Destroying the world’s forests

You can’t assume that because something is forbidden, it isn’t going to happen.(1)

These were the words of President Candoso of Brasil after the announcement of record high levels of deforestation in the Amazon, up 34% since 1991. The history of international attempts to prevent the destruction of forests supports these words.

Deforestation rates

The world’s forests are important for many reasons—from regulating climate to providing a habitat for the majority of species on earth.

There are two types of forest—temperate and tropical. Most forest destruction now takes place in the tropics with the total area of temperate forest now stable. However, there is rapid and continuing loss of forest quality in temperate regions. For example, a phenomenon known as Waldsterben, or forest death—has claimed more than 70,000 square kilometres of forests in 15 European countries. Acid rain, which is one of the causes, has also been devastating in part of America.(5)

Yet the global rate of tropical forest destruction is increasing. A report from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (F.A.O.) found the rate of deforestation to have increased in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1990, the FAO (conservatively) estimated that deforestation in the tropics was, on average, 16.9 million hectares annually—0.9% lost per year.(3) Most of the losses were in Africa, Asia and Latin America. A more recent estimate in 1990 by the World Resources Institute estimated that the rate might be 20.4 million hectares per year. In 1978, the World Bank estimated that if tropical deforestation continued at a rate of 15 to 20 million hectares per year, there would be no tropical forests remaining by some time between the years 2040 and 2060.

Only a very small proportion of the world’s tropical forests are managed sustainably, so as to ensure that trees are not felled at a rate exceeding the capacity of the forest to grow back. (The best definition of sustainability is, of course, a matter for further discussion.) In a study by Poore et al (1989), it was found that less than 1 million out of an estimated total area of 828 million hectares of productive tropical forest were demonstrably under sustained-yield management.(25)


It is clear from the very fact that deforestation has taken place on such a huge scale that ecological sustainability has not been given priority. Instead, as is recognised in the literature of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (T.F.A.P.), “commercial exploitation” and “Large-scale development projects in agriculture and other sectors, including projects funded by international development agencies”(6) have been allowed to cause deforestation. The goal of profitability overrides that of sustainability. The governments of developing nations desperately need revenue and will usually accept new investment from industries which cause deforestation.(7).

In a case during the 1990s that outraged environmental lobbyists, the government of Surinam sold logging concessions to several huge companies, which would allow 12 million acres (40% of the country) to be logged. The companies’ promised £320 million investment in saw mills and jobs. Along with £38 million a year in tax royalties, this offer has proved to be irresistible for the Surinam government.(8)

Some commentators(25), (26) have argued that improved policies for renting out forested land could reduce deforestation. They suggest policies such as increasing the length of leases of land and government enforcement of the levies to which they are often technically entitled but fail to collect. However, the root cause of the problem is the dependence of these governments, who lack the resources to implement these policies on the logging companies, as illustrated by the Surinam example. Several governments require loggers to replant the areas they deforest but such replanting is rarely carried out. For example, the Brazilian government have been unable to enforce the limited regulations that have been placed on logging in the Amazon. Indeed governments’ often lack the capability to enforce their ownership of the land at all. This results in what Panayotou and Ashton describe as “quasi-open access” which results in encroachment, poaching and squatting on the land.(26)

Attempted Solutions:International Agreements

So far, every country has been far more busy trying to secure its rights to utilize forest resources rather than trying to protect forests from over-utilization and exploitation,

said Lene Witte, Secretary General of WWF-Denmark.

Neither the rich nor the poor countries will commit themselves to action.(9)

The Rio Summit in 1992 could not agree upon any set targets for tackling the problem. Developing countries fought off pressure for any clear commitment to start negotiations on forestry.

The outlook for a coordinated international effort to limit deforestation, then, seems particularly bleak.(10)

The T.F.A.P. and the International Tropical Timber Organisation (I.T.T.O.), both set up in the 1980s, ostensibly to curb deforestation, have not yet shown signs of success in managing forests sustainably(11)

Tropical Forestry Action Plan

Introduced in 1987, the T.F.A.P. aimed to raise US$8 billion for tropical forest conservation between 1987–91. Under the plan, involving 61 participating countries, $1.6 billion would be invested each year in forestry and related agricultural projects. But only 10% of this proposed T.F.A.P. budget was allocated for the protection of forest ecosystems.

