Commercial logging is the single largest cause of rainforest destruction, both directly and indirectly. Other activities destroying the rainforest, including clearing land for grazing animals and subsistence farming. The simple fact is that people are destroying the Amazon rainforest and the rest of the rainforests of the world because "they can't see the forest for the trees."
Logging for Tropical Hardwoods
Logging tropical hardwoods like teak, mahogany, rosewood, and other timber for furniture, building materials, charcoal, and other wood products is big business and big profits. Several species of tropical hardwoods are imported by developed counties, including the United States, just to build coffins that are then buried or burned. The demand, extraction, and consumption of tropical hardwoods has been so massive that some countries that have been traditional exporters of tropical hardwoods are now importing them because they have already exhausted their supply by destroying their native rainforests in slash-and-burn operations. It is anticipated that the Philippines, Malaysia, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Thailand will soon follow, as all these countries will run out of rainforest hardwood timber for export within five years. Japan is the largest importer of tropical woods. Despite recent reductions, Japan's average tropical timber import of 11 million cubic meters annually is still gluttonous. The demand for tropical hardwood timber is damaging to the ecological, biological, and social fabric of tropical lands and is clearly unsustainable for any length of time.
Behind the hardwood logger come others down the same roads built to transport the timber. The cardboard packing and the wood chipboard industries use 15-ton machines that gobble up the rainforest with 8-foot cutting discs that have eight blades revolving 320 times a minute. These machines that cut entire trees into chips half the size of a matchbox can gobble up more than 200 species of trees in mere minutes.
Logging rainforest timber is a large economic source, and in many cases, the main source of revenue for servicing the national debt of these developing countries. Logging profits are real to these countries that must service their debts, but they are fleeting. Governments are selling their assets too cheaply, and once the rainforest is gone, their source of income will also be gone. Sadly, most of the real profits of the timber trade are made not by the developing countries, but by multinational companies and industrialists of the Northern Hemisphere. These huge, profit-driven logging companies pay governments a fraction of the timber's worth for large logging concessions on immense tracts of rainforest land and reap huge profits by harvesting the timber in the most economical manner feasible with little regard to the destruction left in their wake.
Logging concessions in the Amazon are sold for as little as $2 per acre, with logging companies felling timber worth thousands of dollars per acre. Governments are selling their natural resources, hawking for pennies resources that soon will be worth billions of dollars. Some of these government concessions and land deals made with industrialists make the sale of Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets look shrewd. In 1986 a huge industrial timber corporation bought thousands of acres in the Borneo rainforest by giving 2,000 Malaysian dollars to twelve longhouses of local tribes. This sum amounted to the price of two bottles of beer for each member of the community. Since then, this company and others have managed to extract and destroy about a third of the Borneo rainforest - about 6.9 million acres - and the local tribes have been evicted from the area or forced to work for the logging companies at slave wages.
Fuel Wood and the Paper Industry
In addition to being logged for exportation, rainforest wood stays in developing countries for fuel wood and charcoal. One single steel plant in Brazil making steel for Japanese cars needs millions of tons of wood each year to produce charcoal that can be used in the manufacture of steel. Then, there is the paper industry.
One pulpwood project in the Brazilian Amazon consists of a Japanese power plant and pulp mill. To set up this single plant operation, 5,600 square miles of Amazon rainforest were burned to the ground and replanted with pulpwood trees. This single manufacturing plant consumes 2,000 tons of surrounding rainforest wood every day to produce 55 megawatts of electricity to run the plant. The plant, which has been in operation since 1978, produces more than 750 tons of pulp for paper every 24 hours, worth approximately $500,000, and has built 2,800 miles of roads through the Amazon rainforest to be used by its 700 vehicles. In addition to this pulp mill, the world's biggest pulp mill is the Aracruz mill in Brazil. Its two units produce 1 million tons of pulp a year, harvesting the rainforest to keep the plant in business and displacing thousands of indigenous tribes. Where does all this pulp go? Aracruz's biggest customers are the United States, Belgium, Great Britain, and Japan. More and more rainforest is destroyed to meet the demands of the developed world's paper industry, which requires a staggering 200 million tons of wood each year simply to make paper. If the present rate continues, it is estimated that the paper industry alone will consume 4 billion tons of wood annually by the year 2020.
