Deforestation Threat


Every year, 130,000 km2 of forests are cut down. This area equal more than three times Switzerland or one football terrain every 2 seconds ! The principal reasons are the production of paper, the conversion of forests into cropland, the production of palm oil for the cosmetic industry. Even if tropical forests are far away from us, our daily consumption is not disconnected from this: importation of fodder for our cattle (e.g. Soya), furniture in tropical wood (e.g. table made of teak), intensive use of paper

In the 1990s, almost 70 per cent of deforested areas were changed to agricultural land. In Latin America, most conversion was large scale, whereas in Africa small-scale agricultural enterprises predominated. Notes: 'pan-tropical' refers to data samples from satellite images of tropical areas; regions do not correspond exactly to GEO regions. Source: FAO 2001b


A recent study using globally comprehensive and consistent satellite data estimated that the extent of the world's remaining closed natural forests (where crown cover is more than 40 per cent) in 1995 was 2 870 million ha, about 21.4 per cent of the land area of the world (UNEP 2001). About 81 per cent of these forests are concentrated in just 15 countries. Ranked in the highest to lowest order these are: the Russian Federation, Canada, Brazil, the United States, Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, India, Australia and Papua New Guinea. The first three countries contain about 49 per cent of the remaining closed forests. More than a quarter of closed forests grow on mountains
  • The total area covered by forest is approximately 3 866 million ha, almost one-third of the world's land area, of which 95 per cent is natural forest and 5 per cent is planted forest; 17 per cent is in Africa, 19 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, 27 per cent in Europe, 12 per cent in North America and 25 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean (see table below). About 47 per cent of forests worldwide are tropical, 9 per cent subtropical, 11 per cent temperate and 33 per cent boreal.
  • At the global level, the net loss in forest area during the 1990s was an estimated 9.4 million ha (equivalent to 2.4 per cent of total forests). This was the combined effect of a deforestation rate of 14.6 million ha per year and a rate of forest increase of 5.2 million ha per year. Deforestation of tropical forests is almost 1 per cent per year.
  • The area under forest plantations grew by an average of 3.1 million ha per year during the 1990s. Half of this increase was the result of afforestation on land previously under non-forest land use, whereas the other half resulted from conversion of natural forest.
  • The world's natural forests have continued to be converted to other land uses at a very high rate. During the 1990s, the total loss of natural forests (deforestation plus the conversion of natural forests to forest plantations) was 16.1 million ha per year, of which 15.2 million ha occurred in the tropics.
  • In the 1990s, almost 70 per cent of deforested areas were changed to agricultural land, predominantly under permanent rather than shifting systems. In Latin America most conversion was large scale, whereas in Africa small-scale agricultural enterprises predominated. Changes in Asia were more equally distributed between permanent large- and small-scale agriculture and areas under shifting cultivation.

Asia and the Pacific


Asia and the Pacific region accounts for 18.8 per cent of global forests. Within the region, Northwest Pacific and East Asia has the largest forest area (29.3 per cent of the regional total), followed by Southeast Asia (29.1 per cent), Australia and New Zealand (22.3 per cent), South Asia (11.7 per cent), South Pacific (4.8 per cent) and Central Asia (2.7 per cent) respectively. Average per capita availability of forest area in the region in 2000 was 0.2 ha, less than one-third of the world average of 0.65 ha per person (FAO 2001a).


Indonesia is the second largest producer of palm oil in the world, after Malaysia. The drive to meet the demand for palm oil is resulting in conversion of forested areas into palm oil plantations. These satellite images reveal how a combination of transmigration, logging interests, and palm oil plantation development have transformed an area that was previously tropical lowland rain and swamp forest.

Palm plantations like this one grow African oil palms, a non-native species of palm which produces oil for the edible fats market. Courtesy: UNEP/

While the 1990 image shows the first signs of development in this region, with the jagged access road network forming the only break in the forest cover, the October 2000 image reveals an area being prepared for palm oil plantations, and evidence of an influx of plantation workers. The 2002 image clearly shows a checkered pattern of plantations in the primary development area, and the extension of the road network to the north, south, and southwest.


