Countries which contain large areas of rainforest have regarded their forests mainly as an exploitable economic resource. These forests are often regarded as useless unless “developed” by conversion for agriculture or exploited as sources of mineral wealth, rubber, and wood. They are expected to “carry their own weight” by providing land and materials for development and export commodities for the export market (and thereby the enrichment of the public and private sectors). Rainforests are also seen as vast sources of land for the relief of social pressures – land for the landless peasant or urban slum dweller as well as incomes for the poverty-stricken. Thus forests become political commodities as well as economic ones, useful as places to send unemployed or marginal social groups. The costs of such deforestation are disregarded or seen as tolerable in comparison to “nonutilization.” This is so because the consequences of environmental degradation will occur in the future, whereas the economic benefits from rainforest destruction are immediate, and governments in general are interested mainly in the short term. Also, the costs of land degradation often descend upon people other than those making policy and/or reaping the financial rewards of rainforest exploitation. The poor who descend upon the forests after roads have been constructed or logging has occurred remain impoverished and driven by the same economic forces which pushed them to the forests in the first place. They are forced by the intractable facts of the rainforest environment – poor soils, erosion, loss of soil nutrients, distance from markets – to move frequently and to sell cheaply. Often, also, those living in countries outside of the tropics suffer from the effects of rainforest destruction – increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, changes in weather and rainfall patterns, and loss of rainforest products. This is well summarized by Amelung, Torsten and Diehl (1992): “The tropical rainforest is an economic resource providing a multitude of products and input factors for a number of economic activities and industries. From the viewpoint of the respective tropical countries these resources should be exploited in order to enhance the development process, even if the exploitation of these resources incurs serious environmental problems in the long run.”

For many years, until approximately 1940, most land cleared in tropical areas was from land which had lain in fallow; relatively little was cleared from undisturbed forest. However, after 1940, mature fallow land could not meet demand, and land which had lain fallow for only short periods of time was increasingly utilized. Such lands, when cleared, rapidly became degraded woodlands or grasslands, and more primary forest was cut to meet the demand. This has continued at an accelerating rate to the present. Soares-Filho, Assunção and Pantuzzo (2001) modeled factors which are conducive to deforestation in northern Mata Grosso, Brazil. They found that risk factors for deforestation included proximity to roads, urban areas and to land already deforested. Lowland forests are also much more susceptible to cutting, because of their accessibility and, sometimes, soil fertility compared to areas at higher elevations. What are the factors which have produced this situation?