Deforestation and degradation

Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries depend on forests for their livelihood. But over 12 million hectares of natural forest are lost in the tropics every year, either through the permanent destruction of forests or through their degradation.

The main cause of forest degradation is selective logging of commercially valuable trees. This has caused severe damage to many of the world's forests, especially in Southeast Asia where the density of commercially valuable timber species is high. Other causes of degradation are forest fires, excessive removal of non-timber forest products and pollution (often by oil firms and gold miners).

The impact on our globe

Deforestation and degradation can impact heavily on small communities who are dependent on forests as a source of emergency income and food during famine or economic hardship.

Deforestation also permanently destroys valuable plant and wildlife species within a forest. A degraded forest many not be able to support specialized species.

Excessive clearing or thinning of forests can destabilize the world's climate by releasing into the atmosphere millions of tons of greenhouse gasses normally stored in wood in the form of carbon. This can damage the atmosphere and lead to global warming and eventually climate change. By storing carbon, forests provide a major environmental benefit by reducing global warming.

Factors driving forest loss

In most cases, people clear tropical forests to cultivate land. This is motivated by many factors. These include the prospect of generating greater income through farming, changes in land rights, tenure, subsidies, tax laws, resettlement projects, new or restored roads, population pressures and corruption.

The social factors affecting forests differ from country to country. Macroeconomic policies, economic crises, infrastructure development, local politics and local culture all play a part in determining individual national rates of deforestation. In Southeast Asia, the profits to be gained from legal and illegal logging drives most deforestation. The rate of land clearing is similarly affected by prices for cash crops like coffee and oil palm. In Latin America, most cleared forest has been converted to pastureland to satisfy an increasing demand for meat and dairy products. In South Asia and Central Africa, most forest is cleared for the cultivation of food crops.

Preventing forest loss

When outside actors like loggers or large companies are the key players threatening forest integrity, it may help to give local people direct control over the forests they inhabit. This may enable them to effectively protect the forests. Another strategy is to avoid national or regional policies that promote extensive land uses, such as road expansion, resettlement projects and gasoline subsidies.

Loggers themselves can reduce their impact on forests. Avoiding clear felling and using reduced impact logging techniques can help ensure forests remain ecologically healthy and provide a long-term rather than short-term income.

However, when local people are the driving force behind forest conversion, the strategies need to be more focused on helping people derive greater, sustainable income from forests. This may include making direct payments to local people for conserving their forests. Even if all efforts were mobilized to help people and governments make appropriate land-use decisions, some tropical forests would continue to disappear. But the pace and extent of the process could be controlled.

CIFOR's focus

CIFOR is committed to researching the important role sustainable forest management plays in reducing poverty. All of its research has the ultimate aim of helping to prevent the world's tropical forests being used unsustainably. CIFOR is researching reduced impact logging techniques that allow loggers to remove trees at reduced cost, while causing less damage to the forests. It is helping governments to better understand the impacts of decentralized government control over forests, while assisting them implement community forest management systems. CIFOR also examines the impact of national and international policies on forests. For example, the impact of Indonesia's bank restructuring on the pulp and paper industry's demand for raw materials, and the possibility of small forest communities making carbon trading deals with large