According to a United Nations Development Plan report, of the 42 countries which have drawn up national T.F.A.P. plans, none intended to engage in ecosystem restoration. The plan was more concerned with setting up commercial plantations, for which the T.F.A.P. gave loans. For example, the T.F.A.P. for Latin America and the Caribbean aims to invest $2—$2.8 billion per year for the next decade, in the industrial development of the region’s forests.

In South East Asia, Jaoko Powry, a leading Finnish pulp and paper firm, was even given the task of drawing up the T.F.A.P. ‘master plans’ for Sri Lanka, Nepal and possibly Thailand. Hardly surprising then that such national ‘master plans’ are shown by the World Rainforest Movement to have speeded up the rate of deforestation.(12)

International Tropical Timber Organisation.

The I.T.T.O. stated as its goal that all internationally traded timber should come from sustainable sources by the year 2000. But, as Friends of the Earth argue:

the I.T.T.O. has become an alibi for inaction at the international level and a diversion from effective change at the national level. The I.T.T.O. has neither achieved an effective reform of the timber trade nor provided any mechanism to achieve such reform. It has also failed to fulfill its official mandate.(13)

I.T.T.O. has no powers of enforcement or sanction. Policy decisions tend to be couched in terms of an ‘invitation’ to members to act which are then largely forgotten.

One such ‘invitation’ was Target 2000, adopted in May 1990 by all I.T.T.O. member governments, albeit against the wishes of many consuming nations. especially the USA It was formally recognised in May 1991 and stated that member governments would

progress towards achieving sustainable management of tropical forests, and trade in tropical timber from sustainably managed resources by the year 2000.(14)


not a single government has yet indicated its intent to develop national guidelines, and only 7 out of the 47 members actually did report to the following meeting. Although a few more reported the following year, these mostly consisted of the consumer nations.(15)

Article One of the International Tropical Timber Agreement has two contradictory aims. On the one hand,

To promote the expansion and diversification of international trade in tropical timber.

On the other, to encourage the development of national policies aimed at sustainable utilisation and conservation of tropical forests and their genetic resources, and at maintaining the ecological balance in the regions concerned.(16)

Of course the goal of ‘sustainability’ is ambiguous and for the timber industry it simply means “sustaining the yield of commercial timber of a given (generally short) period of time.”(17) Still, ‘sustainability,’ even such a weak goal which fails to acknowledge the need to conserve biological diversity, is nowhere near being achieved. Reforestation rates lag far behind deforestation rates, being 25% in Asia and below 3.75% in Africa.

The World Bank Forest Strategy

A year 2000 review by the World Bank of it’s own Forest Strategy admitted failure in stemming the problem of deforestation:

Forest-rich countries, the focus of the strategy, have sought to exploit their forests for legitimate development purposes, as well as for the benefit of powerful interest groups. As a result, the two central objectives of the strategy—slowing down rates of deforestation and increasing forest cover- have not been achieved.(27)

The World Bank review concludes that “there was insufficient foresight regarding the powerful forces of globalisation and economic liberalisation that are affecting forest outcomes.” It acknowledges that insufficient financing was provided: “Although Forest sector lending has increased by 78 percent, it remains less than 2 percent of overall Bank lending” (XX) (Overall bank lending is $3.51 billion.) Barbier et al write that “there is evidence that producer countries will require additional financing of around US$ 0.3 to 1.5 billion annually to implement sustainable management plans for their tropical forests.”(28)

Market-based solutions?