Between 2000 and 2010, an annual average of nearly 13million ha of the world’s forests were converted to other uses such as agriculture, or lost to natural causes (FAO,2010). During the same period, Africa lost about 2.4 million ha of forest per year, consequently resulting in widespread biodiversity loss (FAO, 2011a). Box 3.7 explains some of the economic costs of deforestation. Mountain forests are disappearing at a faster rate than any other type of forest ecosystem (Price, et al., 2011). As mountain forests are under human pressure to supply building materials, fuel for cooking, agricultural land and hunting grounds, their ecosystem services become increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of these activities.

Deforestation is a serious issue in Africa’s tropical mountains because forest removal releases carbon to the atmosphere (see Chapter 2) and the land becomes increasingly susceptible to flash flooding, shallow landslides and erosion (Price, et al., 2011). Agriculture is taking over montane forests in Uganda, Ethiopia, United Republic of Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia, among others (Bagoora, 2012b). Plantation agriculture is also a factor as more forests are being converted to rubber, coffee and tea plantations (Hall, Burgess, Lovett, Mbilinyi, & Gereau, 2009). Weak or non-existent legal protection and enforcement of sustainable harvest policies can also contribute to deforestation.

Political instability in Ethiopia in the 1990s led to widespread deforestation in the Chencha and Arbaminch areas of the Ethiopian Highlands. Massive amounts of land were cleared to make way for agriculture, firewood and timber production (Assefa & Bork, 2014).Fire is a common driver of deforestation in Africa’s mountains. Fires occur naturally due to lightning and volcanic eruptions and humans intentionally use fire in slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing land for development or agriculture (Figure 3.11) or as an ecological management tool. Fire affects only 0.53 percent of Africa’s mountainous land, but this represents the largest percentage of all continents and impacts can be great at local and regional levels. Uncontrolled and unsustainable fire activity can threaten ecosystem goods and services, especially biodiversity, and human health (Blyth, Groombridge, Lysenko, Miles, & Newton, 2002).

Source: Fao2001b

Taï National Park (Côte d'Ivroire)

Taï National Park, N'Zo Partial Faunal Reserve, and the Goin-Débé and Cavally Forest Reserves, are remnants of tropical rain forests that at one time stretched from Ghana to Sierra Leone. Taï National Park, the most pristine and heavily protected of these, contains some 1 300 plant species, over half of which are unique to the region's rain forests. Taï is also home to most of the large mammals that occur in the area, including the leopard (Panthera pardus), which is critically endangered.

Rural communities are dependant on forest fragments for forest products, widely used for medicine, nourishment and domestic purposes. Credit: L. Nussbaumer

The park was declared a forest and wildlife refuge in 1926 and more recently a National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site. This area was historically remote and sparsely populated; however, roads built in the late 1960s brought periods of population influx. That population has converted most of the forest outside the protected areas to agricultural land, leaving only scattered fragments of forest. Much of this deforestation had already occurred before these images were taken; however several further areas of forest loss can be seen between 1988 and 2002 (yellow arrows).

While deforestation continues outside the protected areas, the Government of Côte d'Ivoire has maintained the Taï National Park's integrity and its core area remains in relatively good condition. The current concern within the park is commercial poaching, putting at risk all fauna, but duikers and primates in particular. Also, as these images make clear, the boundaries of the park are under increasing pressure from a growing population that is running out of unprotected land to farm.

In Côte d’Ivoire more than 95% of original forest cover disappeared since 1900. In the vicinity of the Tai National Park, the forest mosaic was preserved for many years by its inaccessibility. Nowadays, because of the increased pressure from coffee, cocoa and rubber plantations as well as wood exploitation, forest patches are disappearing. These fragments were important resources for villagers and were maintaining terrain stability. Programs of traditions revalorization are a good support to these forests conservation by bringing some of them to sacred woods, but in many other places forests and species are definitely disappearing.

