Will economic development bring back tropical forests?


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Between 1948 and 1980, forest cover in developing countries declined by an average of 6% across countries. At the same time, forest area in the developed (OECD) countries increased by 3%. This has led some analysts to argue that economic development will eventually curtail the rapid loss of tropical forests and encourage tree planting and secondary forest regrowth.

Tom Rudel, from Rutgers University, examines the evidence to support this idea in a paper published in the journal Rural Sociology titled ’Is There a Forest Transition? Deforestation, Reforestation, and Development’. The paper reviews the literature on this issue and analyzes global forest cover data from 1922, 1948, 1963, 1980, and 1990 using a simple regression model.

Rudel evaluates two reasons why economic development might reduce and even reverse forest loss: First, as forests become scarcer the price of forest products may rise, thus encouraging tree planting, and increased public concern may lead governments to take measures to maintain forest cover. Second, as countries become richer and more urbanized and agricultural productivity rises, birth rates fall, people leave the countryside and consume less fuelwood, and farmers take marginal farm lands out of production.

The paper concludes the second set of causes contributed to the growth in forest area in developed countries, particularly between 1948 and 1963. But that may be no cause for comfort since:

Forest cover in France, Italy, Sweden, and the U.S. declined again in the 1980s;

New substitutes for forest products may keep timber prices from rising despite forest scarcity and economic growth generates less off-farm employment than in the past;

The gains in forest cover after a turnaround tend to be much smaller than the area lost during the period of deforestation;

Plantations and secondary forests in developed countries often have much less biodiversity than the primary forests they replace.


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Further reading

If you would like to request a copy of the paper or send comments to the author, Tom Rudel, you can write him at: mailto:rudel@aesop.rutgers.edu