© WWF-Madagascar / RAKOTONDRAZAFY A. M. Ny Aina
Why are we losing our forests?

The causes of deforestation differ by region and country, but generally can be grouped into three overarching categories: forest conversion, illegal and unsustainable logging and poor governance.

Forest conversion
Forests are ‘converted’ when natural forests are removed so that the ground they once stood on can be used for other purposes. For example, forests are destroyed so the land can be used for agriculture, to grow plantations for commercial timber, as pasture for cattle or so it can be mined. This process is usually irreversible and often causes long-term damage to both the land and the people who depend on it. 

Today, agriculture is the main driver of deforestation. Around the world, forests are giving way to plantations for oil palm, soy, rubber, coffee, tea, and rice among other crops to meet the growing demand for food and other consumer products.

In addition to the impact this has on nature, these plantations can also have a severe human toll, as local communities are at risk of forced labour and poor working conditions.  

When forests are converted, there are also often knock-on effects like soil erosion, where the exposed topsoil often begins to erode and can run into nearby rivers, creating problems with water flows and the ecosystems that rely on them. The situation worsens if there are no forests left along the banks of rivers to hold soil carried by the rain.

The cultivation of coffee, cassava, cotton, corn, palm oil, rice, sorghum, soybean, tea, tobacco, wheat and other croups causes soil erosion.

Why are forests converted?

  • The high demand for crops like soy, palm oil, cocoa and coffee in turn drives deforestation to clear land where they can be grown. These crops are used in a wide range of products we use or eat every day. For example, palm oil is used to make a whole range of cosmetics, detergents and food products including shower gel, margarine, and ice cream. Soybeans are a popular high-protein feed source for livestock - almost 80% of the global crop is fed to animals like cows, pigs and chickens. They are also used to make everything from chocolate bars to soap, paint, adhesive, fertilizer and insect spray. Despite commitments from companies and governments to change their practices, many of these crops are still produced unsustainably.
  • The pulp and paper industry, which makes products such as office and catalog paper, glossy paper, tissue and paper-based packaging, accounts for 13–15% of total wood consumption and uses between 33–40% of all industrial wood traded globally. The practices associated with some pulp and paper operations have had devastating impacts on some of the world’s most ecologically important places and species. Unsustainable pulp and paper operations have contributed to conversion of high conservation value forests, illegal harvesting, human rights and social conflicts, and the development of irresponsible plantations.
  • Cheap land, low-cost local labour and certain government subsidies can incentivise unsustainable plantations, which drive up the rates of forest conversion. Even in countries and regions where there are environmental regulations in place, these can be difficult to implement, with minimal consequences for those who contravene them. 

© Aaron Gekoski / WWF-US
Illegal logging
Illegal logging involves harvesting, transporting, processing, buying or selling timber in violation of the law. This is driven by the increasing demand for timber, furniture, packaging, paper and other products, and is a multi-million dollar global industry.
Illegally logged timber has an estimated trade value of US$51-152 billion and represents up to 90% of timber harvest in some countries. 

Illegal logging doesn’t just leave gaping holes where ancient trees once stood, it also takes away the livelihoods of local communities and strips responsible companies of revenue.

Governments are estimated to be losing US$6-9 billion in tax revenues due to illegal logging, and failure to tackle it has far greater costs in terms of lost carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services – around US$876–1,814 billion.

Why does illegal logging happen?

  • Timber that is logged illegally (without paying duties and taxes) can be sold at a cheaper price, pushing down the market price of timber and incentivising other loggers to follow the same practice. This creates a vicious cycle that harms people and nature. 
  • For many people that live in forests, illegal logging can provide a source of income – but it also threatens their livelihoods in turn. The communities that are the most dependent on forests often lose out to more powerful interests like logging companies and migrant workers who reap most of the benefits. 

© Philip Hatcher-Moore
Poor governance
The term ‘governance’ refers to the way that decisions about forests are made - including who makes them, how they’re put into action and who’s held accountable for them.

Improved planning and better governance is a critical step to prevent forests from being destroyed and degraded. 

Parts of the world's most threatened forests are being lost due to governance issues.

Without effective, transparent, fair and inclusive management and carefully planned, well-enforced agreements and laws that benefit both people and nature, forests will remain at risk.

Why does poor governance harm our forests?

  • Without clear lines of accountability and transparency around how decisions are made and how they are put into action, individual people and entire institutions can become corrupt. This can lead to people turning a blind eye to illegal logging or allowing ranchers, planters, or settlers to clear-fell and burn forests to acquire land. 
  • If decisions are made about forests without including the people who live in them, efforts to protect forests can fail. It’s crucial that everyone works together for our forests and benefits when they are protected and restored. The rights and livelihoods of local and Indigenous communities, which are often the most impacted by decisions about forests, need to be respected and protected. This is why governments need to promote decision-making that takes both people and nature into account.