[Table of Contents]

Sustainability of Forests


Underlying Causes of Deforestation


Many physical causes of deforestation have been identified and are the focus of considerable research aimed at minimising ecological damage. But not all causes of forest degradation and loss are direct and obvious; social processes and economic policies also play a major role. Sorting out the various factors and interrelationships of these processes and how they affect the condition of forests and forest-dwellers is a challenge for researchers.

CIFOR studies are providing important insight into the impacts of extra-sectoral influences such as economic policies (especially structural adjustment programmes) and technological advances in agriculture and decentralisation. Much of this work is centered around a comparative study of macroeconomic changes in Bolivia, Cameroon and Indonesia. Other significant research is being done in Southern and Eastern Africa and in
Central America.

In 1998, Drs. David Kaimowitz and Arild Angelsen published Economic Models of Tropical Deforestation: A Review, which has generated widespread interest among researchers and policy makers because of its provocative conclusions. Summarised in a major research journal of the World Bank, it calls into question many of the conventional hypotheses about causes of deforestation.

The authors reviewed the methodologies and results of more than 140 economic studies of tropical deforestation. They caution that many of the findings should be viewed with skepticism because of poor data quality and weaknesses in study design. Quantitative economic modelling of deforestation has become very popular in recent years. While some of these studies have offered useful insights, the authors argue that commonly used approaches such as national and multi-country regression models are of limited value. They recommend a shift toward household and regional-level studies, which should shed greater light on factors that influence decisions by agents who are directly involved in forest use and clearing.

Other path-breaking work by this research programme is challenging prevalent ideas about agriculture intensification and its impact on forests. The conventional paradigm has been that improved agricultural productivity resulting from technological advances lessens the pressure on forest resources, thereby supporting forest conservation aims. But CIFOR researchers have found many instances in which innovations in the agriculture sector have created new opportunities for farmers, who have thereby cleared land more rapidly than they might otherwise have done. In particular, the research suggests, capital-intensive technologies suited for agricultural frontier conditions, and production for export, are likely to increase conversion of forest land.

Because structural adjustment programmes have a major impact on forests and forest-dependent people, CIFOR is investigating the impacts of such programmes and analysing the feasibility of alternative strategies. Only a few years ago, poor people and their shifting agriculture practices were seen as the main driving force behind deforestation. But recent evidence is indicating that commercial factors and macroeconomic changes can have a far greater impact.

Comparative studies in Indonesia, Cameroon and Bolivia are demonstrating how national economic crises and subsequent government macroeconomic policies affect local patterns of livelihood and forest use. By combining social science methods and remote-sensing data in many cases, the researchers are acquiring answers to central questions such as what affects farming decisions at the household level and how this relates to forest clearing.

In 1998, CIFOR researchers analysed the results of surveys in Cameroon to determine how changes in market prices and a massive currency devaluation that followed a national economic crisis in the 1980s influenced what crops people planted and the amount of land they used. One important finding was that, as global market prices fell, small-scale farmers shifted from production of export crops such as cocoa to subsistence crops, and they did so by clearing more forest land rather than using land previously cleared for agriculture. (They retained their export crop plots in the hope that prices would eventually revive.) This project, being done in conjunction with the U.K.’s Department of Overseas Development, is also investigating other aspects of macroeconomic policy effects as well as the influence of new forestry laws in Cameroon.

The trend of decentralisation that is occurring in many tropical countries is another extra-sectoral factor that is affecting how forest resources are managed and by whom. CIFOR and research partners that include the Center for Research on Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA) and the Bolivian Sustainable Forest Management Project (BOLFOR) have been working to determine whether decentralisation will ultimately benefit forests by reversing historic patterns of control by powerful forces that tended to increase forest clearing and degradation in the Bolivian lowlands.

Initial findings have shown that decentralisation in Bolivia has brought benefits to many poor rural people in heavily forested areas, including greater access to forest resources, restricted encroachment by large timber companies and ranchers, and a greater voice in policy making. Nevertheless, there are major obstacles that could undermine sustainable management and use, including weak local technical capacity, limited national support and organisational problems among small-scale loggers.