the Amazon proceeds at an even greater speed, than in the 1980s, when the issue started to arouse worldwide concern. Nevertheless, there is still time to revert this process.
The Impacts of Deforestation
What importance does deforestation have in general and on tropical forests in particular? This can be seen at different levels. At first, it has important local negative impacts. To forest peoples and other forest-dependent peoples, deforestation implies the loss of their possibilities of survival as independent cultures. For them, the forest is their home and provides them with food, medicines, building materials, firewood, water and all the material and spiritual elements that assure the long term survival of the community. The disappearance of the forest means the loss of all these elements, and consequently implies malnutrition, an increase in illnesses, dependency, acculturation, and in many cases emigration and the disappearance of the community itself.
Secondly, deforestation results in impacts at the regional level. As forests assure the preservation of water, soils, plants and wildlife in general, their destruction cause -among other- serious impacts such as extensive flooding, aggravated droughts, soil erosion, the consequent pollution of watercourses and the appearance of pests due to a breakup in the ecological balance. Such impacts affect the lives and health of people at the regional level, as well as their productive activities, such as agriculture, cattle-raising, fishing, etc.
Finally, deforestation also implies serious impacts at the global level. Forests have important functions in relation to climate and their disappearance affect humanity as a whole. On the one hand, the vast forest cover helps to regulate the global climate regarding rain, temperature and wind regimes. On the other hand, they constitute an enormous carbon reservoir and their elimination contributes to the aggravation of the greenhouse effect (generated mainly by the use of fossil fuels). When they are burnt or cut down, the carbon that had been stored up for centuries in the forests is incorporated to the atmosphere, thereby increasing the level of carbon concentration in it and thus aggravating the greenhouse effect.
Additionally, tropical forests are home to a large part of the planet’s biodiversity. Both animal and plant species tend to disappear together with the forests and the rate of species’ extinction increasingly accelerates. Humanity as a whole is therefore affected, given that deforestation brings along the definite loss of species which implies an ethical responsibility to be assumed by humanity as a whole.
The Direct Causes and The Underlying Causes
Why do tropical forests disappear? It is necessary to bear in mind that the causes of this destructive process are many and that they vary according to the different countries and regions. It is also important to distinguish between the direct and the indirect (or underlying) causes. Among the direct causes of deforestation, some of the main ones are: the substitution of forests by other activities (agriculture, cattle-raising, tree plantations, shrimp farming, etc.), logging, mining and oil exploitation and the construction of large hydroelectric dams (which result in the flooding of extensive areas of forest).
In particular, it’s necessary to emphasize the negative role that large scale tree plantations are playing as a direct cause of deforestation. These plantations, promoted as "planted forests" are in reality crops -and not forests- and they are generally preceded by the clearcutting of the native forest ecosystem and its substitution by agrosystems, such as large-scale monocrops of exotic species. Given the serious social and environmental impacts generated by them, the World Rainforest Movement has launched an international campaign against its promotion and in favour of socially and environmentally sustainable alternatives.
The underlying causes of deforestation are those behind the direct causes, which determine their occurrence. Let’s see an example. An important number of peasants arrive to the forest in a certain country and start cutting and burning the forest in order to use the land for agriculture and cattle raising. That is the direct cause. The question is: why do these farmers arrive and act in that manner? Normally peasants migrate to the forest because in their native area they don’t have enough agricultural land. Such situation originates in an inequitable land allocation policy. That is an underlying cause. But they are able to arrive in the forest because previously the government or the logging and mining companies had opened up roads into the forest. This is another underlying cause.
In many cases the government promotes this migration in order to expand the agricultural frontier with the aim of increasing exports. This has several implicit underlying causes: the need to pay the external debt, policies imposed by international financial institutions, the existence of consumer markets in the richer countries, among others.
Actions to Protect The Forests
The protection of forests constitutes an urgent need, both for local peoples and for humanity as a whole. In order to achieve this aim, the first thing is to identify in each case the direct and underlying causes that determine deforestation (as well as the actors involved) and adopt measures to address them. At the same time, it is necessary to identify and assemble all those who have a real interest in the conservation of forests. Given the existence of powerful economic interests that benefit from deforestation, it will be necessary to incorporate the largest possible number of allies (both at the national and international levels), so as to exert sufficient pressure to be able to tip the balance in favour of forest conservation.
Among the measures to be promoted, there is one that many governments could implement immediately: the recognition of the territorial rights of the indigenous peoples. There are many governments that still refuse to accept that indigenous peoples (who lived in the forests much before the current national states even existed) have rights over their forests. Land is defined as being the property of the State, which can hand it out in concession, can sell it or give it to companies or individuals, ignoring the rights and even the existence of the indigenous peoples. Such situation is at the origin of the destruction process, by facilitating the entry of people and enterprises that very quickly destroy what indigenous peoples had used sustainably over the centuries. State recognition of the indigenous peoples rights would therefore be the best conservation measure possible, given that the main interest of these peoples lies precisely in the conservation of the forest that assures their livelihoods.
In other cases, the measures to be promoted could be different and that is why it is so important to identify specific causes and actors for each reality. But in all cases the fundamental thing is to organize and consolidate the increasing national and international awareness on the necessity of conserving forests in general and the tropical forests in particular. This is the only possible way to stop the current destructive process and to begin to walk along a path of social justice and environmental sustainability.
tropical forest, forest, tropical, future