Drivers of deforestation

Understanding how social, economic and political changes affect tropical deforestation

CIFOR research has made valuable contributions to understanding the drivers of deforestation.

David Kaimowitz, a former Director General of CIFOR, explains that social, economic, and political changes affect tropical deforestation. These may include macro-economic shifts, military conflicts, technological changes in agriculture, decentralization, road construction, and various other things besides just forest or forestry policies.

His ground-breaking work with Arild Angelsen on economic models of the causes of deforestation and how increased agricultural productivity affects deforestation rates has been very widely cited by subsequent researchers working on those topics.

Looking ahead, David Kaimowitz identifies a new research challenge: understanding how changes in forest cover influence climate through pathways that are unrelated to carbon emissions or carbon sinks.

Featured scientist

David Kaimowitz

David Kaimowitz worked at CIFOR from October 1995 through to July 2006 - for a total of almost 11 years. Dr. Kaimowitz was Director General of CIFOR from 2001 to 2006.

David Kaimowitz is currently Director of Natural Resources and Climate Change at the Ford Foundation. He holds a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin. Before joining CIFOR, he held positions at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) in Costa Rica; the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) in the Netherlands; and Nicaragua's Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform (MIDINRA). He has also written or co-written seven books and published more than 100 other scientific publications.

Follow David Kaimowitz on Twitter at: @DKaimowitz

In conversation with David Kaimowitz

  1. What was the main focus of your work when you were at CIFOR?

    My research at CIFOR focused mainly on how more general social, economic, and political changes affected tropical deforestation. In particular, we looked at how macro-economic shifts, military conflicts, technological changes in agriculture, decentralization, road construction, and various other things besides just forest or forestry policies were affecting forests and forest communities.

    During the last five years I was at CIFOR, I was CIFOR's 2nd Director General, so I had a much broader remit. Even so, I was able to devote some time to particular topics that interested me, including the role of forests in poverty reduction, links between forests and human health, armed conflicts in forested regions, using money laundering legislation to curtail illegal forestry activities, and how forest cover affects issues related to water.
  2. How have your research and activities paved the way for future forestry-related developments and research?

    The work that Arild Angelsen and I did on economic models of the causes of deforestation and on how increased agricultural productivity affects deforestation rates have been very widely cited by subsequent researchers working on those topics.

  3. If you could choose one piece of work that would be the highlight of the work you did at CIFOR, what would it be? Why is it a highlight?

    I am particularly proud of the Forest Policy Experts (POLEX) listserve I created. It was a useful way to make people in the forestry community aware of recent policy-relevant research about forests. The messages also allowed recipients to contact the researchers themselves, which often led to useful collaborations and exchanges. POLEX promoted both research by CIFOR scientists and by others. When I left CIFOR in 2006, POLEX was being distributed in English, Spanish, French, and Japanese to about 17,000 governments officials, donors, academics, corporate officials, practitioners, activists, and students.
  4. Since being at CIFOR, how have you seen research in your field evolve?

    Over the last ten years there has been much more focus on the rights of indigenous and traditional communities over forests and the role that plays in mitigating climate change. There has also been much greater emphasis on influencing corporate practices and global agricultural supply chains as an approach to reducing deforestation.
  5. What future challenges related to your research area do you foresee? How does your research address these challenges?

    One topic that increasingly fascinates me is how changes in forest cover influences climate through pathways that have nothing to do with carbon emissions or carbon sinks.

    Cutting down a forest (or reforesting) also affects the climate by changing how much sunlight gets reflected back into the atmosphere (albedo effects), how much water gets evaporated or transpired, how many biological volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) get released into the atmosphere, how the winds pass through the landscape (roughness effects), and how much dust gets into the air. This, in turn, effects things like the type of clouds that form, when the water in clouds precipitates, and the air pressure, among others.

    These non-greenhouse gas emissions pathways have largely been ignored in climate change discussions. They constitute a whole 'other climate change', which interacts with greenhouse gas-related climate changes in very complex ways. There has been a huge amount of excellent research on the topic over the last ten years, but many aspects remain poorly understood.

    The complexities and uncertainties related to this issue make it very challenging to get decision-makers and opinion leaders the attention that it deserves. However, I am currently promoting efforts to try to synthesize some of the key results from recent research and put them in language that non-specialists can understand.
  6. Why do you think that the work CIFOR does on forestry is key for the future of our planet and the people living on it?

    The role of forests is climate mitigation and other environmental services makes them crucial for the survival of humans on this planet. Hundreds of millions of low-income people depend heavily on forests, trees, and other natural vegetation for their income, health, energy, shelter, and fodder.

    Forests are also central to the identities, cultures, and faiths of many people. Current efforts to protect and manage forests have largely failed to guarantee the sustainability of forest resources and equitable access to their benefits. CIFOR and similar institutions are key for promoting informed and critical debate and understanding about these issues, so that we can revert the current negative trends.
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