Once an area of rainforest has been logged, even if it is given the rare chance to regrow, it can never become what it once was. The intricate ecosystem nature devised is lost forever. Only 1 to 2 percent of light at the top of a rainforest canopy manages to reach the forest floor below. Most times when timber is harvested, trees and other plants that have evolved over centuries to grow in the dark, humid environment below the canopy simply cannot live out in the open, and as a result, the plants and animals (that depend on the plants) of the original forest become extinct Even if only sections of land throughout an area are destroyed, these remnants change drastically. Birds and other animals cannot cross from one remnant of land to another in the canopy, so plants are not pollinated, seeds are not dispersed by the animals, and the plants around the edges are not surrounded by the high jungle humidity they need to grow properly. As a result, the remnants slowly become degraded and die. Rains come and wash away the thin topsoil that was previously protected by the canopy, and this barren, infertile land is vulnerable to erosion. Sometimes the land is replanted in African grasses for cattle operations; other times more virgin rainforest is destroyed for cattle operations because grass planted on recently burned land has a better chance to grow.
As the demand in the Western world for cheap meat increases, more and more rainforests are destroyed to provide grazing land for animals. In Brazil alone, there are an estimated 220 million head of cattle, 20 million goats, 60 million pigs, and 700 million chickens. Most of Central and Latin America's tropical and temperate rainforests have been lost to cattle operations to meet the world demand, and still the cattle operations continue to move southward into the heart of the South American rainforests. To graze one steer in Amazonia takes two full acres. Most of the ranchers in the Amazon operate at a loss, yielding only paper profits purely as tax shelters. Ranchers' fortunes are made only when ranching is supported by government giveaways. A banker or rich landowner in Brazil can slash and burn a huge tract of land in the Amazon rainforest, seed it with grass for cattle, and realize millions of dollars worth of government-subsidized loans, tax credits, and write-offs in return for developing the land. These government development schemes rarely make a profit, as they are actually selling cheap beef to industrialized nations. One single cattle operation in Brazil that was co-owned by British Barclays Bank and one of Brazil's wealthiest families was responsible for the destruction of almost 500,000 acres of virgin rainforest. The cattle operation never made a profit, but government write-offs sheltered huge logging profits earned off of logging other land in the Brazilian rainforest owned by the same investors. These generous tax and credit incentives have created more than 29 million acres of large cattle ranches in the Brazilian Amazon, even though the typical ranch could cover less than half its costs without these subsidies. Even these grazing lands don't last forever. Soon the lack of nutrients in the soil and overgrazing degrade them, and they are abandoned for newly cleared land. In Brazil alone, more than 63,000 square miles of land has reportedly been abandoned in this way.
This type of government-driven destruction of rainforest land is promoted by a common attitude among governments in rainforest regions, an attitude that the forest is an economic resource to be harnessed to aid in the development of their countries. The same attitudes that accompanied the colonization of our own frontier are found today in Brazil and other countries with wild and unharnessed rainforest wilderness. These beliefs are exemplified by one Brazilian official's public statement that "not until all Amazonas is colonized by real Brazilians, not Indians, can we truly say we own it." Were we Americans any different with our own colonization, decimating the North American Indian tribes? Like Brazil, we sent out a call to all the world that America had land for the landless in an effort to increase colonization of our country at the expense of our indigenous Indian tribes. And like the first American colonists, colonization in the rainforest really means subsistence farming.
