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The conversion of forests to other uses (especially agriculture) and the impoverishment of existing standing forests has been a consistent theme of the 20th century. The trend has many pre-1900s pockets. Greece lost its famous oaks to the axes of northern invaders in pre-Hellenic times. In the 1700s and 1800s, the oak-hickory forests of the American mid-western and southern deciduous forests all fell to wheat, corn and tobacco farms. The forests of southern Europe , Iran , Afghanistan , the Middle East , much of highland China , Nepal , Tibet and Sahelian Africa have been replaced by a shrub/grass complex. Various- kingdoms in West Africa (900s through 1300s) deforested areas for metallurgy, especially smelting.

The global timber trade began in the colonial era, starting in 1550 but accelerating after the post-Napoleanic Wars. Countries that had the transport, capital, technology, and political means extracted wood products from every region of the world. The Thai teak trade, the British extraction of naval stores from the American colonies, and Ghana 's African mahogany trade are three such sagas. In the twentieth century, industrial economies continue to tap the forests of developing economies to meet their own demand for construction wood, veneer, and plywood. Time after time, private investors join national commercial and political interests. Together, they cash in on the short-term profits to be made from timber exports from capital-starved nations. The most recently popularized example is the clearing of rainforests for timber and the replacement of these forests with pasture for export beef cattle. On the other hand, the developing economies have.been, until very recently, completely dependent on the northern industrialized nations (including China) for paper. Their export of timber has, in many cases, almost balanced their import of paper yielding no net gain in income.

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