Biomass burning to clear land, Brazil

Photo credit: ┬ęPatrick Zimmerman/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)

This family is clearing the rain forest to plant coffee in the Mato Grosso region in western Brazil, near the Bolivian border. Clearing land by the slash-and-burn technique, which is common in the tropics, releases carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases in amounts sufficient to affect the atmosphere around the globe.

Over the years, researchers have identified agricultural expansion as a major factor in almost all studies on deforestation. In the 1990s, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 70 per cent of total deforested areas were converted to permanent agriculture systems. But there are regional differences. For example, in Latin America conversion to agriculture has been large-scale and permanent whereas in Africa small-scale agricultural enterprises have predominated.

In Asia, the changes have been more equally distributed between permanent agriculture and areas under shifting cultivation. This last method of farming is sustainable provided the farmers do not return to the cleared area until it has recovered its fertility. Unfortunately, in many parts of Asia, the pressure of population is leading to repeated clearance until the land is eroded and the topsoil washed away.

Historically, increases in food production have been at the expense of millions of hectares of forest. With the expected clearance of additional forest land in the future for this purpose it is important to plan for this reality. However, equally important is acknowledging that technological innovations, including the use of recycled paper and paperboard, can have positive effects on forest areas and could, under certain circumstances, facilitate a transition from deforestation back to reforestation. If appropriate mechanisms are put in place to lock these gains in both developed and developing countries, this could potentially set a trend for large-scale forest restoration in the future.

Other reasons for forest clearance are logging, cutting timber for fuel, and infrastructure development.

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