Depletion of the Amazon Rainforest is not a new concern facing environmentalists, biologists, ecologists, and a growing number of the Amazonian indigenous peoples. For decades they have feared for the fate of the world’s most biologically diverse and species-rich hothouse.
Brazil houses the largest expanse of tropical wilderness remaining on the globe, claiming 60% of the Amazon Rainforest. This is a vast and remote stretch which thirty years ago only Indians and wild animals roamed. Today, ranchers and sawmill owners in four-wheel-drive pickup trucks speed past new stores selling chain saws, construction materials, and farm equipment.
While land development, human settlement, and logging are the main sources of deforestation, the bedrock of this global ecocide is the construction of roads which tear through the rainforest habitat, laying down concrete in every direction with each newly paved yard.
Brazil has faced a grave and pressing dichotomy ever since its ascension as an agricultural superpower in today’s globalized economy. Experts insist that if this reserve is to last, Brazil must balance development and economic growth with the implementation of a well-calculated Amazon preservation program.
The Amazon Rainforest boasts the world’s largest and most diverse collection of plants and animals, with an astounding one out of every ten known animal species making it their home. Scientists have consistently utilized these species for medical purposes, but as deforestation endangers their environment, the opportunity for medical innovation diminishes.
For example, plant matter found in the Amazon is critical in the production of drugs like muscle relaxants, quinine, steroids, and various formulas for the treatment of cancer. More importantly however, is that some of these medicines still await discovery including, among others, drugs for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, and arthritis.
Although 25% of all of the world’s drugs are derived from rainforest ingredients, scientists have tested only 1% of such tropical plants . Unparalleled biodiversity almost certainly exists deep within Brazil’s Amazon and untold medicinal plants await scientific exploration and validation. Today, unexploited, these plant species possess a potentially vast library of information for biomedical discovery.
In fact, over one hundred pharmaceutical companies and the United States government are funding projects to study indigenous plant knowledge and native healers’ practices in the use of natural products. However, as a result of deforestation and development, many of these species could be destroyed before ever having been examined for their curative properties.
The planet as a whole depends on the Amazon Rainforest for its water and oxygen-rich atmosphere. Specifically, the Amazon River carries one-fifth of the earth’s surface water while the Amazon’s plant species produce 20% of the world’s oxygen. As the rainforest is imperative to the earth, Brazil’s forest depletion is likewise a matter of immense global concern in terms of climate change.
The rainforest’s vegetation acts as a buffer, absorbing harmful carbon in the atmosphere and transforming it into oxygen. Therefore, reducing the Amazon’s concentration of trees will accelerate climate change by consequently contributing to a 20% increase in the release of greenhouse gasses.
Amazonian forests account for approximately 10% of the planet’s primary productivity and 10% of the carbon stores in ecosystems, a compelling figure that poses a very realistic threat to the future of our planet.
According to the United States Department of State, “between May 2000 and August 2006 alone, Brazil lost nearly 150,000 square kilometers – an area larger than Greece – and since 1970, over 600,000 square kilometers (232,000 square miles) of Amazon Rainforest have been destroyed.”
This figure represents 20% of the total rainforest, an area as large as France, Germany and Italy combined. Unfortunately, at its current rate, 40% of the rainforest is scheduled to be lost by the year 2030.
Experts estimate that each minute, 11 football fields of forest are cleared, a truly frightening figure. With all the environmental and ecological consequences, one must question the motives of not only the Brazilian government, which has tolerated such a destructive development model, but also its endorsement by the international community which has jeopardized the future of mankind.
The obvious answer is that the profits from logging, agro-industry, and beef consumption have allowed Brazil to emerge as a global exporting superpower. However, the economic gain in the short-run does not compensate for the long-term costs, nor does it improve the quality of life for Brazil’s population. This point will be revisited after a brief explanation of the three main factors contributing to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, and the single major issue propelling the process.
Make Way for the Cows
While Brazil’s land policy is hardly the only villain, misguided government policies send a very dangerous message encouraging poor subsistence farmers to settle on forest lands. The Brazilian usufruct law gives citizens the right to settle unclaimed public land after inhabiting the property for a year. After five years the squatter is given the title to the land, and thus the ability to sell it.
However, after only a year or two of crop harvest, the productivity of the soil precipitously declines and the transient farmers must press ever deeper into the rainforest, clearing it for what is little more than short-term agricultural usage. Between 1995 and 1998 the Brazilian government granted Amazonian land to around 150,000 families who otherwise would be destitute.
A sad dichotomy exists between aiding the poor and its baleful consequences; as the government grants land to poverty-stricken families in dire need, this becomes an act that propels the degradation of natural resources and precious land. Up to this point Brazil has woefully failed to find a solution to this admittedly painful conundrum – but it is an issue that must be resolved.
Although peasants are a significant contributor to deforestation in Brazil, commercial agriculture poses a much more serious threat to the rainforest; however this threat could be easily mitigated if the will to do so exists. Soybean cultivation is the major component to Brazil’s commercial agriculture industry which has been fueled by Chinese demand.
In 2008, China’s total imports of soybeans amounted to 37,436,000 tons, a jump of 21.5% compared to that of the year before. Second only to the United States, Brazil supplies the majority of these soybeans to China. These figures illustrate the soybean industry’s increasing productivity driving the country’s status as an indisputable agricultural superpower in the world economy.
