The Conquistadors of Forests

As humans became more and more efficient at traveling the globe, prospects of discovery and adventure fueled exploration by European power. Although the aims of powerful nations included collecting knowledge of exotic lands, European exploration and eventual colonization led to extensive environmental damage. In particular, colonization driven by economic prospects led to massive deforestation of foreign lands by introducing animals not native to the land, using the land as trade resources and causing a displacement of natives.

As colonial powers began to ravage the unexplored lands, they disturbed a careful balance set by nature. Europeans brought with them animals they believed to be essential while they traveled. Unfortunately, upon arrival to distant lands, these animals were thrown into the already enigmatic ecosystems in place. The effects of these ‘invasive species’ differed in relation to what niche they ‘stole’ in their new ecosystem. In other words, depending on whether they entered an ecosystem in which they were heavily preyed upon or they acted mainly as predators, they either had an extensive effect or a mild one. The potential destructive effect of these invasive species is exemplified by the pivotal role many played in deforestation. When colonizers brought with them species that had no natural predators in the new ecosystems they entered, the species truly became ‘invasive’ as they began to reproduce uncontrollably. A great example of this concept is the case of Easter Island. When the Polynesians initially colonized the island, they brought with them rats. The rats, which served as a source of protein for the Polynesians, had a great impact on the island’s fauna. Entering an ecosystem with no natural predators existing and a high-quality supply of food, they reproduced at staggering numbers. More importantly, they had an incredibly destructive effect on the island’s palm forests because they gnawed on palm seeds, preventing them from germinating. The effect was detrimental because the number of rats was so great—had there been a natural predator and lower rat numbers, their effect would have been lessened. Unfortunately, rats in Easter Island had no predators and as a result their large numbers feasted on palm seeds to the point where deforestation ensued (Hunt). In a similar example, the Spanish introduced the black rat into the Canary Islands and it resulted in a degradation of the islands’ laurel forest (World Rainforest Movement). As can be seen from these cases, the introduction of invasive species by explorers/colonizers led to large-scale problems transcending simply niche competition. In particular, several of the invasive species introduced to colonized lands led to eventual deforestation.

Deforestation in colonized lands also resulted from an exploitation driven by trade ventures. Although the need for exploration is often characterized as a missionary one, in reality most nations entered the arena in search of wealth. The establishment of colonies in foreign lands allowed nations to flourish into economic powerhouses, provided said colonies were rich in raw materials. Colonial holdings were also exploited through their use for cultivation of cash crops such as sugar. It should be noted that most of the time colonies were exploited until they were either completely depleted of resources or so ‘over-farmed’ that nothing could be grown. Ironically, deforestation and ‘over-farming’ were the results of poor management on the part of colonial powers. Had these resources been appropriately used and replenished, colonies would have been constant sources of materials, and not disposable. More specifically, the use of forests for logging ventures without any replanting efforts led to a significant level of deforestation. For example, the French government opened up Madagascar for logging ventures at one point and this led to a nearly 70% decrease of primary forest (World Rainforest Movement). Trade, in terms other than logging ventures, also had a great deforesting effect in the area. As the French calculated the excessive profits from coffee plantation, the industry spread. A need for more coffee plantations translated to clearing more forests (World Rainforest Movement). In this sense, the outright deforestation of Madagascar was purely driven by the economic profits in coffee crops. The Spanish saw a similar case in the Canary Islands. Here, massive deforestation resulted in an area the Spanish converted into obsidian mines. The deforestation was caused by the byproducts of these mines (Alberto, Veronica, et al). The exploitation of land for trade purposes had disastrous effects on the environment. One of the most direct and evident effects came in the form of extensive deforestation.

A great source of the deforestation inherent of colonialism was surprisingly the natives. In the socially hostile atmosphere created by colonization, natives took advantage of their land in the best possible way. Some fled to the woods in fear of the newly arrived colonizers while others resorted to the forest as a form of rebellion. Regardless of the reasons, the natives’ shift in their use of the forest had a devastating environmental effect in the years that followed. In Madagascar, the Malagasy ran to the woods from fear of French explorers. Once they inhabited the forest, the Malagasy began clearing it for use in cultivation, as a means of subsistence ( The result was obviously a deforesting effect that still plagues Madagascar. A similar effect was seen in Borneo. At the onset of European colonization, the Dutch displaced the Iban people. As a result, the Iban people changed their use of slash-and-burn agriculture. Before the arrival of the Dutch, slashing and burning only took place in secondary forest areas to get rid of weeds. After Dutch arrival, hostility and competition for viable land between the two groups ‘pushed’ the Iban to begin practicing slash-and-burn agriculture in primary forest areas ( Like the Madagascar example, the result was a deforestation problem still present. Although very paradoxical, deforestation of colonized areas also resulted from the actions of the natives. It should be noted that these native interactions resulted from pressures created by the colony dynamic and were, thus, the result of a European thirst for wealth.

Human motives for world exploration and subsequent colonization are often cited as, “God, Gold and Glory,” but the effects of said exploration and colonization were so drastic they still plague many peoples. In particular, the environmental footprint left by colonizers in their former colonies was disastrous in many cases. A specific effect of colonization worth highlighting is deforestation. Extensive deforestation throughout many lands resulted from a poor colony system. In particular, deforestation was enabled by the introduction of invasive species, trade practices and the changing practices of natives. All these factors were either a response to or a direct action of the colonizers. All in all, the exploration of foreign lands driven by economic prospect that lead to colonialism also directly resulted in an extensive chain of deforestation events that the world has yet to recover from.

Works Cited

Hunt, Terry L. Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island, American Scientist, Sept-Oct 2006, vol. 94, number 5. (April 24, 2007). Deforestation in Borneo worsened by European colonization.

"Madagascar: Colonialism as the historical root cause of deforestation." World Rainforest Movement. World Rainforest Movement, Jan 2003. Web. 20 Mar 2010. <>.

Alberto, Veronica, et al. "The impact of human activities on the natural environment of the Canary Islands (Spain) during the pre-Hispanic stage (3rd-2nd Century BC to 15th Century AD): an overview." Environmental Archeology 14.1 (2009): 27-36. Web. 19 Mar 2010. <>.


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