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History of Deforestation Exploratory Essay

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Updated: May 25th, 2019


Deforestation was largely driven by the need to meet man’s needs. In the beginning, these were subsistence-based and individualistic; therefore, the level of destruction was not as enormous.

Ancient populations highly depended on wood for fuel, and needed access to land for agriculture. The rise of industrialisation deflated pressures on forests for fuel, but technological developments caused commercialisation of tree-cutting.

Patterns of deforestation since early modern times


In the 1600s, deforestation was employed in order to provide man with land for agricultural use. Fire was the preferred method of forest balding among native populations.

However, because the population was small, the effects of their activities were not as substantial at the time.1 Later on, European settlers started moving into areas that were previously dominated by natives. They regarded forests as features that needed to be removed.

In fact, most farmers in those early times spent most of their time clearing forests, making fences and establishing a new system of agriculture. Implements were few and far between, thus making the methods of deforestation less dependent on technology.

However the pioneer farmer was still well aware of the importance of his forests in his life. He did not plan on eliminating all forests because they were crucial resource points. They provided him with food for fuel and house fencing.

Forests were also a rich source of nuts, berries and other products. Axmen did most of the clearing through direct cutting. Alternatively, they would cut vital elements of the tree in order to cause the upper part of the tree to fall off gradually.2


In the 1700s shipbuilding became a common activity. The birth of the naval store affected the pattern of deforestation in Britain. A naval store encompassed all those products that were needed in order to run ships.

Sails, ropes and planks in the ships required products derived from trees. In the previous century, pioneer farmers had discovered the commercial value of certain tree products. Alongside the products, timber itself was sold to various households through community markets.

The products that were derived from trees included tar, turpentine, pitch and potash; they could all be used for various purposes. A critical shift in the eighteenth century occurred when farmers in North America stopped relying on their own citizens to provide a market for their timber-derived products.

These were exported to distant locations in Europe; exporting towns were all areas that firmly depended upon the existence of wood to operate. At that time, much of the economy revolved around timber. In the 1600s, most naval supplies for the British navy did not come from North America; they emanated from the Scandinavian countries.

However, this dramatically changed when the US was discovered as a source for the products.3 Hemp was obtained from the barks of trees after the trees had been cut off. Individuals would make incisions in certain parts of trees so as to facilitate the collection of the sap, which was later collected in barrels, distilled and sold.

Actual use of wood for construction also contributed to massive deforestation in the US. Some of the planks would be employed in the creation of ships. These vessels were small but much in number. Constructors wanted to incorporate the risk of returning empty vessels.

Alongside the ship industry, construction of log cabins or houses also contributed towards greater deforestation. Certain individuals built sawmills that would guarantee an ample supply of wood to their townsmen as well as to other external markets. In fact after 1720, numerous sawmills began flourishing.

Most of them were based on contracts between local administrators and apprentices. They were supposed to engage in the deforestation of local trees for the local population first before they could use them for commercial purposes.

After several of these sawmills came up, a thriving commercial wood industry emerged. Most of these mills were found very near the forest for convenience. A number of them were primitive in nature because they employed manual labour or simple fulcrums for movement.4

The latter types were powered using water sources and were more efficient than the former type. An export industry started to emerge around the felling of tress. The US began exporting planks and boards to various markets through its coastal towns. This was especially prevalent after 1775.

Wood was a critical source of energy for most communities in the eighteenth century, and that contributed towards massive deforestation. At the time, most settlers relied upon the use of charcoal for their personal energy use.

Iron smelters were one of the most vital consumers of wood in the late 1700s. Iron consumption was common in Britain as far back as the seventeenth century. However, production was low-cost in England because they had discovered coke as a source of energy.5

The same did not occur in the US. Most iron smelters relied upon wood for energy. Furnaces were constructed in a manner that necessitated the use of charcoal.

In another part of the world i.e. Japan, forests were also used for a myriad of purposes. Some supplies would be utilised by the army while others were employed domestically for heating and cooking.

However, a rapid rise in population meant that forests were inadequate to meet man’s needs. Leaders realized that they needed to alter their patterns of deforestation in order to make it sustainable.

This country started a community forest management project that would spearhead the plantation of several tree species. Therefore this part of the earth was one of the initial countries to start reforestation projects.

Environmentalism in Japan began in 1660 but intensified in the eighteenth century. Successes were reported years later, i.e. in the twentieth century.


Fuel consumption levels were so high in iron-smelting furnaces thus making it imperative to fell massive acres of trees. In fact, pig iron led to forest recession and shortages in several parts of North America.

A number of entrepreneurs had to abandon their furnaces because they lacked ample sources of coal. Usually, most furnace owners either leased or bought forested areas in order to cover their fuel needs.

However, such activities contributed to the detriment of forests in approximately ten to fifteen years. Therefore, charcoal burners were responsible for this tragedy in the forests.

Unlike their British counterparts, the Americans preferred to use this environmentally unfriendly method because the type of iron that coal made was in demand. Additionally, there was an abundance of wood in the US compared to Britain, which had already started experiencing shortages from as early as the 1600s.

In the US, charcoal burning was done through creation of pits in forests. This had a sterilising effect on soil and prevented re-growth of trees in the future. Charcoal burning also ruined tree stands and changed their composition if the tree grew back.

Land clearing for farming still continued in the US. However, farmers were sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of pasture land that they created after deforestation.

