When Christopher Columbus first saw the island of Hispaniola, he was awed by its lavishly wood mountains. “All are most beautiful of a thousand shapes,” he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabela, “all are accessible and filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, so that they seem to touch the sky.” Other early European visitors to the Americas were similarly impressed. A member of the first Portuguese crew to land in present-day Brazil reported that “the number, size and thickness of...the trees and the variety of the foliage…beggars calculation.”
Such descriptions might seem remote or even fantastical to a modern reader. With scattered exceptions, the magnificent coastal groves of the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and most of the rest of the Americas exist only in historical accounts. The Hemisphere’s forests have been so thoroughly transformed––logged or replaced by cities and farmland––that it is hard to imagine the cathedrals of giant trees that once cloaked the land.
Today, some 40% of the original forest mantle remains largely undergraded. Most of these undisturbed, or primary, forests occur in huge blocks in the far north of Canada and Alaska, and in the interior reaches of the Amazon basin. Elsewhere, fewer forests have escaped degradation or destruction: in the contiguous United States, for example, less than 5% of primary forest is intact.
Throughout the Hemisphere, European expansion has been fueled by the consumption in a matter of years of the wealth accumulated over centuries in the soils and vegetation of forests. This pattern was established soon after Europeans arrived in the New World. Forests were cleared on Barbados, Hispaniola, and elsewhere in the Caribbean to meet overseas demand for sugar. In just over 20 years, cane planters on Barbados admitted to having destroyed all the island’s timber to build and fuel their mills.
Deforestation also began rapidly in the great eastern forests of North America. Early forest clearance was largely oriented toward domestic needs for farmland, fuelwood and building materials, but exports of timber, typically for masts of British naval ships, assumed increasing importance toward the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, New England had largely been converted from woodland to wasteland, and large numbers of farmers who had exhausted their soils moved west to try again.
Despite these experiences, North Americans continued to believe the continent’s resources were limitless. “Centuries will hardly exhaust the pineries above us,” predicted one Minnesotan in 1854. But his prophecy was soon proven wrong as the Chicago-centered lumber market devastated the pine forests of the Great Lakes states in a matter of decades. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, lumbermen left the stump fields of the Midwest behind and turned to the largely untouched forests of the South and the Pacific Coast, which they similarly devoured.
The Brazilian Amazon has become a symbol of environmental destruction because huge areas are now being cleared. But it is, by Brazilian and international standards, largely untouched. The country’s other, two major forest zones, the Atlantic coastal forest and the Araucaria coniferous forest of the south, have received less attention but have suffered almost complete devastation. Less than 5% of the Atlantic coastal forest remains today; the rest was cleared, for timber, sugar and other crops beginning as early as 1500. Of the 20 to 25 million hectares of Araucaria that once existed, less than 500,000 survived the opening up of the region to national and international markets for food and timber over the last century. The region’s timber economy has declined and the destruction of Araucaria has in the past decade spread into eastern Paraguay.
As much as economic forces have driven the deforestation of the Americas, cultural or ideological forces have also played a key role. The seventeenth-century Puritans’ fear and hatred of the “waste and howling wilderness” as “the Devil’s den” has been secularized, but the desire to conquer nature is little diminished. In 1940, Brazil’s president expressed this philosophy with striking clarity: “To conquer the land, tame the waters, and subjugate the jungle, these have been our tasks. And in this centuries-old battle, we have won victory upon victory.”
Ironically, recent decades have seen the waning of this philosophy in many quarters but have also witnessed the most destructive period of forest-loss in the Americas. Large-scale clearing of tropical forests, biologically the richest ecosystems on the planet, began in earnest only after World War II. Seventy-five percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has taken place in the last 20 years; deforestation in Central America has also accelerated exponentially, in the past few decades. Coastal Ecuador underwent almost complete deforestation in just 15 years, starting in 1960.
Export-oriented logging has eaten through the temperate rain forests of Chile and Canada, whose rugged, fog-shrouded coastlines harbor some of the world’s largest and oldest trees. In Chile’s Bio-Bio Region, 31% of the native coastal forests were cleared and converted to monoculture plantations between 1978 and 1987. The nation now has 3.2 million acres of monoculture tree plantations and perhaps a half million acres of surviving ancient forest.
In Canada’s British Columbia, close to 700,000 acres are cleared of their centuries-old trees each year. Of 25 coastal watersheds over 250,000 acres in size, only one has never been cut. Most forests are publicly owned, but almost all of the province’s uncut forests have been leased to private companies for logging.
Without a doubt, ecological degradation has brought great (if fleeting) economic benefits to some. But it has also carried severe costs, borne especially by indigenous people and the rural poor, whose economies depend directly on the health and productivity of their environment. Forest destruction not only exacerbates economic inequality, it is driven by it. Governments have generously subsidized destructive timber, cattle, and hydroelectric mega-projects for large industries at public expense, while impoverished farmers have destroyed fragile rainforests largely because they have been forced off more fertile cropland.
The forests of the Americas (and the rest of the world) have been pushed to a point that improvement of the human condition––especially for the 150 million Americans living in absolute poverty––depends on a reversal of the environmental legacy of the past five centuries. Without an immediate effort to protect the world’s remaining forests and restore some of those lost, floods will continue to wash away downstream farms and communities, hillsides will shed their life-giving soils, the global climate will warm, and the plants and animals that provide important food, medicine, income, and delight will continue their march into extinction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR John C. Ryan is a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, and a contributor to the Institute’s State of the World, 1991 (Norton, 1991).
NOTES 1. Quoted in Catherine Caufield, In The Rainforest (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 32; John Perlin, A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), p. 254. 2. Forty percent figure based on calculations done for Table 1 in Sandra Postel and John C. Ryan, “Reforming Forestry,” in Lester Brown, et al., State of the World 1991: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society (New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1991) pp. 74-92. 3. Perlin, A Forest Journey, p. 259. 4. Alexander S. Mather, Global Forest Resources (Portland, Ore.: Timber Press, 1990), pp. 38-43. 5. Quoted in William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), p. 154; Mather, Global Forest Resources, pp. 28-49. 6. Mark Collins, ed., The Last Rainforests (London: Mitchell Beazle, 1990), pp. 131-135; Norman Myers, Deforestation Rates in Tropical Forests and Their Climatic Implications (London: Friends of the Earth, 1989), p. 18. 7. John R. McNeill, “Deforestation in the Araucaria Zone of Southern Brazil, 1900-1983,” John F. Richards and Richard P. Tucker, eds., World Deforestation in the Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press 1988), pp. 15-32. 8. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1892), p. 36; Caufield, In the Rainforest, p. 42. 9. International Environment Reporter, March 13,1991; Mather, Global Forest Resources, p. 51; Myers, Deforestation Rates, pp. 22-24. 10. Comité Nacional Pro Defensa de la Fauna y Flora et al., “Project Final Report: Chile, Evaluation of Native Forest Destruction,” unpublished report [n.d.]; Shirley Christian, “Ecologists Act to Save Ancient Forest in Chile from Industry,” New York Times, April 3, 1990, 11. Postel and Ryan, “Reforming Forestry,” p. 78; Spencer B. Beebe “Conservation in Temperate and Tropical Rain Forests: The Search for an Ecosystem Approach to Sustainability,” paper presented at the 56th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, March 25-29,1991.