Population pressures

Posted: 7 May 2008

While the world's forests have disappeared faster in the last 100 years than ever before, the same time period also saw human population more than triple in size from 1.65 billion to over 6 billion. As a result, the forest-to-people ratio has fallen sharply. This ratio is defined as the area of forest available to each person to supply the broad array of goods and services that forests provide.

  • In the last four decades, the ratio of forested land to people has fallen by more than 50 per cent from a global average of 1.2 hectares in 1960 to 0.6 hectares in 1995; while the same period saw population double from 3 billion to over 6 billion.

  • Using a ratio of 0.1 hectare of forest cover per person (roughly a quarter acre) as a benchmark reveals that 1.7 billion people now live in 40 countries with critically low levels of forest cover. Many are vulnerable to scarcities of key forest products such as timber and paper and risk the collapse of vital forest services such as control of erosion and flooding in populated areas.
    Forest to people ratio barchart
    Bar chart showing a comparison of the change in forest to people ratio in 1996 with 2025 (log scale). Exact numbers given above bars for clarity. Source: UNEP-WCMC. Click for full-size image

  • By 2025, based on United Nations data on deforestation and projected population growth, the number of people living in forest-scarce countries could nearly triple to 4.6 billion.
  • Demographic pressure is greatest by far on the forests of Asia. This pressure has been especially damaging to the biodiversity of Asia's rainforests. Tropical forest species disappeared twice as fast in Asia as in Latin America during the 1980s, even though Asia lost only half as much forest. Population growth, coupled with increasing levels of wood consumption, has already placed the forests of many Asian countries at or near the limit of sustainability.
  • Pressure from dense populations in coastal areas has led to the conversion of many mangrove forests to other uses. In the 1980s, large-scale conversion for aquaculture and tourism infrastructure took place in Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. During the 1990s, mangrove deforestation continued, although at a slightly lower rate.
  • In 1995 there were more than 1.7 billion people live in 40 nations with critically low levels of forest cover (less than a tenth of a hectare per person) and therefore a scarcity of forest resources. Of these, 18 are located in the Asia and the Middle East, 12 in Africa, 7 in Europe and 3 in Latin America and the Carribbean. By 2025, combined FAO and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) figures indicate that the number of people living in low-forest-nations could nearly triple to 4.6 billion as 13 additional countries experience forest resources scarcity.
  • By 2050, the global population is expected to increase to a total of about 9 billion, with growth occurring primarily in developing countries where the potential to increase arable land is minimal.

    Consumption factor

    Current demand for forest products may exceed the limits of sustainable consumption by 25 per cent. World consumption of wood - including woodfuel and industrial wood - has grown by 60 per cent since 1960, to over 3.3 billion cubic metres in 1995. During that same period, world population has grown by 90 per cent and the global economy has tripled in size. However, there are sharp disparities in consumption levels between the industrialised countries and developing countries in the South.

    With just 16 per cent of the world's population, North America, Europe and Japan consume two-thirds of the world's paper and paperboard and half of its industrial wood. Demand for industrial wood products also has risen in developing countries, along with demand for fuelwood, the main energy source for many rural communities.

  • In 1995, the United States, with 270 million people, consumed roughly the same amount of wood products as China and Indonesia combined, with over 1.4 billion people.
  • The fastest increases in consumption are now occurring in within the developing world. Since 1980 for example, consumption of industrial roundwood grew fastest in South America, while paper use rose rapidly in Asia and fuelwood in Africa.
  • Wood consumption may be most urgently an issue in the forest losing countries themselves. Of the ten countries that lost the largest area of forest from 1990-1995, all but two - Malaysia and Myanmar - consumed more than 90 per cent of their total industrial wood harvest themselves.
  • Asia - with three-fifths of the worlds people, growing populations and high projected economic growth - is all but certain to experience the greatest increase in overall wood demand in the next century. Population projections suggest that within the next decade, Asia will begin to face a growing gap between its need for wood and its own supply.
  • Future declines in forest resource availability will be greatest in developing countries, where 95 per cent of population growth is projected to occur and where many forests are already over-exploited for timber, fuel and farmland.

    "Clearly, lasting solutions to the loss of the world's forests must address both population and consumption levels, along with such issues as land ownership and the proper pricing of forest products and environmental services. On population, at least, the signs are positive. While populations will undoubtedly continue to grow for some time in all but a few countries, the right policies can support and help accelerate the demographic slowdown that is now in progress. This would contribute to the long-term sustainability of forest resources, as well as to human planetary welfare."

    Source: Forest Futures, published by Population Action International, 1999. For a more detailed account of population pressure on forests:

    Population Action International: Why population growth matters to the future of forests

    See also Newsfile story Effort to save forests should target 15 countries