The primary cause of forest degradation



The World Wide Fund For Nature reports on research which has concluded that "the primary cause of forest degradation" is the international timber trade. It is nice to have the WWF join the grassroots forest movement in this realization. This piece provides good overview of timber industry impacts on forest ecology, and concludes with a country by country profile of current forest status. The following article comes from WWF's very impressive new web server at:


The Timber Trade and Global Forest Loss
Copyright 1996, The World Wide Fund For Nature

Research carried out for WWF suggests that the international timber trade is now the primary cause of forest degradation and loss in those forests that contain the highest levels of biodiversity. This conclusion is based on a number of important findings.

       * correlating logging sites with species-rich forests

       * looking at forest quality as well as quantity

       * extending the assessment to all forests, rather than just

       * including an assessment of illegal logging

For many years, the timber trade has claimed that it plays a negligible role in forest loss, and that most deforestation is caused by agricultural clearance or fuelwood collection. Population growth, rather than industrial exploitation, has been blamed as the underlying problem. Research by WWF leads to the opposite conclusion. Taking the survival of biodiversity as a major criterion, WWF concludes that the timber trade is currently the most important cause of loss and forest degradation around the world. This judgment is based on several factors as examined below.

The timber trade and forests rich in wildlife Following centuries of degradation, most forest ecosystems are severely threatened. Surviving areas of natural or semi-natural habitat are of primary importance in maintaining biodiversity. The Earth currently contains large areas of recently cleared forest, young regenerating forest and middle-age forest. Far less common, particularly in the North but increasingly also in the South, are old-growth forests. These generally have a specialised flora and fauna that can only survive in forests that have been relatively undisturbed for hundreds of years. In many of these areas, the timber trade remains, or has become, the primary agent of change. Some examples are given in Table 1

There is no accident in the overlap between biologically-rich forests and forests with large timber operations. Areas of high biodiversity tend to contain the oldest, and thus in many cases the most commercially valuable, trees. Natural forests are often virtually unclaimed, under the stewardship of politically weak indigenous groups, or nominally under state control. Forests with high biodiversity are, by their very nature, likely to draw the attention of the global timber trade.

Quality and quantity

The timber trade is also responsible for a major reduction in the quality of many forests. From the perspective of biodiversity, there is often little to choose between replacing a natural forest with a tree plantation or losing it altogether. In either case, the vast majority of the original native wildlife species do not survive. Even if total number of species remains constant, the rarer natural species are often replaced by exotics and weed species. Loss of forest quality has already occurred over most of Europe, North America and Australasia. It is becoming significant in several Southern countries as well. Analysis of the timber trade's impact should consider more than just the loss of area under trees. It also should consider the biological quality of the forest that remains.

Including all forests in assessments

Previous emphasis on problems in tropical rainforests has obscured issues in other forests. The WWF study looked at all forests. The role of the timber trade immediately grows in significance. Unlike tropical moist forest, where there have been endless arguments about cause and effect in forest loss, in almost all temperate and boreal countries still possessing substantial old-growth forests, the timber trade is now undoubtedly the primary cause of natural forest loss.

Illegal logging operations

Assessments from the industry tend to draw on official studies of the legal timber trade. In fact, in some countries undergoing severe deforestation, the timber recorded by the Ministry of Forests is only a small proportion of the actual fellings and/or exports. Much illegal timber enters the international trade, with or without the knowledge of importers. Often, illegality is tacitly accepted by the buyer. Countries where illegal logging is having an important, and largely unquantified, impact on natural forests include (not an exhaustive list): Kenya, Zaire, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Russian Federation. Until recently, 80 per cent of the mahogany leaving Brazil was exported illegally.

Changing global forest conditions

Time has also increased the relative impact of the timber trade. Primary forest has now been reduced to fragments in many countries. As the amount of high quality, natural forest declines, and is increasingly confined to areas which are inhospitable to human settlement, the proportion of this remnant that is damaged by the timber trade continues to grow. The actions of the national and international timber trade are now critical to the survival of most of the world's biologically richest forest ecosystems and therefore to the majority of species.

The way forward

The next two or three decades will decide whether or not we enter the future with a full range of rich and diverse forest ecosystems. The future actions of the timber trade will play a vital role in this implicit decision. Although the situation is serious, there are some optimistic signs. A substantial, and growing, section of the timber trade is prepared to take environmental issues seriously, and is making real efforts to change its practices. Developments such as the establishment of the Forest Stewardship Council, and efforts to promote certification in countries such as Belgium, Sweden and the UK, provide a framework for changes in forest management that will have important benefits to wildlife.

On the other hand, some sections of the trade are responding to the perceived "threat" of environmentalism by resisting change and fighting back; pressuring governments and aid agencies, funding front groups to discredit the environmental lobby, cutting fast to beat planned controls, moving into areas where environmental controls are lax, and delaying reforms. These timber traders will come under increasing pressure in the future.

WWF supports the use of wood from well-managed, environmentally and socially sustainable forests. The needs of the timber trade and the environmental movement are not as far apart as people often assume. Clearcutting an area and moving on might benefit a handful of people at the top of a timber company, but it certainly doesn't benefit the workers on the ground any more than it does wildlife, the environment and local people. Recent abandonment of worked out concessions in countries as far apart as C"te d'Ivoire, the USA and Indonesia all bear witness to the human costs of bad forestry.

WWF has responded to the problems posed by forest degradation by setting the world two important and challenging targets:

  * Establishing an ecologically representative network of protected 
    areas covering at least 10 per cent of the world's forests by the  
    year 2000, demonstrating a range of socially and environmentally 
    appropriate models.

