|Imperiled Riches—Threatened Rainforests|
THREATS FROM HUMANKIND
The role of humans in the deforestation of the world's forests is considerable and extensive. Many activities contribute to this loss including subsistence activities, oil extraction, logging, mining, fires, war, commercial agriculture, cattle ranching, hydroelectric projects, pollution, hunting and poaching, the collection of fuel wood and building material, and road construction. Under current practices, extractive industries (timber, oil, and mineral) promote the development of short term booms that encourage permanent settlement. These booms and resulting settlements can attract large numbers of poor seeking a better life. They clear the surrounding land for agriculture and livestock. Meanwhile, the forest resource, whether it be oil, timber, or minerals, is rapidly depleted with little consideration for the long-term consequences. Once the resource is exhausted, the industry moves on to new areas, leaving behind settlements dependent on the resource extraction for survival and a degraded environment. The only resort for the settlers is to practice subsistence agriculture by clearing what forest remains. Most extractive processes in the rainforest are not sustainable as currently practiced.
Like most environmental assets, rainforests are endangered by their status as open-access resources or as common property. (Designating rainforests as open-access resources is not entirely accurate, in light of the lack of formal property rights in certain countries and the limited capacity of many governments to manage and regulate the rainforest lands. However, treating rainforest as such is adequate for this discussion). Under open access, no group has exclusive use of rainforest resources, but essentially everyone enjoys access to the resource. There is little incentive for conservation with the mentality of "If I do not get the resource someone else will," and forest is depleted by industry and small farmer alike. In addition, economic incentives like subsidies and tax breaks for forest developers distort the direct costs of harvesting and converting tropical rainforests. The result is market failure, where the prices for tropical timber products and other goods derived from rainforest destruction do not reflect the full environmental costs of the loss of goods and services provided by the ecosystem. Therefore, by offering these incentives, the government effectively makes it profitable for firms to convert forest for development purposes where it normally would not be profitable.
Another contributor to commercial forest destruction is the outstanding debts of developing countries, which cause them to seek quick ways to raise revenue to make debt payments. However, the elemental underlying cause of deforestation is population growth, both in developing countries, which depend on forest lands for sustenance, and in developed countries, which demand products made from forest resources.
We humans have always cleared the forest for our own interests, but in the past, the process was slow and only limited regions were deforested, generally for subsistence agriculture. However, today, humanity is far more efficient at clearing the forest with our advanced technology and machinery and the drive to earn profits in the near term.
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Continued: Subsistence Activities
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Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2005