Freetown (Sierra Leone)

Deforestation-rates have greatly increased since the end of the civil war to meet the demands of Freetown’s growing population, including fuelwood, timber for construction and new farming land. Deforestation on the peninsula may have dangerous consequences for the capital’s water supply which relies on the forested catchment area. Credit: UNEP/Flickr/Oli Brown

Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital city, shares a peninsula with the Western Area Forest Reserve-a small remnant of the Guinean Forests that historically stretched from Guinea to Cameroon. The century-old reserve covers a chain of forested hills that are home to approximately 300 species of birds and a small population of chimpanzees.

Intense population growth began in Freetown in the 1970s. However, a buffer of forested land remained between the Reserve and the edge of the city. By the mid-1980s, however, the growing city had expanded into the buffer zone and much closer to Reserve borders (1986 image). Between 1991 and 2002, as many as one million people fled to Freetown as a result of war in Sierra Leone. Many of these refugees moved into the hills of the Reserve, where they relied on its resources to survive. Deforestation and land degradation of these valuable protected lands was the result. By 2003, the border of the Reserve had been breached in many places (2003 image), with urban populations encroaching from several directions.

The sharp boundaries at the edges of the forest indicate areas where forest has been converted to farmland. The 2005 image shows these boundaries pushing further into the forest in several places. The high resolution image (see photos panel below) shows detail of the area highlighted by the yellow box in the above images. In addition to crops, areas of forest plantation are displacing natural forest. Areas of trees with parallel lines cut through them are generally tree farms.

The Reserve is now recognized as vital, not only to the biodiversity and natural systems it supports, but to the people of Freetown as well. The forest is crucial for recharging Freetown's reservoirs, which are already struggling to meet the city's water needs.

Southern Somalia

Aerial view of the port city of Kismayo. Credit: AMISOM public Information/Flickr

Vast tracts of southern Somalia were covered by brush and acacia forests that were home to a diverse array of species and supported open pastures and natural vegetation that were suitable for livestock grazing. These acacia forests, once widespread in southern Somalia around Kismaayo, are severely under threat by the charcoal industry, which has exploited the lack of enforcement by the Somali government over the past decades. Increasing global energy prices coupled with the restrictions in other countries on harvesting trees for charcoal, has increased demand for charcoal in Somalia, and contributed to the full-scale destruction of these acacia forest ecosystems.

Locally, these wood fuel products meet 90 per cent of the energy requirements in Somalia, as alternative sources of household energy are scarce. The wide swaths of acacia groves that are clear-cut for charcoal are mostly taken to the port at Kismaayo for export. Though a ban on exports was imposed in 2006, two months later exports were resumed. The deforestation propelled by this unregulated industry is leading to further desertification, and as a result, decreasing the extent of rangelands and cultivatable lands. In a country already faced with food and water scarcity, these shortages are exacerbating the conflicts between agriculturalists and charcoal producers. In addition, the overall biodiversity once supported by these forests is decreasing. The images illustrate the change in Somalia’s southern forests from 1985 to 2003. While the 1985 image is hindered by cloud cover, the extensive deforestation that has occurred in southern Somalia over the past 25 years is dramatically apparent.

South America

Deforestation is widespread and in some places rampant. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) , between 2000 and 2005 L AC lost approximately 43 500 km of forest per year. This represents the yearly loss of an area more than the size of Switzerland. The biggest share of deforestation is in South America, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon. In this sub-region, deforestation accounts for almost half of global CO2 emissions from land-use change (UNEP 2010) . Many Caribbean countries have preserved or expanded their forested areas, sometimes with plantations. In the Caribbean or elsewhere in the region, plantations can contribute to carbon storage and soil coverage but cannot replace many of the other ecosystem services and biodiversity values provided by native forests—in fact, they often alter them Cattle ranching, agriculture and infrastructure remain the most widespread pressures on L AC’s forests. A study by ECL AC (CEPAL 2007a) indicates that between 1990 and 2005, an increase in cattle ranching coincided with a rise in deforestation in many countries in LAC, and as shown in Figure 2.30, between 1961 and 2000, cattle numbers increased at the expense of forest cover. A study carried out for 36 municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon region (Barreto and others 2009) found a high correlation between deforestation and fattened cattle and soya.

