This article offers a brief history of deforestation in the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. As well as the origins and history of forest clearance, it also looks at its causes and developments, drawing on numerous sources, notably reports by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). 1
What does history show about deforestation? Basically that it is closely aligned with population growth, and that in most cases tree clearance is a deliberate logical act. In the eyes of individual farmers deforestation was a rational way of converting land to a use with a higher perceived benefit than forest has. It is also seen as reasonable by most corporations today, because the market makes it a logical and profitable thing to do. If, on the other hand, governments asked companies to pay the true cost of the deforestation – including damage to the climate system and to the carbon cycle, as well as damage to local biodiversity – corporations would stop doing it because it would no longer be profitable.
Ever since the first appearance of men and women (Homo erectus), some 2 million years ago, forests have been the go-to place on Planet Earth for life’s essentials. They provided (and still provide) food, water and a place of refuge; fuelwood for cooking and warmth; material for tools, weapons, houses and carts; and a source of medicines for life-threatening as well as everyday conditions. For indigenous inhabitants, the forest was everything. But even natural treasuries like woodland need to be managed in a sustainable way, rather than plundered. And this is something that most societies – prehistoric, medieval and modern – have found extremely difficult to accomplish.
Today’s forests have evolved over millions of years and have – like all Earth’s ecosystems – been deeply affected by oscillating warm and cold climates. Glacial periods (ice ages) usually spanned 80,000 to 100,000 years, interspersed with warmer interglacial periods of between 10,000 to 15,000 years. The last great ice age ended about 10,000 BC, signalling the end of the Pleistocene epoch and the start of the Holocene.
At the time forests occupied almost 6 billion hectares (23 million square miles), or about 45 percent of the earth’s land area. Over the last 10,000 years or so, changes in Earth’s temperature have continued to shape the world’s forests, while human activities have also had an increasing impact. Indeed, over the poast two centuries, the human fingerprint on global warming in general, and deforestation in particular, has become so visible that many scientists are calling for the modern geological age to be renamed the Anthropocene epoch. 2 See also: Effects of Deforestation.
Impact Of Population
Today, forests currently occupy about 4 billion hectares (15 million square miles), or about 30 percent of the earth’s land surface. 3 During this period the population rose from roughly 1-15 million in 10,000 BC 4 to over 7 billion today 5. And as human population rises, competition for resources increases with it. Indeed, the trajectory of global deforestation has, broadly speaking, mirrored the growth rate in population. 6
Development Of Agriculture
Cultural change was another factor behind deforestation. The main lifestyle of Stone Age Man during the Pleistocene epoch was the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. However, from 10,000 BC onward, this hunter-gatherer culture gradually gave way to a more settled culture, characterized by the development of agriculture and the raising of livestock. Trouble is, crops and livestock need space. And settlements need building material for houses and more fuel for heating and cooking. So people raided the forests, clearing them for the necessary space and wood.
All this provided an ongoing incentive for the cutting down or degradation of forests which remains one of the most widespread changes that people have made to the surface of the planet. Since 10,000 BC, the global loss of forest land is estimated at roughly 1.8-2.0 billion hectares – a drop of more than a third of the world’s original forests. 7
Recently, the explosive growth in population along with a corresponding increase in consumption – boosted by a surge in wildfires due to rising temperatures – has greatly accelerated the pace of deforestation. Since 2014, for instance, the average loss of tree has reached 29 million hectares per year.
Switch From Temperate To Tropical Forest Clearance
Until the early 20th century, the highest rates of forest clearance occurred in temperate forests across Europe, North America and Asia. The expansion of agriculture accounted for most deforestation, but economic development and the exploitation of forests for lumber and fuelwood were contributing factors. This pattern altered during the 20th century and, by about 1950, deforestation had largely died in the temperate zone, although it gained a new lease of life in the tropics where it remains high, due to a combination of burgeoning population and the commercial activities of multinational corporations. 8
Local Factors Predominate
Factors affecting deforestation vary enormously. In general, local circumstances determine both the scale and pace of forest clearance. It’s worth noting that deforestation has never taken place at the same rate in all parts of the world. Between 100 and 200 years ago, for example, deforestation was a major occurrence in Europe and North America, but not in the tropics; today the pattern is reversed.
The first example of large-scale forest clearance in the history of deforestation was entirely natural. Geological evidence shows that about 305 million years ago the Earth experienced an abrupt climate change involving a drying and cooling of the atmosphere – possibly caused in part by volcanic activity blotting out the sunlight – followed by a short but intense ice age.
