This post is a continuation of last week’s post on “Making sense of the ‘no-deforestation’ discourse“. In today’s post, we will attempt to answer three main questions; 1) why is deforestation bad, 2) what drives deforestation, and 3) are all forms of deforestation bad? 

1) Why is deforestation bad?

No one is likely to challenge the fact that forests are of fundamental importance to human well-being and that they must be protected. As humans, it is almost impossible to go through a day without using a forest-derived product. Most of the meat and food we eat, the paper, medicine, and cosmetics we use are derived from forests. Forests are also home to most species on land. They also ensure water supply, store substantial amount of CO2, and purify the air that we breathe.

Despite their importance, the world continues to lose forest cover at an alarming rate. The FAO estimates that the world has lost a net area of 178 million hectares (about twice the size of Nigeria) of forest since 19901. Although the rate of forest loss has substantially decreased in recent years, tropical forest loss remains extremely high. It is estimated that the equivalent of a football pitch of tropical forest was lost every 6 seconds in 20192

Continuous loss of forest poses a major developmental challenge, particularly for developing countries1. First, forest loss means loss of subsistence for many rural communities (over 2 billion people) that depend on forest resources for their livelihood. Forest loss around the world is also contributing to global warming by releasing CO2, that would otherwise be stored in trees and forest soils, into the atmosphere. For instance, deforestation of tropical forest contributes about 8-15% to global greenhouse gas emission per annum3. Further, global loss of forest cover will have significant negative impacts on biodiversity that will result in loss of several important ecosystem services (e.g., crop pollination).  Importantly, forest loss also leads to shift in local climates4 (e.g., total annual precipitation and seasonality) with negative consequences for most nature-based livelihood activities. For instance, the combination of deforestation and global warming are projected to lead to a reduction in 1) the area with suitable climate for cocoa production, and 2) cocoa productivity in West Africa5,6.    

2) What drives deforestation?

If deforestation is so bad, why does it happen then? Human population growth, economic development and changing demographic trends are the 3 main underlying forces responsible for deforestation globally. On one hand (for rich and developing economies), there are many more rich people with increased demands for goods and services. This creates an increased demand for agricultural and forest products. On the other hand (for poor countries or economies), the only option for livelihood is often agricultural or nature-based activities. For this group, converting forest lands (tropical forest lands tend to be more fertile in the first few years of cultivation) to cropland is the preferred option. Unsurprisingly, agriculture happens to be the main direct driver of deforestation. Agriculture accounts for over 73% of deforestation in the tropics1. Although significant differences exist across regions7, about 40% and 33% of deforestation in the tropics is caused by large scale (cattle ranching, soya bean, oil palm) and subsistence (cocoa, food crops) agriculture1, respectively. Urban expansion, infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, etc) and mining accounts for 27% of tropical deforestation.

3) Are all forms of deforestation bad?

As can be seen from the above discussions, forest clearing is generally bad for both people and the environment! However, not all forms of deforestation should necessarily be considered bad. For example, most 5-year-old fallow lands in the high forest zones of West Africa will qualify as forest (under the FAO definition as seen from last week’s post). Clearing such lands for farming will be picked up by global satellite monitoring platforms (e.g., as deforestation. However, re-cultivation of fallow lands is completely necessary for assuring food security in a region where farmers do not have adequate capacity to maintain soil fertility and practice land use intensification. Indeed, shifting cultivation has been extensively practiced in many tropical communities as local people have, for a long time, understood the value of allowing degraded tropical farm soils to rehabilitate.

So where is the problem? Personally, I think part of the problem with the discourse on deforestation is the lack of distinction between “illegal” and “legal” deforestation. Deforestation can generally be classified as either “legal” or “illegal” depending on the context (see Figure 1).  Legal deforestation is the conversion of forest outside legally protected areas, in compliance with the relevant legal regime, into other land use. In contrast, illegal deforestation involves the conversion of legally protected forest lands into non-forest land use or conversion of forest (whether protected or not) in violation of the relevant legal regime. For example, the legal regime in Ghana prohibits deforestation in forest reserves or conservation areas but permits forest conversion into farms outside protected areas.

Categories of deforestation

Generally, illegal deforestation is a serious offence at both national and international level. Although the distinctions between legal and illegal deforestation are relevant, most media and global reports (e.g., the FAO global forest resource assessment and the global forest watch platform) on deforestation are silent in this respect. In my opinion, this sometimes creates 1) the wrong impression that a given country or region is being irresponsible towards its forests, and 2) invokes some resistance from local practitioners. Perhaps the discourse on deforestation can be greatly enhanced by taking cognisance of the fact that not all forms of deforestation are necessarily bad.

In part III (the last post of this series), I will focus on analysing the major “no deforestation” requirements and outline the measures that global commodity producers can take to ensure compliance. If you found this post interesting, kindly subscribe to my blog to get email updates of new posts.


  1. FAO & UNEP. The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forest, biodiversity and people. (FAO and UNEP, 2020).
  2. Weisse, M. & Goldman, E. D. We Lost a Football Pitch of Primary Rainforest Every 6 Seconds in 2019. (2020).
  3. Seymour, F. & Busch, J. Why Forests, Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change. (2014).
  4. IPCC. Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change,. (World Meteorological Organization, 2018).
  5. Schroth, G., Läderach, P., Martinez-Valle, A. I., Bunn, C. & Jassogne, L. Vulnerability to climate change of cocoa in West Africa: Patterns, opportunities and limits to adaptation. Sci. Total Environ. 556, 231–241 (2016).
  6. Kenneth, O. & Baba, I. An Empirical Analisis of the Impact of Climate Change on Cocoa Production in. J. Sustain. Dev. Africa 13, 24–50 (2011).
  7. Seymour, F. & Harris, N. L. Reducing tropical deforestation. Science (80-. ).365, 756–757 (2019).

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