Drivers of Deforestation

Understanding the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation is vital in developing the policies and measures needed to effectively alter the current trends of forest loss and climate change, and to promote a positive future for biodiversity and human well-being. The underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation lie in the ever-increasing demand for food, fuel and forest products that result from not only a growing global population, but also from the higher incomes and resulting changing patterns of consumption of an increasing proportion of that population (see Boucher et al., 2012). This problem is exacerbated by the fact that growing demand causes an alarming increase in the price of a number of commodities, further incentivising land-use extension and encroachment into forests.

The causes of deforestation vary both regionally and temporally. They generally do not exist in isolation but operate through a complex range of interactions with one threat facilitating another. Over the last 50 years there has been a shift from deforestation driven by largely state-driven activities to that caused by enterprise-driven activities (see FPP, 2012). From the 1960s to 1980s, small-scale subsistence activities were predominantly responsible as governments endorsed the colonisation of forests by facilitating access through infrastructural improvements and decreasing land prices (Boucher et al., 2012). Since then however, globalisation and urbanisation have heightened the demand from distant urban and export markets, weakening the previously strong association between local demand and deforestation and placing commercial enterprises at the heart of the problem (see Rudel et al., 2009).

Globally, agriculture and timber extraction are the clear driving forces behind deforestation, with commercial and subsistence activities accounting for 40% and 33% respectively, and mining, infrastructure and urban expansion cumulatively being responsible for the remainder (Honosuma et al., 2012).  The main drivers vary between tropical regions. In Latin America, logging and agriculture play central roles, with beef, soy and sugar cane being the main agricultural commodities. Since the 2006 moratorium on the expansion of soy production in the Amazon, development of pasture for cattle has become the dominant threat in this region (Boucher et al., 2012). Across Asia the majority of deforestation is driven by large-scale agricultural and timber plantations, mainly for the production of palm oil, coconut, rubber and teak (Ibid.). Conversely, Africa remains in the early phases of forest cover transition, with small-scale activities such as fuel wood collection and charcoal production still playing a central role (Honosuma et al., 2012).

Despite these general trends, the drivers of deforestation are dynamic and it is likely that rising demand will result in the homogenisation of threats as the activities responsible for deforestation throughout the tropics come to play an increasing role in Africa also. There is evidence of this already in the growing interest of Asian timber companies in Africa’s tropical forests (Honosuma et al., 2012). 

Resources for Drivers of Deforestation