Subsistence farming has for centuries been a driving force in the loss of rainforest land. And as populations explode in Third-World countries in South America and the Far East, the impact has been profound. By tradition, wildlands and unsettled lands in the rainforest are free to those who clear the forest and till the soil. "Squatter's rights" still prevail, and poor, hungry people show little enthusiasm for arguments about the value of biodiversity or the plight of endangered species when they struggle daily to feed their families. These landless peasants and settlers follow the logging companies down the roads they've built to extract timber into untouched rainforest lands, burning off whatever the logging companies left behind.
The present approach to rainforest cultivation produces wealth for a few, but only for a short time, because farming burned-off tracts of Amazon rainforest seldom works for long. Less than 10 percent of Amazonian soils are suitable for sustained conventional agriculture. However lush they look, rainforests often flourish on such nutrient-poor soils that they are essentially "wet deserts," easier to damage and harder to cultivate than any other soil. Most are exhausted by the time they have produced three or four crops. Many of the thousands of homesteaders who migrated from Brazil's cities to the wilds of the rainforest, responding to the government's call of "land without men for men without land," have already had to abandon their depleted farms and move on, leaving behind fields of baked clay dotted with stagnant pools of polluted water. Experts agree that the path to conservation begins with helping these local residents meet their own daily needs. Because of the infertility of the soil, and the lack of knowledge of sustainable cultivation practices, this type of agriculture strips the soil of nutrients within a few harvests, and the farmers continue to move farther into the rainforest in search of new land. They must be helped and educated to break free of the need to continually clear rainforest in search of fresh, fertile land if the rainforest is to be saved.
Leading the Threat: Governments
Directly and indirectly, the leading threats to rainforest ecosystems are governments and their unbridled, unplanned, and uncoordinated development of natural resources. The 2000-2001 World Resources Report put out by the United Nations reported that governments worldwide spend $700 billion dollars a year supporting and subsidizing environmentally unsound practices in the use of water, agriculture, energy, and transportation. In the Amazon, rainforest timber exports and large-scale development projects go a long way in servicing national debt in many developing countries, which is why governments and international aid-lending institutions like the World Bank subsidize them. In the tropics, governments own or control nearly 80 percent of tropical forests, so these forests stand or fall according to government policy; and in many countries, government policies lie behind the wastage of forest resources. Besides the tax incentives and credit subsidies that guarantee large profits to private investors who convert forests to pastures and farms, governments allow private concessionaires to log the national forests on terms that induce uneconomic or wasteful uses of the public domain. Massive public expenditures on highways, dams, plantations, and agricultural settlements, too often supported by multilateral development lending, convert or destroy large areas of forest for projects of questionable economic worth.
Tropical countries are among the poorest countries on Earth. Brazil alone spends 40 percent of its annual income simply servicing its loans, and the per capita income of Brazil's people is less than $2,000 annually. Sadly, these numbers don't even represent an accurate picture in the Amazon because Brazil is one of the richer countries in South America. These struggling Amazonian countries must also manage the most complex, delicate, and valuable forests remaining on the planet, and the economic and technological resources available to them are limited. They must also endure a dramatic social and economic situation, as well as deeply adverse terms of trade and financial relationships with industrial countries. Under such conditions, the possibility of their reaching sustainable models of development alone is virtually nil.
There is a clear need for industrial countries to sincerely and effectively assist the tropics in a quest for sustainable forest management and development if the remaining rainforests are to be saved. The governments of these developing countries need help in learning how to manage and protect their natural resources for long-term profits, while still managing to service their debts, and they must be given the incentives and tools to do so. Programs to redefine the timber concessions so concessionaires have greater incentives to guard the long-term health of the forest and programs to revive and expand community-based forestry schemes, which ensure more rational use of forests and a better life for the people who live near them, must be developed.
First-World capital must seek out opportunities to partner with organizations that have the technical expertise to guide these programs of sustainable economic development. In addition, programs teaching techniques for sustainable harvesting practices and identifying profitable, yet sustainable, forest products can enable developing countries to improve the standard of living for their people, service national debt, and contribute meaningfully to land use planning and conservation of natural resources.