They needed woodland for fuel and pasture for their livestock. Therefore, farmers needed to strike a balance between crop land and land to be used for pasture or woodlands. This continued into the 1800s.

After 1860, some stakeholders realized that forests in the US were in danger and they began talking about it. Such individuals were especially concerned about the use of slash and burn techniques.


Energy use in the 1900s changed dramatically, after the discovery petroleum–based products; a lot of pressure was taken off trees. Deforestation was done in order to obtain wood for construction rather than energy use.

Additionally, the industrial era depended more on iron than on wood. Colonising countries wanted to preserve their own wood resources so they started tapping their colons’ resources. Deforestation in West Africa was commonplace.

Other European countries also secured their own supplies of timber from countries such as Malaysia. The US started getting its resources from Brazil and the Philippines while Japan banked its own trees. It depended on Indonesia and other South Eastern countries.6

Therefore, one may assert that there was a global spread of deforestation. In less-developed parts of the world, tree cutting continued for farming purposes but also for commercial use. In developed nations, creation of paper, construction and other wood-derived products continued to perpetuate the needs for destruction of forests.

After the 1960s, some improvements emerged because of the growth of environmentalists and other tree lovers. This caused a decrease in forest destruction and the use of wood alternatives.7

Differences between old and new patterns of use of forests

Tree cutting in the old era was done in order to meet immediate needs. Commercial uses of timber were not a priority for those communities. Most wanted to access farmland and provide pasture for their livestock.

Since there was plenty of wood supply, most ancient communities did not give much thought to their tree- cutting activities. Therefore, one might add that deforestation was done on a subsistence level.

Individuals lacked the machines and technology needed to engage in massive deforestation. Additionally, because populations were still low in number, forest use was minimal in nature.8

However, current patterns reveal that most deforestation is commercially-based. It is driven by enterprises and can thus prove to be more detrimental than the old approach.

Even if deforestation is done for agricultural purposes, one may find that these attempts are often state sponsored and are done in order to facilitate large-s scale agricultural production.

Cases such as Indonesia and Brazil are ideal examples of this new pattern of forest use. Their governments actively promoted rural development through construction of roads and commercial agriculture.

This is quite different from the kind of forest destruction that was done by European settlers in the US. Their major concern was to meet their immediate needs.

Globalisation is also another theme that can be found in new patterns of forest use but not in old ones. Although some wood-derived products were transported to Britain from the US, it was evident that in the seventeenth century, most forests were to be used by locals.

Furthermore, it was the locals who did most of the deforestation; they only exported the derivatives of those products to other nations. In new patterns of forest use, distant countries initiated deforestation in different states.

Therefore, the process took on an international dimension. For instance, the United States sourced its products from Brazil while Japan sourced its products from Indonesia.

This reflects the globalization of deforestation and the need for self preservation. Most developed nations wanted to bank their forests while still enjoying the benefits of wood products. The spread of deforestation may have been caused by international stakeholders just as much as it was caused by locals.9

New patterns of forest use are also different from old patterns because current endeavours reflect conservation policies. Many environmentalists have spearheaded efforts in various sectors that directly or indirectly depend on deforestation for survival.

These individuals have contributed towards the minimisation of unwarranted forest destruction. Such environmentalists did not exist in the ancient times.

Developments in energy sources and technology have minimised the use of trees as sources of fuel in developed nations. This was not true in the past since coal was a vital cause of deforestation. Logging was often done in order to meet energy needs domestically and commercially.

Smelting of iron and other industrial related needs took place through wood- derived fuels. Currently, forests are useful for the creation of certain products.

However, these products cannot be created from certain parts of trees; they must come from the large scale elimination of trees. Therefore, while new patterns of forest use may have been propelled by other needs, they still present a serious threat to forests.10


Man has always seen forests as a means to an end; trees enable him to meet his needs. However, changing technological advancements and needs altered the patterns of forest use.

Some of the objectives that motivated man to cut trees were eliminated in subsequent times while new ones came into existence. This explains the prevalence of globalisation (international sourcing of wood) and large scale deforestation as trends in forest use today.


Braudel, F, The Structures of Everyday Life, Harper and Row, New York, 1979.

Brimblecombe, P and Pfister, C, The Silent Countdown, Springer, New York, 1990.

Cronon, W, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, Hill and Wang, NY, 1983.

Dargavel, J, Fashioning Australia‘s Forests, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995

Goudie, A, The Human Impact on the Environment, 2d ed, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986

Radkau, J, Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.

Schama, S, Landscape and Memory, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1995.

Thirgood, J, Man and the Mediterranean Forest: A History of Resource Depletion, Academic Press, New York, 1981.

Williams, M, Americans and their Forests: A Historical Geography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,1989.

Williams, M, Deforesting the Earth: From prehistory to global crisis, University of Chicago press, Chicago, 2003.


1W Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, Hill and Wang, NY, 1983.

2 S Schama, Landscape and Memory, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1995.

3 M Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From prehistory to global crisis, University of Chicago press, Chicago, 2003.

4M Williams, Americans and their Forests: A Historical Geography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,1989.

5 P Brimblecombe and C Pfister, The Silent Countdown, Springer, New York, 1990.

6 J Radkau, Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.

7 A Goudie, The Human Impact on the Environment, 2d ed, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.

8 J Dargavel, Fashioning Australia‘s Forests, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995.

9 F Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, Harper and Row, New York, 1979.

10 J Thirgood, Man and the Mediterranean Forest: A History of Resource Depletion, Academic Press, New York, 1981.

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