Forests may grow faster as human well-being increases, according to a study published this month.

The study, conducted by a team of Finnish scientists, explored the correlation between the growing and shrinking of forests with climate trends. But what they found surprised them.

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Levels of human well-being — including education, employment, and life expectancy — turned out to be a more accurate predictor of forest growth rates. One reason for the strong connection between the two is that human well-being increases as countries urbanize, moving to cities and freeing up potential forest lands.

When countries urbanize, their workforces move to cities for higher wages, while many farmers also move to better quality farmlands to meet the growing demands of an increasingly affluent consumer market. The poorer quality farmlands they leave behind are eventually re-incorporated into nearby forests as they grow and expand without human interference.

As the world continues to develop and internal migration increases, countries build infrastructure networks (such as railways, highways, mobile, and internet) to better connect farms that transition from local to national or global. Farmers and workers are then able to move their products into national and global marketplaces, increasing their income and overall well-being.

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Developed countries with a high score on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) also tend to invest more in sustainable programs that protect forests.

The study suggests that forests will continue to grow with the improvement of well-being. But it also found that the net gains in forest areas were offset by losses caused by "leakage," or the transfer of the deforestation of one region to another due to the relocation of logging and agricultural trade industries.

Between 1987 to 2006, Vietnam’s forests grew rapidly every year from 24.7% to 42.1% annually. But when leakage was calculated into Vietnam’s forestation, this was lowered to 15% to 25.7% due to timber imports that caused deforestation in other countries. Nearly half of wood imports into Vietnam were illegal.

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The report’s findings demonstrate that human well-being can be achieved without sacrificing the environment, and also emphasize the fact that environmental degradation is closely related to inequality.

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Forest Growth Accelerates When Human Well-Being Rises, Study Shows

By Erica Sánchez  and  Jasper Lo