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Excerpt from Strangely Like War

Causes of Deforestation (p. 98)

From chapter "Globalization in the Real World"

There has been a lot of debate—much of it diversionary—for decades about the true causes of deforestation. Part of the confusion is that the immediate causes do vary by region, forest, and decade. Part of it is that the sociocultural-political- economic-ecological web of interdependence is genuinely complex and ever-shifting. Yet another part is that confusion often supports the status quo. Additionally, but not accidentally, there’s a lack of accurate information on the condition of the world’s forests. Governments often do not keep good data, for a variety of reasons, including budgeting money for timber cutting but not for determining the actual conditions of forests, collusion between administrators and direct deforesters, and ultimately the fact that our culture doesn’t value intact forests. Further, satellite photos often don’t reveal the true extent of damage to forests. And there exist different definitions of nearly all of the terms: we are diverted by debating the semantics of deforestation, natural forest, old-growth forest, frontier forest, sustainability, and so on.

Here is what we do know, summarized well by Peter Dauvergne in his book Shadows in the Forest: “Loggers irreparably decrease the economic, biological, and environmental value of old-growth forests. They also ignite the process of deforestation. . . . They build roads that provide access for slash-and-burn farmers. They leave debris and create open spaces that make forests susceptible to devastating fires. And they decrease the financial value of primary forests, providing incentives to convert logged areas (secondary forests) to commercial crops or large development projects. . . . Both direct and indirect factors and underlying forces contribute to rapid, careless, short-sighted logging. While . . . state managers and timber operators play direct roles, international corporations, markets, money, consumption, technology, and trade practices cast an oppressive shadow that constrains . . . decisions, provides incentives for quick and destructive logging, and accelerates deforestation.”

All that said, it is possible to determine the causes of deforestation in many regions. Africa provides an example of the wide range (with many countries suffering multiple assaults) of reasons forests fall. In Gabon, Cameroon (where timber is the number one source of foreign exchange revenue), the Central African Republic, the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea, a primary cause is legal and illegal logging. In Nigeria (where Shell has gotten $30 billion from Ogoni lands since 1958), Ghana, Madagascar, and Tanzania, a primary cause is oil and mining. In Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, and the Congo, tree plantations—rubber, pine, eucalyptus, acacia, cypress, and oil palm—are a central cause of deforestation (remember, plantations are not forests). In Uganda, the Norwegian corporation Treefarms has evicted 8,000 people from thirteen villages and planted pine and eucalyptus as a “carbon sequestration” scheme to fight global warming. In Nigeria, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Senegal, shrimp farming destroys coastal mangrove forests. In Uganda, dams have drowned forests. The forests of Liberia, Angola, and the Congo are or have recently been devastated by war. In the Congo, for example, combatants have taken to systematically raping, otherwise torturing, killing and eating indigenous pygmy forest people, including children (these actions are called by the perpetrators a form of “vaccination” to rid the country of “a disease”: indeed, the code name for this operation is “Wipe the Slate Clean”). In Liberia, France, Belgium, and other nations and corporations exchanged weapons for gold, diamonds, and timber. Illegal timber exports reached $53 million per year during the Liberian civil war of the early 1990s. Carpetbagging corporations routinely move in after war to take advantage of the shambles. In Liberia these corporations include LAMCO (U.S.-Sweden), Bridgestone (Japan), and Oriental Timber (Malaysia).

Using the best current estimates, which come from the World Resources Institute, we can summarize that three-quarters of the remaining frontier forest in Africa is under threat, 79 percent of that by logging, 12 percent by mining, roads, and other infrastructure, and 17 percent by agricultural clearing. (These percentages add up to more than 100 percent because some forests face multiple threats).

Sixty percent of the frontier forests in Asia are under threat, half of that by logging, 10 percent by mining and roads, and 20 percent by agricultural clearing.

Twenty-six percent of North American native forests are under imminent threat, with the primary dangers being logging (84 percent) and mining and roadbuilding (27 percent).

Eighty-seven percent of Central American forests are threatened, slightly over half of that percentage by logging, 17 percent by mining and roadbuilding, and 23 percent by agricultural clearing.

Fifty-four percent of South American forests are under direct threat, with 69 percent of those forests being threatened by logging, 53 three percent by mining and roadbuilding, and despite what we’ve heard in the corporate press about peasants destroying the forests of the Amazon, only 32 percent of the forests are threatened by agricultural clearing.

Because of the remoteness of the Russian Far East, only 19 percent of the native forests of Russia are threatened, 86 percent of those by logging, 51 percent by mining and roads, and 4 percent from agricultural clearing.

All of the forests of Europe are under threat, with 80 percent of that threat from logging.

Over three-quarters of the native forests of Oceania are under immediate threat, 42 percent of these by logging, 25 percent by mining and roadbuilding, and 15 percent by agricultural clearing.

Worldwide, almost 72 percent of the threat to forests worldwide is from logging, 38 percent is from mining and roadbuilding, and 20 percent is from agricultural clearing.

The exact percentages can be endlessly debated, but the reality exists.