As a result of this global cooling, most of the tropical forests then in existence – along with their ecosystems and animal habitats – were wiped out, giving rise to the event’s name – the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse. 9 10
Back in 305 million BC, Earth’s continents looked very different from the way they do today. There was basically two huge landmasses – Gondwana and Laurasia – which formed the Pangaea supercontinent. When this supercontinent split up, around 190 million years ago, tropical rainforests existed in five different regions of the world: equatorial and sub-equatorial America, Africa, Madagascar, Southeast Asia, New Guinea and Australia.
The story of how the rainforests coped with the long series of ice ages, interspersed with inter-glacial warm periods, is too convoluted to be told here. One thing, however, is clear. We know that the last ice age (ending about 10,000 years ago) did not impact on the Amazon Basin. According to at least one study, published in 2006, based on radiocarbon dating and pollen analysis of sediments taken from Lake Pata in Brazil, the western Amazon River basin was covered in lush, tropical rain forest 14-30,000 years ago, when glaciers covered the northern latitudes and Europe shivered in the middle of an ice age. At the time this discovery was announced, many experts still believed that the Amazon basin was nothing but a vast, dry grassland during the period in question. 11
Five thousand years ago, the so-called Fertile Crescent, spanning an area from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, was covered by vast stretches of woodland and forest. For centuries humans had used fire to clear forests to create extra space for settlements, crops and grazing. Technological advances during the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC) and Iron Age (1200-550 BC) provided new tools for chopping down trees and exploiting the timber.
Across the region, nearly all the ancient kingdoms rose to prominence through their exploitation of two resources: human slaves and forests. As their grip on these resources waned, their power faded. Alexander the Great, for example, used Cyprus as a shipbuilding site on account of the plentiful oak forests on the island (now all exhausted).
Greek influence in particular was based first, on its long coastline and the many islands scattered along the coast; secondly the availability of wood. The first made communication by sea easy and the availability of timber made this communication possible because it enabled the building of ships. Indeed, the availability of timber from the forests of Greece and Macedonia turned Greece into a formidable maritime and trading power. It is not surprising, therefore, that when Rome conquered Macedonia in 167 BC they prohibited the Macedonians from cutting timber.
The Bible is full of stories about the use of cedar trees for urban construction and shipbuilding. The Phoenicians, for instance, one of the oldest maritime nations in the world, needed timbers for their ships and used the cedars of Lebanon to construct them. As well as the Old Testament, historians and writers such as Homer, Plato and Pliny provide us with well-documented descriptions of the once richly forested – now deforested – mountains of Lebanon.
For the Romans, as for other civilizations in the history of deforestation, wood played an essential role in their economic and military power. Its importance is fully recorded in Pliny’s “Natural History” where he devotes books XII to XVI entirely to the value of of trees and forests.
Actually, by Pliny’s time (23–79 AD), Italy was almost completely deforested. As a result the Romans were obliged to import most of their timber from all parts of the Empire. Metallurgical industries, which were heavily reliant on charcoal, relocated out of Italy. The centres of metal smelting became the most deforested areas of the Roman Empire. Pliny must have understood that human industry and activities put forests at risk of destruction. Given that trees were such a scarce resource it is perhaps not surprising that Pliny wrote with such awe about the vast tracts of forests located just across the Rhine in Germany.
Unfortunately for the Romans, the areas east of the Rhine were occupied by Barbarians whom they never managed to conquer. So instead they turned to the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire’s expansion into Syria badly affected the remaining cedar forests in the mountains. It was not until Emperor Hadrian declared the cedar forests of Lebanon to be his Imperial Domain, that the deforestation slowed. 12
Wood was also used throughout the Mediterranean for cooking, heating, buildings, and making numerous artifacts. Like any commodity, its price rose in accordance with supply and demand, therefore – as forests were gradually used up – the price of wood rose to rival the prices of precious metals. Furthermore, the disappearance of forests typically led to soil erosion, loss of fertility and ultimately desertification. See also: Why is Soil So Important to the Planet?
Over many centuries, the forests and woodlands of the Mediterranean area were gradually depleted. In North Africa, the vast majority of forests had been used up during the period of Roman rule (c.100 BC-350 AD) and the early Middle Ages (500-900 AD). Today, the few surviving tracts of forest are carefully conserved and managed, and are being augmented with reforestation schemes in several countries, including Morocco.
History of Deforestation In Europe
Around the time of Christ, forests covered almost 80 percent of Europe’s land surface. During the past two millennia, European countries have experienced high rates of deforestation at different times, according to the impacts of population growth, war, migration and economic development.
