As countries develop, demand for wood products and agricultural land leads to increasing deforestation. Defries et al. (2004) describe several stages of land-use along the typical path of development. From the original wildlands, the first settlers create frontier clearings that later give way to small-scale subsistence farming. As urban centers form, there is usually a shift to intensive agriculture, which supports the growing urban population. By the final stage of development, much of the original wildlands are destroyed, although the original ecosystems will sometimes have the opportunity to return through conservation policy and increased agricultural efficiency. Often, biodiversity is concentrated in regions where societies are transitioning from small-scale to intensive agriculture, and by the end of the 20th century, these transitions had contributed to the loss of 88% of primary vegetation from biodiversity hotspots (Myers 2000).
In countries containing hotspots, development is one of the major causes of deforestation. Jha and Bawa (2005) compared population growth, deforestation rate, and human development index (HDI), a value based on economy, health, and education. They found that when population growth was high and HDI was low, deforestation rates were high, but when HDI was high, deforestation rates were low, even if there was high population growth. Thus, the level of development was a key indicator of deforestation, with more deforestation occurring in developing regions. They further identified two major causes of deforestation: development constraints and policy choice. Development constraints lead to deforestation when an emerging consumer society increases the demand for resources. Policy choices lead to deforestation when a government implements economic incentives that favor importing wood rather than conserving forests within the country.
Tole (1998) analyzed the causes of deforestation more extensively. She found that the main direct contributors to deforestation were wood harvesting, conversion to agricultural land, and the creation of infrastructure such as roads. Development also led to an inherent increase in deforestation, potentially as a result of increased wealth. When people are wealthier, they expect a higher quality of life, which leads to an additional strain on forest products and forested land.
Geist and Lambin (2002) identified the same proximate causes of deforestation as Tole. Agricultural expansion was the most common cause, followed by infrastructure expansion and then wood extraction, yet for the most part, deforestation was a result of multiple factors working together. They also identified underlying drivers of deforestation that involved a mix of economics, policy, technology, culture, and population growth. Contrary to popular belief, population growth on its own was the least significant factor, and it contributed to deforestation only in conjunction with other factors. Hence, deforestation seems to result more from a population’s lifestyle rather than from its size.
A common theme among studies of deforestation is the importance of policy in providing incentives and enforcement for conservation. To learn more about political solutions for sustainable use of forests see Sustainable Management: Deforestation.