Skip Navigation Links

The plundering of Earth's forests — soon to be halted

Surprising steps will soon be taken to halt and remedy man's destruction of the world's forests.


LIFE as we know it would be drastically different if all forests disappeared in the next 12 months. The good news is that they won't disappear in the next 12 months. But the bad news is that at the rate man's current war on trees is proceeding, the world's primary forests will not last another half century!

Whether you live in a sprawling city or in a lumber camp, you are about to feel the effects of rapidly vanishing forests. You will not only pay higher prices for all the products derived from trees — including fruits and nuts. You will also feel whatever effect the destruction of forest areas will have on worldwide climate and weather patterns.


Who Cares?

Chances are the building you are sitting in is constructed mostly or at least in part of wood or wood products. Likewise your chair. The Sunday edition of the large metropolitan newspaper you may receive could well contain more wood pulp than many families in some nations can gather in a day's searching.

Way more than 4,000 different manufactured products in the industrial world today come wholly or in part from the forests. For example: adhesives, dyes, paints, plastics, sugars, resins, wallboard, veneers, oils, disinfectants, alcohols, toilet tissue, napkins, paper bags, drugs, corks, charcoal, soaps, roofing materials, stains, animal foods, explosives.

Then there are the many items made of wood itself — musical instruments, matches, telephone poles, toys, fence posts, barrels, railroad ties, coffins, firewood, broom handles and everything else from boats to stereo speaker cabinets.

Today's crisis is the end of a long trail of human selfishness in managing the earth.


Trail of Destruction

For thousands of years, one of the marks of civilization's expansion has been the disappearance of trees. At one time significant highland areas of the Arabian Desert were far from being a vast expanse of wasteland. The Bible mentions the "forest in Arabia" (Isaiah 21:13). Arabia was at one time known as "Arabia Felix" — "Arabia the Happy" — hardly a description of endless sand dunes and blistering heat.

When ancient Israel went in and possessed the land of Caanan, it was a plush land, full of "vineyards, and olive-yards, and fruit trees in abundance" (Nehemiah 9:25) — a land flowing with milk and honey. That's not the way it has been for centuries, though limited attempts have recently been made in reclaiming land through reforestation and irrigation.

Who has not heard of the famed cedars of Lebanon? They were, until World War I, a rich stand of stately trees growing along with pine, fir, juniper and oak. Over centuries, the Phoenicians, the Pharaohs, the Babylonians, the Israelites, the Romans, and especially the Turks in World War I, decimated the forests of Lebanon. Goats and firewood traders and British troops in World War II put finishing touches on what was left.

Elsewhere the story has been the same throughout history. Down the forests came, whether for building materials, for ships, for use in warfare, or as firewood, or making room for agriculture. Sometimes just because they were "in the way." In the Near East and the Mediterranean, overgrazing by goats and other domestic animals has stripped off the remaining ground cover. In nonagricultural areas herds of goats also played a significant part, eating away at the bark and sprouts of trees. Finally the last scrub tree in an area fell victim and then there were none. The result: move on to fresh ground or else try to survive on deteriorating land.

The human factor is still to be blamed for currently expanding deserts in parts of the world.

Not that all land once stripped of its forest covering becomes desert. In the British Isles the proportion of natural forest still extant is estimated at about 2 percent of what it once was. Enough rain falls to prevent the formation of desert. Still, the land has become increasingly less productive.

As for the United States, farming, logging, industrial exploitation and fires have leveled hundreds of millions of acres of forest. Erosion has made useless for crops much of this deforested land. What once seemed like limitless woodlands is now in need of careful management.

While some in the lumber industry claim there is still up to 75 percent as much forestland in the United States as when Christopher Columbus arrived, some conservationist groups dispute that figure, insisting only a small fraction of the original forestland exists.

Part of the difference is probably in terminology. Timber companies counting their replanted tree farms as "forest." The conservationists counting only virgin forest. The lumber industry has been accused of using deceptive terminology to mask the ongoing decimation of America's forests. Conservationist groups are adamant that virgin forest once cut down can never be adequately replaced with the tree farm methods used by the industry. The original landscape they point out, is destroyed, streams are ruined, fish killed, wild life disturbed. And the uniform trees that are substituted for the original forest look like so many stalks of corn: same species, same height, same age, same shape, same distance apart. Not at all natural forest. What is more, even with the help of fertilizers and pesticides, intensive tree-farm methods work only until the soil is worn out and supports growth no longer.