Tree clearance to facilitate crops began in prehistoric times when hunter-gatherers began settling down during the Neolithic era (c.10,000-5000 BC). At the same time, a period of natural climate warming which occurred about 7000-5000 BC brought changes in tree composition.
The Years 600-1200 AD
Deforestation increased gradually but relentlessly across Europe during the period 600-1200 AD, with up to half the forests being cleared to make space for arable land to feed the expanding population. But with the advent of the Black Death (bubonic plague) in the mid-14th century, which swept away roughly 60 percent of Europe’s entire population of 80 million souls, up to 25 percent of all croplands were abandoned, and forests recovered in many areas. Nonetheless, by the mid-15th century, population growth as well as the pace of deforestation was back to their previous levels.
The Years 1400-1700 AD
The European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries led to a period of sustained economic growth in many European countries, during which towns and cities continued to expand, resulting in continuous high demand for construction materials and fuelwood. The rate of deforestation remained high during the early decades of the industrial revolution (1750-1820), as wood continued to be the main source of industrial energy for the new steam engines, until it was replaced by coal in the 1830s and 1840s.
Forest clearance became such a common practice in order to cater for the housing, heating and cooking demands of an expanding population that by around 1550, Europe was on the verge of a fuel crisis (no wood) and nutritional crisis (no wild game left amidst the disappearing forests) from which it was saved only by the burning of soft coal and the cultivation of potatoes and maize fetched from the colonies.
In general, the forests that suffered the most from deforestation were those located on good arable land, especially in Britain, France and Germany. The higher the price of grain, the more woodlands and forests were cleared. By 1700, Europe had an estimated 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of cropland, mostly land that had previously been forested. 7
In addition, the period 1550-1800 saw intense competition between the navies of France, Portugal, Spain and Britain, which required the building of hundreds of new wooden warships. As it was, the construction of the Spanish Armada in the 1580s left large areas of Spain totally devoid of trees and heralded the decline of Spanish supremacy at sea.
The countries around the North Sea, however, had access to abundant forests in Scandinavia and the Baltic region. There were also large reserves of wood in the south of England. This availability of timber provided England, France and Holland with the resources to build large fleets to exploit the opening up of world trade.
To appreciate the importance of wood to a nation’s navy, note that the construction of just one of Admiral Nelson’s warships at the Battle of Trafalgar required the felling of 6,000 mature oak trees, it is easy to see how fast the forests disappeared.
The northern coniferous forests in Norway, Sweden and Finland were not treated the same as forests in the rest of Europe. Deforestation did occur in the Nordic countries, especially near cities, but not as extensively as further south, where population pressure led to greater competition for resources. Moreover, shorter days and shorter growing seasons as well as rockier soils set further limits on the clearing of forests. As it was, when shortages of arable land grew too painful in the 19th century, people emigrated, notably to North America.
The countryside of Germany was transformed by deforestation from about 800 to 1800 AD. Not only were forests cleared for agricultural purposes, but there was also a need for wood to fuel iron foundries and smelters during the early Industrial Revolution. In addition, the widespread German tradition of living in wooden houses, as well as the country’s world famous woodworking, wood sculpture and printing industries, further diminished the nation’s forests.
The Years 1800-1900
In central Europe, where forests had previously occupied up to 90 percent of the land, a mere 10 percent were still standing by the mid-19th century. All the old-growth, primary forests had gone. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that deforestation was slowed and eventually rolled back, as new technologies improved agricultural productivity and coal replaced wood as the principal source of industrial fuel.
Throughout western Europe, the rate of deforestation began to decline during the 1840s (in the cities) and during the 1870s in the countryside. Coal use gradually became widespread, farm productivity was improving and very little of the remaining forest land was suitable for cultivation. In addition, Europe was importing more of its food and fuelwood from outside.
By the end of the twentieth century, forested areas across Europe were stable or increasing their tree stock – notably in Germany, where planted forests have raised overall forest coverage to more than 30 percent of the total land area. See also: 10 Reasons Why Plants are Important.
Better still, a surprising number of remnants of old-growth forest remain throughout Europe. A recent study by a team from Humboldt University in Berlin, identified more than 3.4 million acres of old-growth forests located in 34 European countries. 13
About 45 percent of Europe is forest. (Source: Eurostat)
History of Deforestation In The Americas
There is evidence throughout the Americas, especially in the eastern United States, Central America and Peru as well as the littoral regions of Venezuela and Brazil, that indigenous cultures used fire to remove forest and to create space for growing crops or regulating game. Archeological evidence recovered in Bolivia and Brazil suggests that extensive areas of the Amazon Rainforest were cleared for farming.
