very low.


Development without Deforestation

A Voice for Forests Worldwide

UCS report release demonstrates global reach

In keeping with the international spirit of our report, UCS released The Root of the Problem simultaneously on three continents. On June 12 in Tanzania, three of the report’s authors handed out more than 200 copies at the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s annual meeting, where they also hosted a workshop about the United Nations climate negotiation process. UCS staff attending these negotiations in Bonn, Germany, shared the report with delegates from a number of nations and international advocacy organizations. And back in North America, we sent the report to members of Congress, the media, and others in the environmental community.

The report received high praise everywhere it was released and was featured in a number of news articles. We expect it will prove a highly effective tool as we continue to meet with policy makers and scientists about the need to address tropical deforestation in all future climate policy.

Traditionally, economic development has occurred at the expense of a country’s natural resources, but it is possible to achieve sustainable development (and address the drivers of deforestation) through a combination of consumer actions, civil society pressure, and government policies.

Consumers, for example, can help reduce the need for pulp and timber by using less paper and choosing wood products made from sustainably managed forests. Public pressure can also have an effect on deforestation, as was demonstrated in 2006 when a strong outcry from civil society led to an industry-imposed moratorium on expansion of the Amazon soybean harvest (which had increased since the late 1990s to the point that soybeans covered an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom). A similar moratorium was established in 2009 to stop the expansion of cattle ranching in Amazon forests, but it is still too early to know what effect that has had on deforestation rates.

Most government policies that can help reduce deforestation, such as land zoning and ownership laws, will need to be established by developing countries with tropical forests, but there are effective policies that can be enacted by other countries and at the international level as well. For example, the set of international mechanisms known as REDD+ (for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, plus other pro-forest activities) can provide landowners in developing countries with incentives to conserve and restore their forests. Additionally, U.S. laws such as the Lacey Act, which prohibits the importation of illegally harvested timber, can help developing countries strengthen their own policies for protecting forests.

Because tropical deforestation is largely driven by international demand for agricultural and forest products, it is more important than ever that these global drivers of deforestation be addressed with global solutions. By reducing demand and waste at all stages of production, distribution, and consumption, agriculture and forestry can meet humanity’s needs without destroying Earth’s forests.

Calen May-Tobin is a policy analyst/advocate in the UCS Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative.