Over the millennia spanned by the history of mankind, agriculture has been developed to the detriment of forests. Forests have been destroyed by fire or axe and their resources squandered. Shadowy underbrush, suspected of harbouring a myriad dangers, has been replaced by the countryside and savanna. The apparent disorder of forests has been replaced by monotonous pastures and the established system of cultivation. Deforestation has thus long been considered a major manifestation of civilization.
Urban dwellers of the provinces of Ancient Rome were not the only ones to attribute to an area and its population a value inversely proportional to its distance from a city. Gardens, fields, pastures and forests were valued in de creasing order. Throughout the history of civilization, man has superimposed his own hierarchy of values on the physical layout of the land. Inhabitants of forests and their vicinities have always been relegated to the bottom rungs of these socio-centric ladders. They are sometimes so neglected as to be forgotten altogether. Many recent deforestation studies have failed even to mention those whose livelihoods depend upon the forest, and whose death results from its destruction. It is as if nature were to be preserved for its own sake and not managed in relation to mankind’s present and future needs. From such a narrow point of view, neither the forest nor the societies it shelters is distinguished from trees.
Forests have long and abundantly supplied rural and urban areas with construction materials and wood for fuel, with game, fruit, forage, bark for tanning hides and dyeing fabrics, and ingredients for medicinal preparations. As these resources ceased to appear limitless in temperate countries as a result of population growth and the reduction of forest expanse through deforestation, new rules of conduct became necessary. Hence the emergence of legal restrictions on the use of forests and their resources, building regulations to economize wood, ‘economical furnaces’ in 18th century Europe, new industrial energy sources (coal, steam, electricity), changes in crop rotations and the gradual disappearance of fallow land.
New forest regulations were the focus of bitter social strife in Europe. The reduction of forest rights in southern and western Germany was one of the causes of the peasant revolt which bathed the dawn of Lutherism in blood.
Large-scale use of forest resources is a recent development in tropical countries. Its consequences there are more severe than in temperate countries owing to the far greater number of people living in and off the forest. These people, existing on the fringes of the cultural, economic and political structures of society, have little power to make their voices heard and defend their rights. Traditional forest dwellers in tropical and equatorial areas are vulnerable to illnesses introduced by immigrants while, inversely, the newcomers succumb to diseases native to tropical forests. Neither group has the time to develop sufficient immunity. Moreover, the soil loses its natural fertility as a result of deforestation far more rapidly under tropical climatic conditions than in temperate zones.
This explains why the deterioration of tropical forests is in many respects irreversible. The soil becomes sterile or is carried away by erosion. Animal and plant species are lost forever. Forest deterioration and its side effects bring conflict in their wake. Concepts, priorities and plans collide as different communities enter into contact with one another. The very speed with which changes occur causes considerable human suffering.
Each tropical country has its specific ecological, social and economic problems. Detailed national economic development plans specify the number of square metres to be felled, the areas to be created for plantations and the funds required for the purpose. Planners often view forests as mere wood-supplying machines. Of course, cellulose can be produced through intensive cultivation of rapid-growing species on plantations set up near industrial centres where the demand is greatest. A genuine forestry policy – rare in tropical countries today – must never lose sight of the survival needs of tropical forest dwellers.
The use of tropical forest resources is one of the major socio-economic developments of this century. The example set by a country like Malaysia despite the numerous obstacles faced shows that a rational use of forests stands to serve the interests of the majority of the population. Other countries, on the contrary, have seriously under mined their forest resources by banking heavily on industrialization and international trade. Certain tropical countries , owing to a very rapidly deteriorating environment, have exhausted their forest resources altogether. In such cases, forestry policy must focus on halting the deterioration and, insofar as possible, reversing the trend with the participation of the populations concerned. In any event, the vital interests of these populations must lie at the heart of any forestry policy. Moreover, it must never be forgotten that the decisions made today carry consequences for generations to come. Trees, like societies, need time to develop.
The clearing and transformation of forests often constitute an integral part of development. All too often, however, a disproportionate amount of deforestation costs are borne by the most deprived segments of the population, namely the indigenous peoples and the poor settlers driven to the forests by rural poverty.
Tropical forests and their inhabitants thus pay the price for agricultural policies designed to satisfy the needs of a minority rather than to ensure employment and a steady food supply for all. A study of the humanitarian aspects of deforestation not only points to the weaknesses and errors inherent in agricultural policies , but also calls into question energy policies. Well-known methods exist for economizing wood, improved and inexpensive furnaces have been developed and alternative sources of low-cost energy are available.
Underscoring this lack of political will should be no excuse to avoid broaching its underlying reasons. In our opinion, it is the failure to attribute a major role to humanitarian considerations at the national and international levels in both the short and long term which ex plains why necessary policies have not been elaborated or implemented.
This is why the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues has undertaken the task of sensitizing public opinion as well as political leaders to the suffering of those who, without power and without a voice, pay the price of mis-development. This report is a modest step in that direction. It is hoped that it will inspire more appropriate projects and pave the way for the implementation of wiser and more humane policies before it is too late for forests and forest dwellers.
Sadruddin Aga Khan
Co-Chairman of ICIHI
Many scientific studies of tropical deforestation have appeared over the past few years. The Independent Com mission felt, however, that the humanitarian aspects of the increasing disappearance of tropical forests, and in particular the welfare and health of populations directly concerned, have not been adequately addressed. We requested Professor D. Poore of the University of Oxford to look specifically into these aspects. He was assisted in his work by D. Burns and R. Van der Giessen. The Commission also benefited from reports prepared by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with its support.
The comments made by the members of the Commis sion, in particular those participating in its Working Group on Disasters, are reflected in the Report. It was reviewed by P. Bifani, P. Spitz and other members of the Secretariat of the Commission. B. Palmer, M. El Kouhene and D. Topali helped in its technical preparation.
We wish to thank R. Molteno and Zed Books for their valuable assistance in the publication of the Report.
Any income from sales of this book will be devoted entirely to research on related humanitarian issues.
Convenor, ICIHI Working Group Secretary-General on Disasters.
Geneva, April 1986