By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Deforestation involves the mass removal of trees from forested areas either for the purpose of marketing the trees or to permanently convert forest land for other uses such as agriculture, live stock and housing. The United Nations has reported on the state of the world’s forests since 1995. In its report, State of the World’s Forests, 2012, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) noted that deforestation occurs at a rate of 5.2 million hectares (about 12.85 million acres) per year (State World Forests, 2012). At that level, deforestation is a slow process allowing, as the UN notes, ample time to plan a strategy to prevent extreme deforestation. While the pace of deforestation appears slow, the impacts of deforestation on the global ecosystem are significant and are especially troubling relative to efforts to address related problems such as climate change.

In addressing deforestation, the UN FAO also examines the economic use of forest and the volume of economic production linked to forest products. In doing so, the UN FAO notes that the economic products from the forest industry in developing nations is important to the economic growth of those nations. Thus, one could conclude from these data that efforts to control deforestation are especially detrimental to the economy of developing nations. This places the UN FAO in a difficult position with respect to forest policy issues since it is widely agreed that deforestation must be controlled to limit global ecological destruction and contain outcomes such as climate change while, at the same time, such policies will tend to have unequal adverse effects on developing nations. Balancing the effects of policies related to deforestation and climate change with the effects of such policies on developing nations and the world’s poor who require access to forests for survival is a difficult task, one that can create tension between the UN FAO and environmental groups.

Despite the above tension, the UN FAO notes that current levels of deforestation are ecological unsustainable. Addressing the sustainable use of forests is thus a major focus of UN FAO.

Deforestation has occurred for centuries, but accelerated during the 20th century. The remaining world’s forests cover about 31% of the earth’s surface. Earlier in human history, significant deforestation occurred in temperate forests while in the last century, significant deforestation has occurred more widely in tropical and rainforest regions. Combined, about one half of global forests have been cleared at this point in history. Various conservation groups estimate that the rate of illegal deforestation is as much as 50% of current global lumber production.

Forests play an important role in controlling greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide since trees consume carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen as part of the process of photosynthesis. As a result, the loss of forest can exacerbate climate change. Current estimates suggest that present losses of forest contributes about 15% to the accumulation of global carbon dioxide annually.

Deforestation has a number of deleterious ecological impacts in addition to its effects on climate change. Deforestation reduces available habitat for species, leading to species decline and extinction (He and Hubbell, 2011). These effects vary by species and across the type of forest affected. Because trees play an important role in the water cycle and recycle water and transform it into airborne releases, deforestation can also affect rainfall amounts (Garcia-Carreras and Parker, 2011) and weather patterns (McIntyre, 2012). Trees also play an important role in soil conservation, and deforestation leads to extensive soil erosion (Hoffman et al., 2012) and loss of soil nutrients (Don, Schumacher and Freibauer, 2011).

Green criminological research has addressed issues related to deforestation, including: deforestation crimes and conflicts in the Amazon(von Solinge, 2010); illegal logging (Bisschop, 2012; Green, Ward and McConnachie, 2007; von Solinge, 2014; Wyatt, 2014); with respect to illegal charcoal trade; and more generally as an eco-crime (von Solinge, 2008)

Further Reading


Bisschop, Lieselot. 2012. “Out of the woods: the illegal trade in tropical timber and a European trade hub.” Global Crime 13, 3: 191-212

Don, Axel, Jens Schumacher, and Annette Freibauer. 2011. “Impact of tropical land‐use change on soil organic carbon stocks–a meta‐analysis.” Global Change Biology 17, 4: 1658-1670.

Garcia‐Carreras, L., and D. J. Parker. 2011. “How does local tropical deforestation affect rainfall?” Geophysical Research Letters 38, 19.

Green, Penny, Tony Ward, and Kirsten McConnachie. 2007. “Logging and legality: environmental crime, civil society, and the state.” Social Justice 34,2 : 94-110.

He, Fangliang, and Stephen P. Hubbell. 2011. “Species-area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss.” Nature 473, 7347: 368-371.

Hoffmann, T., S. M. Mudd, Kristof Van Oost, Gert Verstraeten, G. Erkens, Andreas Lang, H. Middelkoop et al. 2013. “Short Communication: Humans and the missing C-sink: erosion and burial of soil carbon through time.” Earth Surface Dynamics 1, 1: 45-52.

McIntyre, Matt. 2012. “Deforestation and climate change: reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.” Australasian Journal of Environmental Management 19, 4: 276-278.

von Solinge, Tim Boekhout. 2014. “Researching Illegal Logging and Deforestation.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 3, 2: 36-49.

von Solinge, Tim Boekhout. 2010. “Deforestation crimes and conflicts in the Amazon.” Critical Criminology 18, 4: 263-277.

Von Solinge, Tim Boekhout. 2008. Eco-crime: the tropical timber trade. NY: Springer.

Wyatt, Tanya. 2014. “The Russian Far East’s illegal timber trade: an organized crime?.” Crime, Law and Social Change 61, 1: 15-35.

Wyatt, Tanya. 2013. “From the Cardamom Mountains of Southwest Cambodia to the forests of the world: an exploration of the illegal charcoal trade.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 37, 1: 15-29.

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