World Deforestation


The world’s forests are burning–quickly. From 1990 to 1995, close to one million square kilometers of forest were destroyed, primarily in Russia, South America, and Africa. This is not a sustainable rate. The breadth of destruction is extensive and an order of magnitude greater than world reforestation efforts. Due to the immense pressures of population growth, the need for arable land, and world demand for wood products, it is unclear whether or not the burning can be easily stopped.

While the effect of widespread deforestation on global carbon dioxide absorption and thus global warming is not completely clear, the massive destruction of forest habitats and their associated wildlife is well-documented and a serious loss to humankind. As the world population grows another 50% in the next fifty years, hopefully new and more effective measures will be put into place to halt the flames and continued destruction of the forests.

Main Insights

  • Over the 1990 to1995 time frame, gross world deforestation was estimated to be 843,000 square kilometers (sq. km.), or 169,000 square miles of forest. Reforestation, oddly enough, occurred principally in the world’s industrialized countries and totaled 94,000 sq. km. over the same time frame.
  • The leading deforester in the world is probably Russia—probably because accurate estimates on the country’s deforestation rate are very difficult to uncover, although by many accounts it is equal to or greater than the better-documented destruction in Brazil. Over 1990 to1995, reasonable assumptions can yield estimates of Russian deforestation at 195,000 square kilometers, or 23% of total world deforestation. Even if this estimate is too high and the real value is even half that amount, Russia would be just behind Brazil as the second largest deforester.
  • Brazil is probably the second largest “tree burner,” razing 128,000 sq. km. during 1990 to 1995, or 15% of total world deforestation over that time frame. Indonesia is third at 54,000 sq. km. (6% of the world total), Zaire is fourth at 37,000 sq. km. (4%), and Bolivia is fifth at 29,000 sq. km. (3%). The leading five deforesters account for 53% of world deforestation. Other top ten “burners” are Venezuela, Mexico, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, and Sudan. The top ten deforesters constitute 65% of total world deforestation.
  • It may be surprising to discover the United States contributed more to reforestation than any other country: it added 29,000 net sq. km. of forest from 1990 to 1995 or 31% of the world’s total reforestation effort. Other leading reforesters were Uzbekistan (11,000 sq. km.), Kazakhstan (10,000 sq. km.), Canada (9,000 sq. km.), and France (8,000 sq. km.). A leading proponent of the “green” movement, Germany, had no net reforestation. The principal five countries along this dimension accounted for 71% of total reforestation. Unfortunately, reforestation during this period was just 11% of the deforestation amount, meaning the world regenerated only a single tree for every ten burned down.

Other Observations

  • After the top five reforesters, other countries providing notable assistance in reforestation efforts were Greece (7,000 sq. km.), Ireland (7,000 sq. km.), Belarus (3,000 sq. km.), New Zealand (2,000) sq. km.), and Australia (1,000 sq. km.).
  • Latin America, despite its relatively small size, had a deforestation rate of 255,000 sq. km. over 1990-1995, or 30% of the world’s total.
  • As the cartogram starkly shows, Russia, South America, and Africa are the worst offenders when it comes to deforestation. North American and European countries weren’t nearly as destructive. Virtually all great deforestation occurs in the developing world, not in the industrialized world. One could claim, however, that the industrialized world is not innocent since its heavy demand for exotic wood products probably drives a significant portion of the developing world’s deforestation.
  • Total deforestation at the 1990 to 1995 rates eliminated approximately 45-50 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption per year. (This is based on the very general assumption that 2.9 tons of CO2 are absorbed per average hectare of “forest”). Reforestation at the 1990 to 1995 rates added back the capability to absorb just 5.5 million tons per year. It is worth noting that the total output of greenhouse gas production in 2000 was approximately 7 billion tons.
  • Sources and Methodology

    The data for this cartogram are varied and complex. Deforestation calculations can have serious political ramifications and are not immune to selective data usage or to arguments over collection and estimation methodologies. Therefore, the data used in the preparation of this cartogram are approximations at best and attempt only to generally indicate the overall pattern of global deforestation (or reforestation).

    The primary source used is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “World Culture Report: 1998,” published August 17, 2001. This report contains one specific table estimating the amount of deforestation over the 1990 to1995 (inclusive) time frame, by country and region.

    No statistics are available for a few countries, notably Russia. Numerous articles and first-hand reports do describe significant deforestation in Russia, so an independent estimate was calculated. According to UNESCO data, approximately 45% of Russia’s total land area in 1995 was forest. If one assumes the same deforestation rate as Brazil’s (2.5% of total forest area over the same time frame), then that would yield a deforestation total of 195,000 sq. km. While it may be a very liberal assumption to estimate that the two countries have the same rate of deforestation, it may be generally correct based on a variety of anecdotal evidence concerning the extent of logging and clearing activities in the Russian forests.