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Humans have been felling, using, and burning trees for about half a million years, and the forests have receded as human populations have grown and spread. The clearing of woodlands for agriculture has been the leading cause of deforestation, but the harvesting of timber as a raw material and fuel has also played a significant role.
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The word deforestation is a wide-ranging term to cover the cutting, use, and elimination of trees. Subsumed under it are other activities like fire, domestic heating and cooking, smelting metals, making ceramics, construction of shelter and implements, and the creation of new land for cultivation and grazing. Deforestation is so basic that it is woven into the very fabric of human existence, and hence of world history. Ever since the emergence of Homo erectus some 500,000 years ago the quest to provide shelter, food, and warmth has resulted in the use and abuse of the Earth’s mantle of forests.
There is much uncertainty about the pace and locale of deforestation during past (and even present) ages. This revolves around the multiple meanings given to three basic questions. What exactly is a forest? What was the extent and density of trees at any past given time? And what constitutes “deforestation”? Pragmatically one may say that a forest can range from a closed-canopy tree cover to a more open woodland, which affects density. Deforestation is used loosely to mean any process that modifies the original tree cover, from clear-felling to thinning to occasional fire. It should not be forgotten, however, that forests regrow, often with surprising speed and vigor, and forest regrowth has occurred whenever pressures on it have been relaxed. This was observed after the Mayan population collapse around 800 CE, after the Great Plague in Europe after 1348, after the initial European encounter with the Americas in 1492, and with agricultural land abandonment in the post-1910 eastern United States and in post-1980 Europe.
Premodern Age (to 1500 CE)
Because crop domestication and the increase and spread of people occurred in largely forested environments, ancient societies everywhere had a cumulatively severe impact on forests. In Europe, Mesolithic cultures (c. 9000–5000 BCE) set fire to the woodland edges to facilitate hunting. The succeeding Neolithic agriculturalists (c. 4500–2000 BCE) had a far greater impact as they felled forests on the fertile loessial soils with stone-and-flint axes to engage in intensive garden cultivation and extensive wheat growing. In order to vary diet, they also ran large herds of pigs, sheep, and especially cattle in woodland and cleared pastures for their meat, milk, blood, and possibly cheese. It was a stable, sedentary society that made full use of the many products of the forest, one calculation being that on average it required 20 hectares of forest land to sustain one person in fuel, grazing, constructional timber, and food.
In Asia, complex and highly organized societies flourished in the forests of the southern and southeastern parts of the continent. Rotational cutting and cultivation followed by abandonment (swiddening) in forests was accompanied by an intensive garden culture for fruit, spices, and vegetables, and the peculiar and highly innovative development of wet rice cultivation (rice paddies), a technique that stopped erosion and leaching of the soil in the cleared forest in heavy-rainfall areas. Stock, particularly cattle and pigs, were integral to all parts of the economy.
The evidence for similar processes is unfolding for the Americas. Earliest were the swiddens in the equatorial upland rain-forest areas from as early as 12,000 BCE. From the tropical Gulf of Mexico lowland civilizations of the Olmec and Maya to the less organized tribal groups of the Amazon basin, rain forest was being chopped, burnt, and changed or eliminated. Large patches of the Amazon forest were altered irrevocably by the selection and propagation of useful trees and by different cycles of cultivation, so that the mighty rain forest may be one large cultural artifact. In North America, the earliest foodgrowing settlements (c. 10,000 BCE) were in the rich bottomlands of the continent’s rivers in the South and the Southeast. Similar to the practice of the European Neolithics, flood plains and lower river terraces were cleared, and lower slopes altered as intensive cropping expanded, but unlike the Neolithics, hunting loomed much larger in the economy. The vast eastern temperate woodlands were settled later (after c. 800 CE) but the same imprints are evident, resulting in a mosaic of intensively cultivated cleared lands, abandoned fields with early forest succession, and thinned and altered forests. The great difference between the Americas and Eurasia was the absence of grazing animals in the Americas, which had an effect on the Eurasian forests by preventing regrowth and making clearing/firing worthwhile to promote pasture.
Knowledge about deforestation in Africa is sparse, and with the exception of settlement in savanna-woodland and adjacent belts in west Africa, it may not have been very extensive.
The conclusion is that the impact of early humans on the forest was far greater than expected; it may have been one of the major deforestation episodes in history, which left anything but the pristine forest that is such a feature of the romantic imagination of the past and the environmental rhetoric of the present.
The classical world of the Mediterranean basin provides, for the first time, rich literary detail of wood consumption for shipbuilding, urban heating and construction, and metal smelting, but it is tantalizingly silent about clearing for agriculture (always the greatest cause of deforestation) that must have gone on everywhere. This was to be a common story in later ages too. The chopping down of trees as a prelude to farming and providing food was so commonplace that it simply did not warrant a mention, but settlement patterns and crop figures show how extensive it must have been.
