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Rainforest Destruction

PROFESSOR NORMAN MYERS According to Professor Norman Myers, one of the foremost authorities on rates of deforestation in tropical forests, "the annual destruction rate seems set to accelerate yet further, and could well double in another decade" (Myers 1992). As Myers points out, "we still have half of all tropical forests that ever existed". The struggle to save the world's rainforests continues, and there is a growing worldwide concern about the issue. In order to save rainforests, we need to know why they are being destroyed. Nobody knows exactly how much of the world's rainforests have already been destroyed and continue to be razed each year. Data is often imprecise and subject to differing interpretations. However, it is obvious that the area of tropical rainforest is diminishing and the rate of tropical rainforest destruction is escalating worldwide, despite increased environmental activism and awareness. A 1992 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization placed the global rate of tropical deforestation at 17 million ha. per year. A study by the World Resources Institute suggests that the figure could be as high as 20.4 million ha. per year.

IMMEDIATE CAUSES The immediate causes of rainforest destruction are clear. The main causes of total clearance are agriculture and in drier areas, fuel wood collection. The main cause of forest degradation is logging. Mining, industrial development and large dams also have a serious impact. Tourism is becoming a larger threat to the forests.


Large areas of rainforest are destroyed in order to remove only a few logs. The heavy machinery used to penetrate the forests and build roads causes extensive damage. Trees are felled and soil is compacted by heavy machinery, decreasing the forest's chance for regeneration.

The felling of one 'selected' tree, tears down with it climbers, vines, epiphytes and lianas. A large hole is left in the canopy and complete regeneration takes hundreds of years.

Removing a felled tree from the forest causes even further destruction, especially when it is carried out carelessly. It is believed that in many South East Asian countries 'between 45-74% of trees remaining after logging have been substantially damaged or destroyed'.

The tracks made by heavy machinery and the clearings left behind by loggers are sites of extreme soil disturbance which begin to erode in heavy rain. This causes siltation of the forests, rivers and streams. The lives and life support systems of indigenous people are disrupted as is the habitat of hundreds of birds and animals.

"Logging roads are used by landless farmers to gain access to rainforest areas. For this reason, commercial logging is considered by many to be the biggest single agent of tropical deforestation"

Most of the rainforest timber on the international market is exported to rich countries. There, it is sold for hundreds of times the price that is paid to the indigenous people whose forests have been plundered. The timber is used in the construction of doors, window frames, crates, coffins, furniture, plywood sheets, chopsticks, household utensils and other items.


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'Shifted cultivators' is the term used for people who have moved to areas of tropical forests and establish the small-scale farming operations. These are landless peasants who followed roads in forest areas already damaged. Growers are to blame for 60% loss of rain forest. These people are called 'shifted cultivators' because most were evicted from their land. For example, in Guatemala, deforestation took place for coffee and sugar plantations. The lands of indigenous cultivators were stolen by the government and these became 'shifted cultivators' moving in tropical forest areas to sustain themselves and their families. Large-scale agriculture, logging, hydroelectric dams, mining, and industrial development are all responsible for the dispossession of poor farmers. "One of the main reasons that people are going without land to forests is the unequal distribution of agricultural land." In Brazil, approximately 42% of land is cultivated and only 1% of the population belongs. Once displaced, the 'shifted cultivators' move into forest areas, often with the encouragement of their government. It was developed in Brazil a slogan to persuade people to move to the forests: "Land without men for men without land". After a while these problems are farmers: Remaining fertile land not for long. Therefore, they have to move again, destroying more forest. Clearly, the 'shifted cultivators', "became the agents of destruction, but not the cause" (Westoby 1987: Colchester). The 'shifted cultivators' do not move in undisturbed forest areas, they follow the roads to farms made of wood.

