Deforestation Rates Slowing in Many Tropical Countries

By: Nick Engelfried 

October 11, 2010

In a piece of welcome good news for environmentalists, deforestation rates in at least some tropical countries slowed significantly over the last ten years—and especially in the years since 2005.  According to a survey of 121 tropical nations conducted by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, total annual deforestation rates dropped from 11.33 million hectares in the last decade of the twentieth century, to 9.34 hectares in the years between 2000 and 2010. 

Much of the decline can be attributed to slower deforestation rates in Brazil, which contains more tropical rainforest than any other country in the world.  Though Brazil continued to experience very high deforestation rates through 2004, yearly forest loss has decreased more-or-less steadily since that time.  According to at least some estimates, deforestation in Brazil in dropped 47% between 2009 and 2010 alone. 

Other countries besides Brazil where deforestation slowed in the last five years include Nicaragua, Mexico, Cameroon, Laos, and Cambodia.  Comparatively speaking, Mexico has experienced one of the most encouraging trends of any country surveyed, with deforestation dropping 37% over the last five years as compared with the first five years of the new century.

Yet despite a drop in tropical deforestation worldwide, loss of forests is still accelerating in some countries.  Yearly deforestation rates climbed 107% in Indonesia during the last five years, and increased by 94% in Peru over the same time period.  Other tropical nations where deforestation rates are rising include Madagascar, Mali, and Guatemala.  The factors influencing these trends vary from country to country, but can often be traced back to exploitation of rainforests for materials sold on the international market.  In Indonesia for example, rainforests are being felled for timber and palm oil plantations, feeding a demand that originates largely in the industrialized world.  In Peru, illegal logging and oil and gas development are both major causes of forest loss. 

In many of the countries where deforestation is declining, national policies that protect forests deserve at least some of the credit.  For example in Brazil, government initiatives designed to remove incentives to burn or clear forests on private lands have contributed to slower rates of forest loss.  In addition public pressure in industrialized countries has resulted in many major international companies adopting new policies to ensure they are not contributing to deforestation. 

Another part of the decline in deforestation may be due to the economic recession, raising questions about what will happen to the world’s forests as the economy picks back up.  When consumers in countries like the United States are hit by economic hard times, demand goes down for products like beef that add to deforestation in Brazil and other countries.  If the demand for beef goes back up, cattle ranchers in the tropics will have an incentive to produce more beef by clearing more forested lands. 

The next few years will likely show whether the worldwide slowdown in deforestation rates is a lasting phenomenon, or simply a temporary side effect of the recession.  But for now tropical forests in many countries have been granted at last a momentary reprieve, showing that conservation policies and changes in international market pressures can indeed make an impact on the fate of these ecosystems.  For the moment, those concerned about the future of tropical rainforests have a reason to celebrate.  

Photo credit: Nick Engelfried

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