The Middle Ages in western and central Europe were entirely different. Here an energetic, inventive, and rapidly expanding population left ample records of forest clearing through charters, rent rolls, court cases, field patterns, and place names. Clearing was motivated by a strong religious belief that humans were helping to complete the creation of a divine, designed Earth and a desire by lay and ecclesiastical lords to expand rental revenues by encouraging settlement on the forest frontier. Also, individuals wanted to achieve social freedom, property, and emancipation by breaking free of the rigid feudal ties.
Undoubtedly three technical innovations helped raise agricultural production. First, the dominant system of two fields with one fallow was replaced by a three-field system, thus a shortening of the fallow period. This was possible because new crops like oats and legumes helped to fertilize the soil and supplemented animal and human nutrition. Second, the development of the wheeled plow with coulter and moldboard allowed cultivation to move from the light soils onto the heavy moist soils that were usually forested. Third, plowing efficiency was improved by the invention of the rigid horse collar and nailed horseshoes, increasing speed and pulling power, thus favoring the horse over the ox. A major underlying driving force was a sixfold increase of population between 650 and 1350 and the need for more food to avert famine.
Cultivation rose from about 5 percent of land use in the sixth century CE to 30–40 percent by the late Middle Ages. The forests of France were reduced from 30 million hectares to 13 million hectares between around 800 and 1300 CE. In Germany and central Europe, perhaps 70 percent of the land was forest covered in 900 CE, but only about 25 percent remained by 1900.
The various elements interlocked to produce what Lynn White, historian of medieval technology, called “the agricultural revolution of the Middle Ages” (1962, 6), which asserted the dominance of humans over nature. It also shifted the focus of Europe from south to north, from the restricted lowlands around the Mediterranean to the great forested plains drained by the Loire, Seine, Rhine, Elbe, Danube, and Thames. Here the distinctive features of the medieval world developed—a buildup of technological competence, self-confidence, and accelerated change—which after 1500 enabled Europe to invade and colonize the rest of the world. In that long process of global expansion the forest and the wealth released from it played a central part.
Massive deforestation must also have happened in China, but the detail is murky. The population rose from about 65–80 million in 1400 CE to 270 million in 1770, and land in agriculture quadrupled. Large swaths of the forested lands in the central and southern provinces were certainly engulfed by an enormous migration of peoples from the north.
Modern World (1500–c. 1900)
During the roughly four hundred years from 1492 to about 1900, Europe burst out of its continental confines with far-reaching consequences for the global forests. Its capitalistic economy commoditized nearly all it found, creating wealth out of nature, whether it be land, trees, animals, plants, or people. Enormous strains were put on the global forest resource by a steadily increasing population (c. 400 million in 1500 to 1.65 billion in 1900) and also by rising demands for raw materials and food with urbanization and industrialization, first in Europe and, after the mid-nineteenth century, in the United States. In the mainly temperate neo-European areas, settler societies were planted and created. Permanent settlement began in earnest by the 1650s after the near elimination of the indigenes by virulent Old World pathogens, like smallpox, measles, and influenza. The imported Old World crops and stock flourished wonderfully. The dominant ethos of freehold tenure, dispersed settlement, “improvement,” and personal and political freedom led to a rapid and successful expansion of settlement, although much environmentally destructive exploitation also occurred. Tree growth was considered a good indicator of soil fertility in all pioneer societies, and the bigger the trees the quicker they were felled to make way for farms. The United States was the classic example. The pioneer farmer, through “sweat, skill and strength,” (Ellis 1946, 73) was seen as the heroic subduer of a sullen and untamed wilderness. Clearing was widespread, universal, and an integral part of rural life; about 460,300 square kilometers of dense forest were felled by about 1850 and a further 770,900 square kilometers by 1910. “Such are the means,” marveled the French traveler, the Marquis de Chastellux in 1789,
by which North-America, which one hundred years ago was nothing but a vast forest, is peopled with three million of inhabitants. . . . Four years ago, one might have travelled ten miles in the woods . . . without seeing a single habitation. (Chastellux 1789, 29)
It was one of the biggest deforestation episodes ever. A similar process of the pioneer hacking out a life for himself and family in the forest occurred in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. In Australia, for example, nearly 400,000 square kilometers of the southeastern forests and sparse woodland were cleared by the early twentieth century.
In the subtropical and tropical forests, European systems of exploitation led to the harvesting of indigenous tree crops (e.g., rubber, hardwoods), and in time to the systematic replacement of the original forest by “plantation” crops grown by slave or indentured labor. Classic examples of this were the highly profitable crops of sugar in the West Indies, coffee and sugar in the subtropical coastal forests of Brazil, cotton and tobacco in the southern United States, tea in Sri Lanka and India, and later rubber in Malaysia and Indonesia. In eastern Brazil, over half of the original 780,000 square kilometers of the huge subtropical forest that ran down the eastern portions of the country had disappeared by 1950 through agricultural exploitation and mining. In the state of Sao Paulo alone, the original 204,500 square kilometers of forest were reduced to 45,500 square kilometers by 1952.