AGRICULTURE - CASH CROPS AND CATTLE RANCHING Undisturbed and logged rainforest areas are being totally cleared to provide land for food crops, tree plantations or for grazing cattle. Much of this produce is exported to rich industrialized countries and in many cases, crops are grown for export while the local populace goes hungry. Due to the delicate nature of rainforest soil and the destructive nature of present day agricultural practices, the productivity of cash crops grown on rainforest soils declines rapidly after a few years. Monoculture plantations - those that produce only one species of tree or one type of food on rainforest soil are examples of non-sustainable agriculture. They are referred to as cash crops because the main reason for their planting is to make money quickly, with little concern about the environmental damage that they are causing. Modern machinery, fertilizers and pesticides are used to maximize profits. The land is farmed intensively. In many cases, cattle damage the land to such an extent that it is of no use to cattle ranchers any more, and they move on, destroying more and more rainforest. Not only have the forests been destroyed but the land is exploited, stripped of nutrients and left barren, sustaining noone.

FUEL WOOD The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that '1.5 billion of the 2 billion people worldwide who rely on fuel wood for cooking and heating are overcutting forests'. This problem is worst in drier regions of the tropics. Solutions will probably involve a return to local peoples' control of the forests they depend on.

LARGE DAMS In India and South America, hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests have been destroyed by the building of hydro-electric dams. It was the dominant view that new dams had to be built or otherwise these countries would suffer an energy crisis. However, a recent study by the World Bank in Brazil has shown that 'sufficient generating capacity already exists to satisfy the expected rise in demand for power over the medium term, provided that the energy is used more efficiently'. The construction of dams not only destroys the forest but often uproots tens of thousands of people, destroying both their land and their culture. The rates of waterborne diseases increase rapidly. Downstream ecosystems are damaged by dams which trap silt, holding back valuable nutrients. Reduced silt leads to coastal erosion. The sheer weight of water in dams has in Chile, Zimbabwe, and Greece led to earthquakes. The irrigation and industrial projects powered by dams lead to further environmental damage. Irrigation leads to salination of soils and industry leads to pollution.

MINING AND INDUSTRY Mining and industrial development lead to direct forest loss due to the clearing of land to establish projects. Indigenous people are displaced. Roads are constructed through previously inaccessible land, opening up the rainforest. Severe water, air and land pollution occurs from mining and industry.

COLONISATION SCHEMES Governments and international aid agencies for a time believed that by encouraging colonization and trans-migration schemes into rainforest areas, they could alleviate some of the poverty felt by the people of the financially poorer countries. It has since become increasingly obvious that such schemes have failed, hurting the indigenous people and the environment. These schemes involve the relocation of millions of people into sparsely populated and forested areas. In Indonesia, the Transmigrasi Program, begun in 1974, is believed to be 'the greatest cause of forest loss in Indonesia', directly causing an average annual loss of 200,000 hectares. The resettled people suffered the same problems as 'shifted cultivators'. The soil is not fertile enough to be able to sustain them for very long. Even after such projects have officially ended, the flow of 'shifted cultivators' continues as the area remains opened up. "The World Bank estimates that for every colonist resettled under the official transmigration project, two or more unofficially move into the forest due to the drawing effect of the program".

TOURISM The creation of national parks has undoubtedly helped to protect rainforests. Yet, as national parks are open to the public, tourism is damaging some of these areas. Often, national parks are advertised to tourists before adequate management plans have been developed and implemented. Inadequate funding is allocated for preservation of forests by government departments. Governments see tourism as an easy way to make money, and therefore tourism is encouraged whilst strict management strategies are given far less government support. Ecotourism, or environmentally friendly tourism, should educate the tourists to be environmentally aware. It should also be of low impact to its environment. Unfortunately, many companies and resorts who advertise themselves as eco-tourist establishments are in fact exploiting the environment for profit. In Cape Tribulation, Australia, for example, the rainforest is being threatened by excessive tourism. Clearing for roads and pollution of waterways are two of the major problems in this area. The Wet Tropics Management Authority which oversees the surrounding World Heritage Area is promoting tourism to the area before any management plans have been formulated, before any effective waste management strategy has been devised and before any ecofriendly power alternatives have been fully explored.


Done by: Bruno Gonรงalves

Bruno, rainforest destruction