Deforestation and poverty are part of a vicious circle, each feeding into the other. In Haiti, for example, the destruction of the forests has put a strain on the country’s water supplies and agricultural productivity, aggravating the problems of malnutrition and extreme poverty as well as those relating to health and infant mortality.
But we need to beware of this kind of simplification. The link between poverty and deforestation is an ambiguous one. Across the globe, there are some 800 million people living within or on the edge of an area of tropical forest which supplies part of their food and energy needs, and is also therefore a source of income. In very many countries, the poor may be cutting down trees, but the most serious damage is done by the extractive industries and the major companies associated with forestry or agriculture, acting in response to demands from wealthy countries.
This is the case in the Brazilian rainforest, where 80% of the deforested areas are in parcels of 50 acres (20 hectares) or more —deforestation on a scale well beyond the means of poor farming families. Brazilian society is characterized by extreme inequalities: on the one hand, there are a handful of wealthy land owners, farming and rearing livestock with an eye to the export market; on the other, there are the millions of small family-run farms and landless workers. And these inequalities are mirrored in the process of deforestation.
In Indonesia, the government has granted a number of huge concessions: while the big companies and their employees see their revenues increasing, part of the local population has no access at all to the forest and its resources and is sinking further into poverty. To many people, deforestation seems inevitable, and the link between industrial advances in Europe and the destruction of all its primary forests offers an unfortunate precedent.
Development policies can play a part in the phenomenon of deforestation. Whereas projects for constructing roads and dams have frequently contributed to the destruction of forests, policies aimed at reducing levels of poverty, which prioritize health, education, and the environment, could slow down the process.