Peasant proprietors were not immune to the pressures of the global commercial market. Outstanding was the expansion of peasant cultivation in lower Burma (encouraged by British administrators) between 1850 and 1950, which resulted in the destruction of about 35,000 square kilometers of imposing equatorial (kanazo) rain forests and their replacement by rice. Throughout the Indian subcontinent the early network of railways meant an expansion of all types of crops by small-scale farmers, often for cash, that led to forest clearing everywhere.
Uncolonized Asian societies exploited their forests just as vigorously, commercially, and uncaringly as did their European counterparts. There is evidence from, for example, southwestern India and Hunan Province in south-central China from the sixteenth century onward to show that the commercialization of the forest was well established. In the former, permanent indigenous agricultural settlements existed side by side with shifting cultivation, and village councils regulated forest exploitation by agriculturalists. The forest was not regarded as a community resource; larger landowners dominated forest use locally. Scarce commodities such as sandalwood, ebony, cinnamon, and pepper were under state and/ or royal control. In Hunan, a highly centralized administration encouraged land clearance in order to enhance local state revenues so as to increase the tax base and support a bigger bureaucracy and militia. State encouragement was also given to migrations into the forested hill country of south China later on. Simply, forests everywhere were being exploited and were diminishing in size as a response to increasing population numbers and increasing complexity of society. In the subtropical world, change was just slower than that unleashed by the Europeans with their new aims, technologies, and intercontinental trade links, but no less severe. Measures of destruction are hard to come by, but between 1860 and 1950 in South and Southeast Asia, 216,000 square kilometers of forest and 62,000 square kilometers of interrupted or open forest were destroyed for cropland.
During these centuries deforestation was also well underway in Europe itself, which was being colonized internally. This was particularly true in the mixedforest zone of central European Russia, where over 67,000 square kilometers were cleared between around 1700 and 1914.
The insatiable demand in all societies for new land to grow crops and settle agriculturalists has been matched by a rising demand for the products of the forest themselves. For example, the European quest for strategic naval stores (masts, pitch, tar, turpentine) and ships’ timbers made major inroads into the forests of the Baltic littoral from the fifteenth century onward and those of the southern United States after about 1700. Alternative construction timbers like teak and mahogany were utilized from the tropical hardwood forests since the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The Last Hundred Years
The pace of transformation increased during the first half of the twentieth century. In the Western world demands for timber accelerated. New uses (pulp, paper, packaging, plywood, chipboard) and relatively little substitution of other materials boosted use, while traditional uses in energy production, construction, and industry continued to loom large. The indispensable and crucial nature of timber in many Western economies gave it a strategic value akin to that of petroleum in economies today. In the tropical world the massive expansion of population by more than half a billion on a base of 1.1 billion resulted in extensive clearing for subsistence, accompanied by an expansion of commercial plantation agriculture. In all perhaps 2.35 million square kilometers of tropical forest were lost between 1920 and 1949. The only encouraging feature in the global picture during these years was the reversion of farmland to forest. This had begun in the eastern United States with the abandonment of “difficult” and hard-to-farm lands in New England in favor of easier-to-farm open grasslands, and continued with the abandonment of some cotton and tobacco growing lands in the southern States. A similar story unfolded in northern Europe with “marginal” farms.
The most publicized deforestation—the deforestation everyone thinks of when the word is mentioned— occurred after 1950. Since then the temperate coniferous softwood forests have about kept up with the demands of industrial societies for supplies of timber and pulp. But the focus of deforestation has shifted firmly to the tropical world. Here, better health and nutrition have resulted in a population explosion and an additional 3.5–4.0 billion people. These are often landless people who have moved deeper into the remaining forests and farther up steep forested slopes. They have no stake in the land and therefore little commitment to sustainable management. In addition chain saws and trucks have moved felling from the province of the large firm to the enterprising individual. Since 1950 about 7.5 million square kilometers of tropical forests have disappeared, Central and Latin America being classic examples. In addition, the tropical hardwood forests are being logged out for constructional timber at a great rate, while wood is cut for domestic fuel in prodigious quantities in Africa, India, and Latin America. Globally, fuel wood–cutting now roughly equals saw timber extraction—about 1.8 billion cubic meters annually compared to 1.9 billion cubic meters. Cutting wood for fuel is forecast to rise rapidly in line with world population increases.
The long and complex chronicle of deforestation is a significant portion of world history. It is one of the main causes of terrestrial transformation, whereby humankind has modified the world’s surface, a process that is now reaching critical proportions. One thing is certain: with an ever-increasing world population (another 2–3 billion by 2020), many will want to exploit resources and the process of deforestation will not end. Others will want to restrict forest use and preserve it. The tensions between exploitation and preservation will be intense.
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