Can roads and tropical forests be compatible?


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That was the question recently asked of CIFOR by our colleagues from the International Technical Association for Tropical Woods (ATIBT), in France, who are putting preparing a special issue of their newsletter on that topic in English and Franch for publication this summer. We prepared the following answer for them, which we would like to share with you – and get your comments on:

Policy Options Related to Roads in Tropical Forests

Economic theory and empirical evidence suggest that building or improving roads near forests encourages forest clearing. By facilitating access to forested areas and reducing the costs of transporting inputs into those areas and marketing the products produced there, roads make it more profitable to convert forest to agricultural land. Road construction can also promotes forest clearing for land speculation, since land values rise as access improves and many people clear forests to establish or strengthen their legal claims to lands near roads.

Econometric models based on empirical data from Belize, Brazil, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Philippines, Thailand, and Zaire all show that areas near roads have are more likely to be deforested. This continues to hold even after controlling for variables such as soil quality and distance to markets, although roads tend to promote more forest clearing in areas with better soils and closer to markets.

Policies used to mitigate the dangers road projects pose to forests have failed in many countries. Farmers and land speculators often encroach upon protected areas with roads running through them or close by and most governments in tropical countries lack the means and/or will to prevent this.

Timber concessions typically require logging companies to keep small farmers from colonizing along logging roads. Often, however, they have little incentive to do so since they don’t expect to return and log those same areas again.

Practically all countries now require environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for large road projects near forests that are supposed to recommend measures for minimizing the roads’ negative impacts on forests. But more often than not government agencies and construction companies treat these reports as mere bureaucratic requirements. Consequently, they are often of poor quality and lead to few measures being implemented that protect forests.

On the other hand it is neither feasible nor desirable to prohibit all new road projects near tropical forests. For many rural people who live near forests, improving their access to markets and services is among their greatest aspirations and highest priorities. These people can put substantial pressure on local politicians to invest in roads and their ability to influence investment patterns has been strengthened in recent years by the trend towards decentralizing investment decisions to local and regional governments.

Not all roads near tropical forests promote deforestation. Many areas are so far from markets and have such poor soils that few people are interested in moving there even after access improves.

Sustainable natural forest management may also require forest managers to have better access to markets. High transportation costs lead loggers to focus only on the most valuable tropical hardwoods and make it uneconomical for them to exploit other timber species. This makes sustainable forest management for timber practically impossible in many tropical forests.

Under these circumstances, an appropriate set of policy recommendations might include the following:

Avoid road construction projects whose costs do not justify the economic benefits. Frequently, building roads in isolated areas with poor quality soils is simply not economical. Governments build them for strictly political reasons and/or without carrying out serious cost-benefit analyses that might highlight the expected low rates of return.

Include cost recovery provisions in road projects. Public roads near forested areas should be partially or fully paid for by the people who use them. Governments have no reason to subsidize investments that promote deforestation. Costs can be recovered either by charging use of the roads or by taxing lands that rise in value as a result of road investments. To protect the interests of the very poor, certain exemptions could be made for certain types of vehicles or small landholdings.

Focus road investments in areas that already have substantial population and/or higher quality soils. In addition to diverting investment resources away from other forest regions, this may also reduce migration to the agricultural frontier from areas that are already settled.

Establish performance bonds for forest concessions, which companies will forfeit if farmers encroach upon concession lands. This would provide logging companies with an incentive to avoid such encroachment. Companies should also be required to plan their roads more carefully, based on timber inventories, and ensure the quality of the roads they build.

Respect the territorial rights of indigenous peoples. In many, although certainly not all, circumstances, indigenous peoples are the only local stakeholder that opposes road projects out of fear that such projects will encouarge other groups to encroach upon their lands. To the extent government recognize the territorial rights of these peoples this increases the probability that decision regarding road project will be more balanced.

Open project documents to public scrutiny. One reason environmental impact assessments have had limited affect is that civil society organizations have lacked full access to these reports and have had little opportunity to monitor the implementation of the reports’ recommendations. This also applies to documents necessary to engage in serious discussion regarding the economic viability of road projects.


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Further reading

If you would like to comment on this message, please write to: David Kaimowitz at

For information on how to obtain a copy of the special issue of the ATIBT newsletter on ’Road Infrastructure in Tropical Forests: Road to Development or Destruction?’ write Jean-Jacques Landrot at