In Europe the situation is somewhat different. The bare hills of southern Europe show little evidence of the extensive woodlands that once existed in these regions. But western Europe has apparently managed to stop the uncontrolled devastation of its forestlands, thanks in part to the accessibility of timber from northern Europe.

For how long are any forests of the temperate zones safe? Many may be "off limits" to developers and still be wasted by man-made forest fires, air pollution and acid rain. The increased cost of fuel is putting new pressure on them. Search is underway for a practical way to convert woody cellulose into sugars that could be fermented into ethanol to power automobiles. A new method of making wood pellets promises to do for many homes what coal once did at the expense of the forests.

Undoubtedly, the biggest factor now slowing the saw in the temperate zone forestlands is the availability of large imports of timber from northern Europe, the Soviet Union and especially the tropical moist forests of the world.


The Tropical Moist Forests

All the forests and jungles in the world put together cover less than one fourth of the earth's land surface. The highest percentage of forested land is in South America, followed in order by Europe, North America, Asia and Africa.

Fifty percent of all forestland is comprised of what is called "tropic moist forests." They are located principally in the warm tropical belt extending across Central and South America, Africa and Asia. A chorus of voices of alarm is being raised about what is now taking place in these areas. Here the chain saws and bulldozers of commerce, combined with the slash-and-burn agricultural methods of local farmers, are tearing away at earth's fragile skin.

In the tropical forest regions, at least 140 million persons survive by practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. That is, they clear away an area of forest by cutting and burning. They cultivate the land for a few years. And then they move on. The reason they move on is that tropical soil is unable to sustain for more than a short period the kind of cultivation being required of it.

The cycle is all too familiar. The trees are burned or otherwise taken out. Then too many people try to farm too small an area, making every effort to wring the last bit of good from the soil. Methods commonly used in more prosperous parts of the world — such as the utilization of fertilizers, pesticides and high-yielding grains — are considered too expensive. (It goes without saying that truly beneficial practices, such as building up the soil with fertilizer and/or compost and letting the land rest periodically, are not followed either)

Finally, heavy tropical rains pour down on the cleared land, eroding away what good dirt there is. And so the already delicate tropical soil is quickly depleted. The farmers leave behind the worn-out land, advance into the forest, slashing and burning anew, and the cycle starts over.


The "Hamburger Connection"

Slash-and-burn farmers do an estimated two thirds of the total worldwide damage to tropical forests. In South America, however, the forests suffer more damage as a result of commercial activity than from farmers. In other tropical areas of the globe, commercial interests play a lesser, but a growing, role.

Cattle raising is an important factor, especially in Latin America. The high price of beef in the developed world has led to the creation of huge cattle ranches where trees once stood. "In one case, a . . . multinational [corporation] burnt down a million acres of forest in the Amazon basin for a cattle ranch in one single vast conflagration. The fire, which wiped out all wild life, was so big that it was reported by a weather satellite as an impending volcanic eruption" (October, 1980 "Report of the Food Industries of South Africa").

Supplying meat to the fast-foods chains in North America — hence the name "Hamburger Connection" — leads to immediate high profits. But many ranches become unprofitable within 10 years because the man-established pasture deteriorates just like the plots of the forest farmers. Then the rancher must try to obtain another section of forest.

Also gnawing away at the forests of the tropics are other multinational corporations and lumber companies. Ninety percent of the timber in the tropical moist forests is hardwood. These hardwoods are much in demand in the developing nations, since the hardwoods of the temperate zones are either depleted or not accessible. With advanced technology it is possible to penetrate deep into the tropical forests, cut down and extract the choice trees, leaving a path of destruction in the wake.

Compounding the overall problem is the critical need three fourths of the world's people have for cooking fuel. (See the accompanying article) Other lesser factors are the highways and the oil and gas pipelines. Although they too have required the clearing of millions of acres of tropical forest land.

An area of tropical forest the size of Great Britain is being destroyed every year. That may not seem like such a big portion of the globe, but it is a significant part of the tropical forest left.