Poverty, Population Growth, and Deforestation… it’s not always what it seems.

Today at COP13 was Forest Day. I began the day inflating all three trees with the guys from TFG. Scott, Devorah and I followed it up with a much-needed quick swim in a super-luxurious pool, and then it was off to the Parallel Sessions at Forest Day. In Session 2, we listened to a panel of 3 present on “Drivers of deforestation and implications for incentive schemes.”

Giseline Cunha Zeri presented the findings of her paper Governance and Socio-economic drivers of deforestation, and really threw some new light (for me at least) on the common assumptions that population growth increases deforestation, and rising income reduces deforestation. As I had previously believed, and as her literature review showed, most papers supported these hypotheses. But she tested several other factors against population growth and found that in some instances, while population growth may be correlated with deforestation rates, population may not be the causal factor. Many factors co-vary. Additionally, she examined GDP in several different regions around the world and identified several cases that contradict the commonly held notion that rising income reduces deforestation. It seems there is much more variability when you look at things with a finer grain.

Firstly, on population growth and deforestation in tropical countries: Ms Zeri showed high population growth is correlated with bad governance, poor property rights regimes, and corruption. This makes sense on several levels, because governance is often linked with family planning and other population drivers. However, this also means that the high deforestation rates that are found in high population growth countries could be a result of the poor governance: authorities not enforcing laws, deforestation to plant and grow drugs, etc. We need to look deeper and can’t just assume a causal relationship between population growth and deforestation. This also means that there may be hope to curb deforestation even in rapidly growing areas of the world.

Secondly, on income and deforestation: when you compare income/GDP and deforestation rates worldwide, you see a negative correlation. However, in some regions, Ms Zeri showed that an increase in income is correlated with an increase in deforestation. While a rise in GDP can mean access to other methods of subsistence, it can also result in an increased demand for agriculture or forest products that drive deforestation.