There were about 65-100 million people living in the Americas when the first Europeans arrived in the late 15th century. Over 150 years, beginning around 1500, the native populations were reduced to about 1 million in North America and 4 million in Central and South America (Williams, 2002). This human catastrophe was caused by the introduction of serious diseases – including influenza, dysentery, smallpox, cholera among others – for which the indigenous population had developed no immunity. 7
Initially, the decimation led to a relaxation of forest clearance in places and a natural regeneration of woodland, which partly offset the intensive deforestation taking place in coastal areas due to the arrival of more settlers. Latin America was probably about 75 percent forested before European settlement – although some studies suggest that it may have been less – compared to 50 percent, today. 14 15 Although deforestation continued at a reduced rate during the period 1700-1900, the pace more than doubled in the 20th century. 16
In the United States, as the flow of settlers moving westwards escalated during the nineteenth century, the rate of deforestation throughout the interior increased accordingly, especially along the most popular migratory routes, and the main waterways like the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Overall, as the immigrant population jumped from 2 million in 1750 to 23 million in 1850 and 75 million in 1900, the forested area of the United States fell from 450 million to under 300 million hectares, with roughly half of this occurring between 1850 and 1900. By 1920, the whole process had wound down.
In total, according to the University of Michigan, an estimated 90 percent of indigenous forest was chopped down in the United States since 1600. 17
Today forests cover about 300 million hectares, or about 33 percent of the land in the United States 18 Canada also experienced a period of deforestation during the 18th and 19th centuries but, like the USA, has also been able to stabilize and renew its forests during the mid to late-twentieth century.
Around 2000 BC, China’s population was roughly 1.4 million people, and its forests covered more than 60 percent of the country. 19 At the beginning of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE, the population had risen to about 20 million, and forests covered nearly 50 percent of the land. By the time of the Ming Dynasty which began in 1368, China’s population had risen to 65 million, and forest cover had dwindled to 26 percent. By the mid-19th century, when China’s population was roughly 410 million, forest cover had dropped to 17 percent. By the mid-20th century, China’s population had grown to 540 million but forest cover had slumped to less than 10 percent of the land area.
About 22 percent of South America is forest, while roughly 33 percent of the USA is forested. (Source: United Nations. FAO)
History of Deforestation in Asia
The vast Asian continent has a wide range of forest types and ecosystems. They include extensive taiga forests in Siberia; temperate forests in eastern Asia (Korea, Russia, China); tropical rainforests in southeastern Asia (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia); and subtropical forests in the mountains of southern Asia. The Asian continent is also home to more than half of the world’s population and, as explained above population growth leads to a squeeze for land space, which inevitably results in widespread deforestation.
Since the foundation of the Peoples’ Republic of China, investments in planted forests have added 80 million hectares, but even so forests still account for no more than 22 percent of China’s total land area.
Japan experienced a similar relationship between its population and forest coverage. However the country developed a particular affinity for forests as part of a managed landscape, and for wood as an essential element in traditional construction. Widespread deforestation which occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries, was eventually superceded by a belated appreciation of the benefits of forest conservation.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, tree planting expanded the forest area by millions of hectares, until forest coverage reached an astounding 70 percent of Japan’s total land area. This situation was helped by the emergence of a strong industrial economy and by the ability to import timber supplies from outside. Forest conservation is now embedded in Japanese culture through the traditional satoyama approach to landscape management which stresses balance and harmony.
Tree-Planting: Is it the Answer to Global Warming?
The forests of southern Asia, such as those in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, were cleared to supply more food to the expanding population. In 1500, India’s population of 100 million – more than double that of Europe – required a continuous expansion of agriculture. This and the accompanying deforestation gathered speed during European colonization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, notably during the period 1850-1920, when as many as 33 million hectares of forest was cleared in India alone. 7
Researchers estimate that more than half of southern Asia’s old-growth forest land has disappeared in the last 500 years. Fortunately, recent assessments indicate that forest coverage is finally on the increase, largely because of new UN-backed afforestation and reforestation projects.
In most of southeastern Asia, slash-and-burn agriculture was the main driver of forest clearing until colonization, when commercial export motives took over. Forests were exploited for their selected tropical woods, like mahogany, and ruthlessly cleared in order to plant a variety of crops such as rubber and oil-palm.