Large-scale and highly mechanized agriculture is responsible for most agricultural expansion into forests in LAC, particularly in northern Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil Since the turn of the 21st century, soybean production accounts for the main crop expansion in those areas; it represents about 40 million hectares in the region, more than 30 per cent of LAC’s total cropland and a threefold increase since the 1980s.

The building of infrastructure, particularly roads, is an important factor in the rise of deforestation rates, mainly in Central and South America. Roads open paths for the agricultural frontier to expand, but also for the spread of illegal logging. Eighty percent of Amazonian deforestation takes place less than 30 km away from an official road. As Figure 2.33 shows, paving is also a major contributing factor (Barreto and others 2006). The characteristic fishbone deforestation image (see the cases of Rondonia, Brazil; and Puccalpa, Peru in Chapter 3) is a result of exploitation through roads, and earlier in the 20th century, through river networks, a practice that remains common in isolated areas of the Colombian and Venezuelan Amazon.


Brazil possesses a third of the world’s tropical forests, including the largest expanse of the Amazonian rainforest. Brazil is also among the top producers, worldwide, of greenhouse gasses, largely due to land use change based on the conversion of forest areas to other uses. The Brazilian Amazon contains nearly the entire forested patrimony of the country, and in the past has been subject to alarming rates of deforestation.

The rate of Amazonian deforestation, however has decreased notably, from 27 777 km2/yr in 2004 to 7 464 km2/yr in 2009 (PRODES 2010). Between 2002 and 2008, 110 068 km2were cut in the Brazilian Amazon, 85 074 km2 in the Cerrado, 16 576 km2 in the Caatinga, and 4 279 km2 in the Pantanal (MMA and others 2010). Other areas of high-biodiversity vegetation like the Northeastern Atlantic Coastal Forest, or Mata Atlântica, presently retain only about 5 per cent of its original extent (UNEP and others 2002). Among the major causes of deforestation are the expansion of the agriculture and ranching frontier, growth of population and human settlements, overexploitation of forest resources, mining, and major infrastructure developments such as highways and dams.


Deforestation in the National Forest of Bom Futuro, Rondônia, Brazil. ©WWF-Brazil / Juvenal Pereira

Approximately 30 per cent of the world's tropical forests are found in Brazil. In a continuing effort to decentralize the Brazilian population and exploit undeveloped regions, the Brazilian government constructed the Cuiaba-Port Velho highway through the province of Rondônia. Completed in 1960, the road serves as the access route for infrastructural development in the region, previously occupied solely by indigenous people. In 1975, the region was still relatively pristine, with much of the forest intact. By 1989, the distinctive fishbone pattern of forest exploitation had appeared and by 2001 had expanded dramatically. The highway has become a major transportation route for immigrant farmers seeking income-producing opportunities. Migration into the area continues unabated.

Rondônia is part of the Brazilian Amazon, on the border with Bolivia. It is one of the peripheral areas undergoing expansion within Amazonia, growing from 551 228 inhabitants in 1980 to 1 503 928 in 2009. Within the Brazilian Amazon, Rondônia has the highest deforestation rate, 34.32 per cent in 2008 (INPE 2008), a drastic increase from 1.76 per cent in 1978 (IBGE 2007). The principal causes of deforestation in the Amazon as a whole, and especially in Rondônia, are: population grow th due to inmigration promoted by the government; the growth of the wood products industry in conjunction with the expansion of the road network, and burning for management of pastureland and agricultural fields (IBGE 2007). The Cuiabá-Porto Velho highway, which crosses Rondônia, encourages migration and deforestation in the area. The satellite images show the accelerated rate of deforestation along highways and roads, following the classic fishbone pattern, and also capture the expansion of urban centres

Mato Grosso

The border between forest and agriculture in Mato Grosso.