Defenders of free market capitalism claim that the strength of the market is that the price system can reflect the cost of a resource such as timber. It might be thought, therefore, that the price of tropical timber would rise as the resource becomes more scarce. While there has been a rise in tropical timber prices, this is more a result of increased global demand (caused by factors such as population growth and the construction needs of the South) than the ongoing depletion of the resource base. The textbook theory of increasing resource scarcity being reflected in prices is not so evident. For example, it was pointed out in a study by Granger (1987) that Latin America could log for twenty years before the supply constraints would be felt. This will only occur when timber become less accessible and loggers start to have to penetrate more difficult terrain. Panayotou and Ashton argue that, even if price rises do result, wood will remain cheap relative to it’s substitutes (concrete, plastic, bricks, steel etc) due to it being less energy-intensive.

Some environmental commentators hope that the problem of tropical deforestation might be alleviated through a shift of emphasis in the timber exporting nations of the South. Barbier et al suggest that developing nations, for whom timber exports are an integral part of the economy, should focus on producing ‘higher value’ timber products. Higher value timber products are those that involve some refinement and special usage of the raw timber materials. Were the higher value route more profitable, it would no doubt have been adopted more widely. It would seem that the kind of barriers mentioned above exist for this route, namely the short-term incentive to continue to focus upon the export of raw timber. In any case, it is would only, at best, alleviate the problem of rapid deforestation rates and the need to adopt sustainable practices would still remain.

The Rainforest ‘Harvest’

Environmental groups such as the Worldwatch Institute argue that trade in renewable forest products can replace the logging industry altogether. As The Ecologist explains,

the theory is that if it can be shown that forests are of more value when they are standing than when they are felled, then they are more likely to be preserved.(18)

As is pointed out by Scientific American(20) careful extraction of such products on a renewable basis is less profitable than more intensive production. See (Over-Fishing) for similar examples of ‘economies of scale.’

when a forest product such as latex becomes commercially important it is inevitably introduced into higher-yielding plantations, in 1991 about 60% of Brazil’s natural rubber came from plantations. As a result the price plummets, and small-scale extraction ceases to be profitable.

A report in Nature has indeed shown the value of renewable products, such as nuts, fruits, rubber and plant species that can be used for medicinal purposes to be high. The report estimates that timber constitutes less than 10% of the value of renewable resources of tropical rainforests. It is also pointed out that the value of non-timber products could exceed that of timber, although this can only be the case over a long period of time. The key problem for the renewable route under capitalism is that it seeks to compromise the motives of short term profitability for the global timber industry.

The prospect of alternative sources of profit is of little interest to those responsible for deforestation. The value of the global timber trade is currently nearly US$7 billion. It is beyond dispute that loggers have only short term motives—a recent World Bank study estimated that of 33 countries which currently export tropical timber, all but 10 will be logged out by year 2000. Yet loggers would otherwise struggle to make a living and are more than willing to take advantage of governments’ unwillingness or inability to enforce any environmental regulations.

Timber exporters set up a Forests Forever campaign, arguing that “judicious felling” of trees is possible. Yet, as The Ecologist argues,

no one has any idea if tropical rainforests can be logged sustainably or not; and logging is not and will never be carried out “judiciously” and “carefully” in countries where controls are ignored and corruption starts at the top. For example, British mahogany importers are hiding behind Brazilian certificates attesting that their wood is not being taken from conservation zones or Indian reserves. These are falsified certificates: most of the imported timber now comes from Indian areas.(21)

Evidence of this was further provided by a recent ‘Dispatches’ documentary which proved that loggers are felling mahogany trees in Amazonian Indian reserves and selling them to exporters. Some of these exporters are members of the trade association AMEX who signed an agreement not to buy mahogany from Indian reserves.(22) This is just one example of the failure of the World Bank and UN policy of establishing protective areas, or Forest Zones. These zones only represent a small proportion of the total forest and effectively sacrifice the remaining parts of forests to the needs of capitalists investing in the region.

Timber Industry to Subsidise Sustainable Logging?

Another hope of environmental pressure groups such as The Nature Foundation is that the price of timber be raised so as to subsidise sustainable logging. Rodolfo Rendon, their president has criticised the I.T.T.O. for failing to regulate world timber prices. Producer countries, he points out issued a joint statement in Indonesia in May 1990, seeking adjustments in world timber prices “so that costs of forest management and reforestation can be considered.”