As a result, between about 1880 and 1925, almost 40 million hectares were deforested, largely for commercial agriculture. 7 Sadly, deforestation and forest degradation are ongoing problems for many countries in southeastern Asia, where wood remains the principal fuel for a sizeable proportion of the population. 20 For recent statistics, see: Deforestation in Southeast Asia.
Roughly 26 percent of Asia is forested. 21 (Source: FAO)
History of Deforestation In Africa
In keeping with the variable climates of its bioregions and biomes, forests in Africa are enormously diverse, ranging from the dry forests of the Sahel and eastern, southern and northern Africa, to the humid tropical forests of western and central zones. Traditionally, forests and their wildlife in many parts of Africa were protected through rituals and sacred activities. 22 Most of these observances were abandoned during the period of European colonization, but many small, sacred forests have survived in western areas.
Sub-Saharan Africa is largely made up of agrarian societies, dependent on low-level agriculture and animal husbandry. Forest clearance by subsistence farmers is a particular problem in the Congo Rainforest, and is predicted to worsen because the population is set to increase fivefold by 2100.
As in other areas around the world, deforestation is closely linked to population levels, with the worst losses of forest occurring in areas where wood is most needed for fuel or where forest land is needed for crops. The demand for industrial crops for external markets – including cocoa, coffee, cotton and tobacco – has also encouraged deforestation. 23
With the advent of globalization and the growing scarcity of raw materials, large-scale land acquisitions by foreign multinationals have also accelerated forest clearance in some African countries. 24
Agroforestry – a land management system in which trees and shrubs are grown among crops, boosting biodiversity and combatting erosion – has been practised in Africa for centuries. Acacia albida, for instance, is known for its regenerative capacities on croplands and as a livestock feed. In the Niger, the authorities introduced laws punishing Acacia albida scavengers with amputation, and people convicted of chopping down the trees with decapitation.
In a number of locations, forest clearance increased during the colonial period, when exotic trees were harvested and exported to Europe. Wood was also taken to fuel steam engines on boats and trains during the 19th century, a process which led to further deforestation as larger areas of the continent were opened up for exploitation and agricultural development.
In general, agricultural technologies were slow to develop in Africa, thereby perpetuating traditional methods such as slash-and-burn. Cultivation became more intensive and non-sustainable as the population grew, notably in the provision of fuelwood and charcoal for expanding towns and cities, which led to greater deforestation.
Between 1990 and 2010, African countries reported that approximately 75 million hectares of forest land (10 percent of the total forested area) was converted to other non-forest uses: such as grazing livestock and growing crops. An added problem in Africa, particularly in large areas of eastern Africa, is that wood burning is the main source of fuel for cooking and heat: about 80 percent of all wood used in the region is for fuel.
Roughly 17 percent of Africa is forested. (Source: FAO)
What Can the History of Deforestation Teach Us?
Although there are many underlying causes, deforestation and forest degradation are marked by three realities:
- It takes a long time to grow trees. Unfortunately, in many parts of the developing world, fertile land is scarce and economic pressure is growing. Thus, compared with long-term forest management, a lot more money can be made in the short term from growing crops that mature more quickly, or by switching to a different land use, such as farming, grazing or orchards.
- Whether it is caused by slash-and-burn farmers or huge multinational corporations, most deforestation is deliberate and not irrational. It aims to convert land to a use with a higher perceived benefit than forest has. In most (not all) cases, forests have been removed with the goal – if not always the result – of producing a higher standard of living for humans.
- In any event, corporations do not chop down forests out of a wanton desire to harm the environment. On the whole, they do so because market signals – created by subsidies, taxation, pricing and state regulation – make it a logical and profitable thing to do. But it is often profitable because the multinational corporations are not asked to pay the true costs of deforestation: the cost of lost habitats and ecosystems, the increase in soil erosion, or the damage to freshwater systems, the water cycle, and local biodiversity. Even where payments do change hands, the local population is rarely a recipient. Instead, these costs tend to fall on society, on future generations, and often, on poor local households who depend on the resources and services of the forest for their daily livelihoods and security. 25
- Take our climate crisis for example. Neither the damage to the forest biome, nor the extra greenhouse gas emissions caused by deliberate fires or slash and burn clearance, are assigned financial values or paid for through markets or other mechanisms. This false accounting simply perpetuates improper exploitation, and loads responsibility for finding answers onto our children and grandchildren.
- Today, forests cover about 30 percent of the land surface of the planet.
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- Siiriainen A. (2000) Socio-Cultural History of Deforestation in Africa. In: Palo M., Vanhanen H. (eds) World Forests from Deforestation to Transition?. World Forests, vol 2. Springer, Dordrecht.
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