At the beginning of the 20th century, roughly 80 percent of the 5 million km2 "Legal Amazon" region of Brazil was forested. Highways built in the 1950s and 1960s, along with government incentives for colonization and development, created a boom in the conversion of forests to cattle ranching and farming. Much of this change occurred along an arc at the southern edge of the Amazon Basin where the newly built roads facilitated access to the forest and connected the region to markets outside the forest. Three states along this arc have accounted for the vast majority of deforestation - Para, Rondônia and Mato Grosso. Mato Grosso alone lost 56 277 km2 of forest from 2001 to 2009 - an area the size of Croatia deforested in just nine years. This deforestation has been documented year-by-year in remote sensing data since the 1970s. The 1984/1985 image(See Downloads) shows a south-west to north-east path cut through the forest in an area of north-central Mato Grosso where highway BR-163 was built in 1973, and another highway branching to the northwest off BR-163. By 2010, the clearing that occurred only along roads in the mid-1980s had spread throughout the entire area leaving only patches of forest. Until recently, more than half of Highway BR-163 remained unpaved, however the Brazilian government has been moving forward with its plans to pave the remainder, in part to facilitate the transport of soybeans to shipping points on the Amazon. Deforestation peaked in around 2004 in Para, Rondônia and Mato Grosso and has declined in most years since; by 2009, it had dropped to about 40 percent of the average forest loss of the last two decades. Recent research that models environmental feedbacks from deforestation, however, suggests that Mato Grosso may be reaching a tipping point at which forest loss will cause precipitation and soil-fertility to decline to the point that secondary forests would not be able to regenerate.

Iguazú (Argentina)

Sparsely populated during the 1970s, this region has undergone major development and large areas of forest have been converted to agricultural lands. Credit: John Townshend/UNEP

Iguazú National Park, located in Argentina near its borders with Brazil and Paraguay, contains remnants of the highly endangered Paranaense Rain Forest. Isolated from other rain forests by natural barriers, the Paranaense developed a distinct and highly diverse ecosystem with thousands of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians unique to the area. The famous Iguazú Falls are located within the boundaries of the National Park and are shared by Argentina and Brazil. Between 1973 and 2011, dramatic changes to the landscape occurred in this region. In 1973 the forested area spread across the borders of the three nations. By 2011, however, large areas of the forest in Paraguay and Brazil, and smaller amounts in Argentina, had been converted to other forms of land cover, creating a mosaic of differently colored land use areas. Note the variation in land cover patterns among the different countries - reflections of different land use polices and practices.

Santa Cruz (Bolivia)

A view of "unbroken" forest in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Courtesy: UNEP/

Santa Cruz is situated in Bolivia's rich, fertile lowlands, a region highly suitable for agriculture. In the 1975 satellite image, the region's forested landscape appears as a dense, essentially unbroken expanse of deep green that extends to the Rio Grande (Guapay) River. By 1986 roads had been built that linked the region to other population centers. As a result, large numbers of people migrated to the area. A large agricultural development effort (the Tierras Baja project) led to widespread deforestation as forests were clear-cut and converted to pastures and cropland. By 2003, almost the entire region had been converted to agricultural lands, including the area east of La Esperanza across the river. In the area north and west of Los Cafes (upper left), notice the grid of squares on the landscape, each with an internal star-shaped pattern. At the center of each square is a small community.

The Department of Santa Cruz, with an estimated 2010 population of 2 785 762 inhabitants, is the second most populous department after the nation’s capital, La Paz. It belongs to the Amazon Basin and the La Plata Riverwatershed and contains a large proportion of Bolivia’s low-altitude forests. The transformation of the woodlands of this region began 45 years ago, and until the 1980s small-scale agriculture, unsustainable forestry, and cattle production were the principal activities responsible for deforestation. In Bolivia, soy cultivation has developed nearly exclusively in this department and, since 1984, has become the principal cause of deforestation. The annual rate of forest loss has increased from 34 000 ha from 1985 to 1990 to more than 200 000 ha between 1993 and 2000. The 1975 satellite image shows the department of Santa Cruz as an area of uninterrupted forest, compared with the 2008 image, where a mosaic of agricultural parcels has replaced much of the tree cove.


Forest goods and services:

  • Industrial wood, woodfuel, non-wood forest products such as fibre, food, medicines.
  • Soil generation, soil and water conservation, purification of air and water, nutrient recycling, maintenance of biological diversity (habitats, species and genetic resources), mitigation of climate change, carbon sequestration.
  • Employment and income, recreation, protection of natural and cultural heritage.

What we can do?


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