  * Ensuring the independent certification of 10 million hectares of 
    sustainably managed forest by 1998.
Getting forest management right - for people and the environment - is in the interests of everyone. We call on the timber trade to respond positively to the challenge of forest sustainability, and to work with the environmental movement in realising the vision of a world full of high quality forests.

 Country                 Status and details

 Europe *

 Finland                 Only 1-2% old-growth forest remains;
                         this is till being logged in places.

                         Logging has increased 700% in the last
 Latvia                  few years, mainly for the export
                         market, threatening many important wet

                         Logging of remaining old-growth forest
 Norway                  has increased since plans for
                         additional conservation legislation
                         were suggested.

                         Logging has intensified since 1989, and
 Poland                  is taking place on the edge of the
                         internationally important Bia_owieza
                         forest Biosphere reserve.

                         Logging of old growth forest continues
 Sweden                  in the boreal region, despite being
                         reduced to 1-2% of the original.

 UK                      Illegal felling of broadleaved trees to
                         sell as firewood is on the increase.

                         Logging is occurring in many
                         biologically rich areas of Siberia and
 Russian Federation      European Karelia. In the latter case
                         there is currently a growing
                         cross-border trade in birch with

 North America

                         Boreal forest logging is taking place
                         on a large scale in many areas,
 Canada                  including particularly Alberta. In
                         Ontario, two thirds of the remaining 1%
                         of old-growth forest is slated for
                         commercial felling.

                         Logging of old-growth forests in the
                         Pacific Northwest looks likely to
 USA                     increase again in response to
                         Republican aims to deregulate the
                         industry and overturn environmental

 South America

                         Temperate forests are rapidly being
 Argentina               logged by foreign companies, including
                         many from North America.

 Bolivia                 Forest loss has now reached critical
                         levels in some areas.

                         Illegal logging of mahogany is having a
                         major impact on the ecology, and the
 Brazil                  survival, of forests in many areas, and
                         until recently 80% of mahogany exports
                         were of illegal felled trees.

                         Large areas of beech (Nothofagus) have
                         been logged to make way for pine
 Chile                   plantations in the last decade, often
                         by foreign companies, and Araucaria
                         forest is also threatened.

                         Increased logging by foreign companies
 Guyana                  is now threatening one of the largest
                         remaining areas of pristine rainforest
                         in the region.

                         Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese
 Suriname                companies are preparing to log in
                         pristine rainforest.


                         Numerous transnational companies are
                         operating in the country, including
                         companies from Belgium France, Germany,
 Cameroon                and Italy. A survey in 1993 identified
                         100 forest operations, 60 of which were
                         foreign-owned. Logging has increased
                         100% in the last few years.

                         90% of the forests have been allocated
 Central African Rep     to 10 companies, including 4 from
                         France, 2 from Romania and 1 from
                         former Yugoslavia.

                         At least 15 of 36 active timber
                         companies are foreign-owned,
 Congo                   controlling about half the cut and
                         based in Germany, the Netherlands and

                         Less than 14% of the original forest
 C"te d'Ivoire           remains. Companies from Denmark,
                         France, Germany, Italy and Holland
                         remain active.

                         Most timber production is under
                         European control, predominantly from
 Gabon                   France but also from Germany, Italy and
                         Switzerland. Latest estimates for
                         deforestation are 0.6%/year.

                         More than 90% of forests have been
                         logged since the 1940s. Danish and
                         Dutch companies operate, and in the
 Ghana                   late 1980s a state-owned timber company
                         was rehabilitated by a UK company; this
                         was abandoned after allegations of

                         Much of Nigeria's small area of
 Nigeria                 remaining forest is threatened by legal
                         and illegal timber operations.

                         Around ten timber companies are
                         operating in Zaire, and most logging is
 Zaire                   carried out by foreign-based firms from
                         Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France,
                         Germany and Italy. Logging is
                         increasing rapidly.


                         Illegal timber felling has increased
 Cambodia                enormously over the past few years and
                         is rapidly depleting the country's

                         The government intends to replace 2
                         million hectares of forest with
 Indonesia               plantations by 2000. Commercial
                         forestry is a major cause of forest
                         loss in Kalimantan, Irian Jaya and
                         outer islands such as Siberut.

                         Illegal logging has increased rapidly
 Laos                    as a result of a ready market created
                         in Thailand due to the latter's logging

                         Logging is the major cause of forest
 Malaysia                loss in Sabah and Sarawak, and is still
                         important in some areas of Peninsula

                         Logging has already caused major
                         deforestation in the country. Illegal
 Philippines             logging is now more important than
                         legal operations and is still a major
                         source of exports.

                         Illegal logging continues despite a
 Thailand                logging ban, particularly in the north
                         east and on the Burmese border.

                         Large areas of the country are being
 Vietnam                 cleared of natural bamboo to feed pulp


                         Logging is the major cause of forest
 Australia               degradation and loss, particularly in
                         the south west and Tasmania

                         Logging, including illegal logging, is
 Papua New Guinea        the major cause of forest loss in PNG,
                         mainly involving expatriate firms from
                         south east Asia.

 Solomon Islands         Legal and illegal logging is the major
                         cause of forest loss.

                         Logging is increasing rapidly, mainly
 Vanuatu                 controlled by expatriate Malaysian
The preceding information sheet draws on the text of Bad Harvest, by Nigel Dudley with Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud and Francis Sullivan, Earthscan, London in association with WWF.

1996, The World Wide Fund For Nature

This document is a PHOTOCOPY and all recipients should seek permission from the source for reprinting. You are encouraged to utilize this information for personal campaign use; including writing letters, organizing campaigns and forwarding. All efforts are made to provide accurate, timely pieces; though ultimate responsibility for verifying all information rests with the reader. Check out our Gaia Forest Conservation Archives at

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