chapter  4
22 Pages

Tropical Deforestation

Forests have been cleared by people for many centuries, to use both the trees themselves and the land on which they stand. Throughout the history of most cultures, deforestation has been one of the first steps away from a huntergathering and herding way of life towards sedentary farming and other types of economy. Forests were being cleared in Europe in Mesolithic and Neolithic times, but in central and western parts of the continent an intense phase occurred in the period 1050-1250. Later, when European settlers arrived in North America, for example, deforestation took place over similarly large areas but at a much faster rate: more woodland was cleared in North America in 200 years than in Europe in over 2000 years. Estimates suggest that in pre-agricultural times the world’s forest cover was about 5 billion hectares (Mather, 1990). In 2000, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that natural and plantation forests covered 3.9 billion hectares (FAO, 2001). Although most of this loss has taken place in the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, in recent decades the loss in this zone has been largely halted, and in many countries reversed by planting programmes. Meanwhile, in the tropics, rapidly increasing human populations and improved access to forests have combined in recent times to create an accelerating pace of deforestation, which has become a source of considerable concern both at national and international levels. This chapter concentrates on the humid tropics, while information on forest clearance in the drier parts of these latitudes can be found in Chapter 5.