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The Facts


new internationalist
issue 184 - June 1988

Trees - The FACTS

[image, unknown] Different kinds of trees
. In the colder parts of the world are softwood coniferous forests: pine, spruce, aspens, alders and arches. Often planted commercially for paper pulp, they harbour few plants and wildlife being dark with infertile needle-carpet floors. They produce acidic soil which makes poor farming land.

. Temperate forests are a mixture of conifers and hardwood deciduous trees like oaks, maples and hickories. They are lighter and more diverse than coniferous forests, supporting plants and wildlife. The rotting vegetation produces many nutrients and these generally stay in the soil, which makes good farming land.

. Tropical forests are diverse and include hardwood trees like teak and mahogany. Sometimes 180 million years old, they can shelter up to 100 species of animals and plants in less than two and a half acres. Tropical forest soil is fragile because it is so old and because most nutrients are absorbed by the plant life. It makes poor farming land.

Tree death toll
Mark Edwards / Panos Pictures

Tree death toll
. An area of tropical forest the size of Britain is deforested every year. That is one million acres a week, or 100 acres a minute.

. In 1950, 30% of the earth was covered by tropical forest. By 1975, only 12 % was left.

. Today more than 40% of the world's original tropical forests have gone. Latin America has lost 37% of its original tropical forests, Asia 42% and Africa 52%.

. The world is now losing its tropical forest at the rate of 7% a year and the end of the tropical rainforests in sight.

[image, unknown] World wood consumption
. Altogether the world consumes enough wood to cover Manhattan to the height of a 10-storey building (3-billion cubic metres of wood a year). Of this, 55 per cent comes from hardwoods and 45% from softwoods.

. The average citizen of the West consumes more than 150 kilograms of paper a year compared to the Third World citizen who uses just five kilograms.

Rich and poor countries consume the world's trees in roughly equal proportions. But poor countries use wood to satisfy basic needs while we use it for luxuries.

. Half the world's wood is used as fuel - 80 % of it by poor countries.

. 40% is used for construction - 75% of it by rich countries.

. 10% is used as paper -87.5% of it by rich countries.

Illustration: Steve Weston

[image, unknown]

. Each US citizen throws away the equivalent of three conifer trees a year. The US is annually discarding paper, packaging and other rubbish made from wood worth a forest the size of Delaware. It is also wasting four times as much paper as is used by all the countries of the Third World put together.

. More than 70% of all tropical hardwoods are produced by just six countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and Ivory Coast. A further eight countries bring the total to 90% - Colombia, Ecuador, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Burma and Thailand.

. Tropical timber is one of the leading exports of the Third World. It earns as much as cotton, twice as much as rubber and three times as much as cocoa.

. In 1985, forest products were Burma's second largest export, earning $127 million. The same year, sawn logs and timber made up Malaysia's third largest export bringing in $1,434 million. And timber was Indonesia's third largest export, earning $1,210 million. Forest products were Aotearoa (NZ's) fourth biggest export, worth $348.4 million.

Death of the earth
Trees bind the earth with their roots, protecting the soil from erosion and reducing the evaporation of water. When they are cut down the earth is left naked, to be flushed away by rain or desiccated by the sun and attacked by wind. Deforestation is a major factor in the increase of floods. Although it is debatable as to whether or not trees themselves actually produce rain, droughts have increased dramatically in areas of the world where deforestation is most severe.

. Until recent times 70% of Sudan was covered by forest or savannah woodland. Many trees were cut down because agriculture expanded, prices for charcoal increased and animal fodder grew scarce. Today much of the country is desert.

. Every year about 15 million acres of land becomes desert, and a further 53 million acres are so degraded that crop production becomes uneconomic. The worldwide rural population affected by serious desertification rose from 57 million people in 1977 to 135 million in 1984. A further 350 million will be suffering by the end of the century.

. In the 1960s drought struck 18.5 million people worldwide every year. By the 1970s that figure had climbed to 24.4 million people annually. Between 1984-1985, drought afflicted some 30 million people in Africa alone. And in India during 1987, 300 million people (40% of the total population) suffered because of drought.

. Selective planting of trees helps to reverse desertification by protecting the soil from erosion, improving the local climate and providing for people's needs. Some trees like Eucalyptus use a lot of water and are unsuitable for very dry regions.

1 Trees, Macdonald Education Ltd. 1 978.
2 Catherine Caulfield, In the Rainforest, Pan 1985.
3 Rainforest, Friends of the Earth teat let.
4 Norman Myers (ed). The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, Pant 985.
5 Panoscope, No.3 October 1987.
6 Friends of the Earth Press Release, Tuesday 8 July, 1987.
7 From Forest Resources, Food and Agricultural Organization, 1985.
8 Norman Myers,The Primary Source, W W Norton & Company, 1985.
9 Catherine Caulfield, Tropical Moist Forests, Earthscan.
10 Asia 1987 Yearbook, Far Eastern Economic Review.
11 Norman Myers, The Sinking Ark, Pergamon, 1979.
12 Richard Webb, Options for Forestry Projects in the Sudan, in report to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Eire, 1986.
13 United Nations Environment Programme, Environment brief No 2.
14 Green Deserts.
15 Lloyd Timberlake, Only One Earth, BBC Books & Earthscan, 1987.
16 Save the Children Fund, 1988.

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New Internationalist issue 184 magazine cover This article is from the June 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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