Consumer nations showed no interest in the request at a meeting in Japan last November. This is unsurprising considering that such subsidies would raise the cost of timber for importers. For example, a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (W.W.F.) shows that Latin America would need an average of $7 billion annually for the next 15 years to guarantee forest conservation and keep up the current timber supply. 98 percent of timber exports, mostly from third world countries, do not cover the cost of forest restoration and conservation.(23) We have here another example of competition among producers preventing such regulations being introduced.

Even if it were realistic for consumer nations to pay more than the market price, it is not clear that this would help achieve the goal of sustainable forestry:

higher prices for timber translate into more intensive cutting and make extraction from more remote areas financially attractive.(24)

Trade restrictions?

Similar problems would beset any attempt to enforce sustainable forestry through trade restrictions. Countries might decide on a policy of adding a surcharge for the importing of tropical timber that is produced unsustainably, such as was attempted by the Netherlands in the early 1990s. One problem faced by this legislation is the World Trade Organisation (W.T.O.) regime which restricts nations in the kind of charges they may impose on imports. In any case, unilateral action by an individual state such as this faces the ‘free rider’ problem, in which all other states benefit from the actions of others, even when they opt out of such policies themselves.

For news of lack of progress five years later, see Earth Summit II Ends In Failure

  • Sources:
  • (1) New Scientist 3/8/96
  • (2) WWF 1995 Year End Survey of Threats to Forests Worldwide (Ecological Enterprises, Madison, Wisconsin)
  • (3) Saving the Forests—What Will It Take? (Worldwatch paper № 117, December 1993.)
  • (4) Saving the Forests—What Will It Take? (Worldwatch paper № 117, December 1993.)
  • (5) WWF 1995 Year End Survey of Threats to Forests Worldwide (Ecological Enterprises, Madison, Wisconsin)
  • (6) Tropical Forestry Action Plan—What Progress? (World Rainforest Movement 1987)
  • (7) AMBIO 93.1—Tropical forestry in the 21st century
  • (8) The Guardian 8/9/95
  • (9) WWF: Forests are losers in international power game (Ecological Enterprises, Madison Wisconsin; 3/9/93)
  • (10) Forests Memorandum – U.K. Forest Network
  • (11) AMBIO March 94
  • (12) Tropical Forestry Action Plan—What Progress? (World Rainforest Movement 1987)
  • (13) I.T.T.O.: Conserving the Forests or Chainsaw Charter (Friends of the Earth)
  • (14) I.T.T.O. 1991 quoted in I.T.T.O.: Conserving the Forests or Chainsaw Charter (Friends of the Earth)
  • (15) I.T.T.O.: Conserving the Forests or Chainsaw Charter (Friends of the Earth)
  • (16) I.T.T.O.: Conserving the Forests or Chainsaw Charter (Friends of the Earth)
  • (17) I.T.T.O.: Conserving the Forests or Chainsaw Charter (Friends of the Earth)
  • (18) The Ecologist 23/4
  • (19) The Ecologist 23/4
  • (20) The Ecologist 23/4
  • (21) July 1993
  • (22) Dispatches: The Mahogany Trail Channel 4, Britain 22/5/96
  • (23) Log Exporters Seek Higher Prices to end Deforestation (Ecological Enterprises, Madison Wisconsin) 28/5/91
  • (24) Log Exporters Seek Higher Prices to end Deforestation (Ecological Enterprises, Madison Wisconsin) 28/5/91 and boreal regions
  • (25) The Economics of the Tropical Timber Trade E.Barbier, J.C.Burgess, J.Bishop, B.Aylward (Earthscan 1994)
  • (26) Not By Timber Alone—Economics and Ecology for Sustaining Tropical Forests T.Panayotou & P.S.Ashton.
  • (27) The World Bank Forest Strategy—Striking the Right Balance (World Bank 2000.)
  • (28) The Economics of the Tropical Timber Trade E.Barbier, J.C.Burgess, J.Bishop, B.Aylward (Earthscan 1994)

Return to The Environment menu