Deforestation Research Paper

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Deforestation can be defined as the conversion of forested areas to something that is different. Net deforestation accounts for afforestation (the establishment of forests on land that has not been recently forested), reforestation (the reestablishment of forests on land that was recently forested), and the natural expansion of forests. While the calculation of net deforestation is comparatively easy on a small scale, it is difficult on a global scale, despite modern technology such as extensive satellite surveillance. There are several reasons for this difficulty.

First, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of forest. The first Global Biodiversity Outlook (2001) defines forests as “ecosystems in which trees are the predominant life forms” but it also notes that a more precise definition is “surprisingly elusive” (p. 91). The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a more liberal definition, classing forests as “ecosystems dominated by trees (defined as perennial woody plants taller than 5 meters at maturity), where the tree crown cover exceeds 10% and the area is larger than 0.5 hectares” (a half of a hectare is about 1.2 acres) (FAO 2001, p. 365). This definition thus embraces areas that some investigators think too lightly wooded to be considered a forest.

The FAO definition of forest also includes tree plantations established for the production of timber or pulpwood (used for paper) while excluding orchards. Critics point out that the inclusion of biodiversity-poor plantations in the definition of forests understates the loss of qualities that many people associate with the word “forest.” These qualities are found in woodland areas that retain a significant “natural” element and provide habitat for varied species, including trees of different species and ages. More controversially, the FAO includes in its definition forests that are “temporarily unstocked,” such as areas that have been cleared and burned. Because the duration of clearance and the certainty of restocking are unclear, inclusion of such temporarily cleared land complicates estimates of the extent and trend of current deforestation.

Other problems arise in determining the extent and trend of global deforestation. The aggregate data on which the FAO relies is supplied by its member states (as is the case with all global data used by the UN). The survey and statistical resources in many poor countries are weak, and often declining. The greatest disagreement over the extent of deforestation concerns the biodiversity-rich tropical forests. Yet such areas are disproportionately concentrated in countries where statistical resources are weak. Remote sensing methods have been increasingly used to try to compensate for these deficiencies. However, data obtained by these methods are also imperfect, for reasons such as persistent cloud cover and the problem of groundtruthing on a global basis (comparing satellite data with data observed on the ground).

The Extent of Deforestation

About 8,000 years ago, forests are estimated to have covered about 15 billion acres, almost half of the earth’s land surface. Since then human populations and fire have had a significant impact on these forests. This impact is roughly proportional to the increase in human population and its environmental impact. In the near future there is a risk that these effects may be multiplied by climate change.

A review by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment— the most authoritative assessment of the causes, composition, and consequences of global deforestation—concluded that the world’s global forest area has shrunk by over 40 percent in recent centuries. The area of global forest in 2000 is thought to include from 9.6 to 10.9 billion acres.

The pattern of current deforestation shows two trends. At higher latitudes the boreal and temperate forest areas have either stabilized or are now expanding in size (by about 7.4 million acres per annum, of which about 2.5 million acres are plantations). However, in tropical regions, forests continue to decline in both area and quality (by about 30 million acres per annum).

Compared to the decade 1980–1990, net deforestation slowed in the following decade, from minus 30 million acres to minus 20 million acres per year. According to the Global Biodiversity Outlook 2 (2006), this trend in reduction in forest clearance has continued since 2000, with a loss of about 18 million acres per year in the five years to 2005. This decrease is mostly the result of expansion in plantations (including almost 5 million acres per annum in tropical regions). Thus, despite this slowing, the rate of loss of natural (“primary”) forests in the last two decades is thought to have remained about the same. Many forests are also declining in quality. Forest fragmentation, most commonly by the incursion of roads and agricultural settlements, leaves forests vulnerable to further disturbance, including drying, fires, and the invasion of exotic species.

Tropical Deforestation

Tropical rainforest is the most extensive forest type in the world, constituting 26 percent of global forest area. Almost 60 percent of existing tropical forests are rain forest; the remainder are mostly sparse forests in dryland areas and degraded forests. In tropical forests, biodiversity, including of trees, is very high, with often more than 100 tree species per hectare. Tropical forests (both moist and dry) harbor from 50 percent to 90 percent of the earth’s terrestrial species.

Most tropical forests are mainly in South America (1.4 billion acres), Africa (670 million acres), and Asia (490 million acres). From 1980 to 1990 about 25 million acres of tropical forest was cleared, of which about 15 million acres were of moist forests. In the following decade, total tropical forest clearance is thought to have increased to about 37 million acres per annum (about 1.2 percent of the global tropical forest total). While some of this loss is compensated for by tropical forest plantations, plantations are much lower in biodiversity.

Controlling Deforestation

Deforestation has largely occurred because of the expansion of agricultural land. Increasing populations and increasing demand for products that can be grown on land that is currently forested land (such as palm oil, a source of biofuel) will drive ongoing tropical deforestation. Climate change may worsen this, though it may also allow the expansion of some high-latitude forests, even if warmer winters allow increased populations of insect pests.

While there is considerable discussion of sustainable forest management, this is not yet having a significant mitigative effect. Until population growth substantially abates, the loss of quantity and especially of quality of forests in the tropics is likely to continue. And, because of climate change, tropical deforestation could continue even after population peaks.


  1. Achard, Frédéric, Hugh D. Eva, Hans-Jürgen Stibig, et al. 2002. Determination of Deforestation Rates of the World’s Humid Tropical Forests. Science 297 (August 9): 999–1002.
  2. Cox, Peter M, Richard A Betts, Chris D. Jones, et al. 2000. Acceleration of Global Warming Due to Carbon-Cycle Feedbacks in a Coupled Climate Model. Nature 408 (November 9): 184–187.
  3. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. 2001. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000—Main Report. FAO Foresty Paper 140.
  4. Hoare, A. 2005. Irrational Numbers: Why the FAO’s Forest Assessments Are Misleading. London: Rainforest Foundation. 0numbers.pdf.
  5. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. 2001. Global Biodiversity Outlook. Montreal, Canada.
  6. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. 2006. Global Biodiversity Outlook 2. Montreal, Canada.
  7. Shvidenko, Anatoly, Charles Victor Barber, Reidar Persson, et al. 2005. Forest and Woodland Systems. In Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Current State and Trends, Vol 1, eds. Rashid Hassan, Robert Scholes, and Neville Ash, 585–621. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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