In addition to clearing land for agricultural production, cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation. After agricultural usage reduces soil productivity, land is turned over for cattle grazing. In fact, nearly 18% of the land deforested in the Amazon from 1996 to 2006 is now used for livestock pasture . This has been the case since the 1970’s, and today the situation is worsening.
The Brazilian cattle industry caters largely to European markets, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), “between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Europe’s processed meat imports that came from Brazil rose from 40 to 74 percent” and by 2003 “for the first time ever, the growth in Brazilian cattle production (80 percent of which was in the Amazon) was largely export driven.”
Finally, the third and most widely referred-to cause of Brazil’s Amazon depletion is the logging industry. Machines are designed to level 25 acres of 100-foot trees in an hour, and the concept of careful logging is all but lost. As a result, 4,892,700 acres of rainforest are clear-cut annually and another 2,718,160 are degraded by logging beneath the canopy.”
In theory, logging in the Amazon is controlled by strict licensing which only permits timber to be harvested in designated areas, though in reality, illegal logging is widespread and rampant. Tony Rodriguez, Mayor of Novo Progresso, a boomtown built by migrants, exclaims that “if the government doesn’t act soon to resolve the situation, the loggers are just going to cut it all down.” Few believe that the government has the ability, let alone the desire to do so.
Tattooed Landscape of Highways
The factors contributing to the degradation of the pristine and invaluable Brazilian Rainforest (misguided government policies, agricultural production, cattle grazing and logging) are further accelerated by the construction of roads and highways. The forest is looking increasingly tattered in places where highway networks join, and where roads are paved, trucks are ready to bring an influx of settlers ready to clear the forest and expand the farm belt.
The pavement laid down in the forest has caused immeasurable environmental havoc, basically opening up virgin land to irreversible exploitation. In fact, 95% of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurs within 50 kilometers of a road. This “improvement” of infrastructure has facilitated expansive new settlements of farmers and cattle ranchers who are ready to plunge deeper and deeper into the forest.
Moreover, it has simplified the hauling of crops and timber, making the process faster and easier, while also providing access to an increasing number of logging and mining sites. As William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute warned, “if Brazil does not curtail the expansion of new highways and transportation projects, the net result will not only be further increase in Amazon forest destruction, but fragmentation of the surviving forests on an unprecedented spatial scale.”
Evidently, highway and road infrastructure presents a huge dilemma to the preservation of the rainforest, and there is little ground for optimism, because responsible leadership is only sparingly found from President Lula down.
The Clash of Roads and the Rainforest
An important factor which must not be overlooked is the effect these new roads have on the indigenous population residing in the Amazon. Two hundred thousand people, a fraction of the four million that could be found before the Amazon had been breached, face immeasurable perils, and the fate of their traditional culture and ways of life remains uncertain, but certainly exposed.
As a result of unregulated development, more than 90 tribes have been obliterated since the 1900’s. Cultures living off the land are extremely vulnerable to the pavement of roads, which will undoubtedly eliminate more rainforest, and will also bring crime, drugs and prostitution to areas whose remoteness has protected them from such social afflictions in the past.
Displacement and acculturation will surely come into play as the Amazon is further integrated with a comprehensive highway system. Indeed, a great failure of western intellectual life for the past thirty years has been its ignorance and lack of respect, as well as its belittling of the great spectrum of cultures caught up in what is carelessly referred to as the third world.
An ambitious effort to expand trade routes in Brazil, especially from the Amazon to the Pacific Ocean and Asian Markets, is well underway. Two major highways are of particular concern: The Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR 230) and the Soy Highway (BR 163) demonstrate the work being done to unify infrastructural elements in South America.
This effort, known as the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), involves a plan to develop US$ 69 billion in highways, dams, ports and other projects tying together the economies of the sprawling continent.
Brazil is committed to spending upwards of US$ 40 billion on integration projects. The Trans-Amazonian Highway was conceived back in 1970 as part of the Programa de Integração Nacional (National Integration Program). It may be one of the most environmentally destructive projects ever built in the Amazon basin, tearing through the resource-rich forest and destroying everything in its path.
Set to be completed decades ago, it is a mostly unpaved muddy highway that runs along the Amazon River east to west from the Atlantic Ocean to Colombia. Destruction of the rainforest in Brazil has accelerated since 1970, coinciding with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway. Logging correlates closely with the slow-and-coming pavement, as settlements tend to pop up along the road, with forests being cleared in anticipation of the “economic miracle.”
The aptly named Soy Highway cuts through nearly a quarter of Brazil’s Rainforest, the equivalent of the distance between Philadelphia and Miami. The Avança Brasil Project, sponsored by the government, allows private companies to embark on a US$ 417 million paving project to turn the muddy BR 163 into a modern, two-lane toll highway. The paved Soy Highway would link the soy-growing region to a deep-water river port, effectively cutting travel time during the six-month rainy season from weeks to hours.
This more efficient transportation system will increase market accessibility and the subsequent rising demand for soy beans will result in high levels of truck traffic on the roadway. Unfortunately, a consequence of this improvement in distribution is that the now constructed pavement will open up the previously inaccessible forest to loggers, poachers and others who want to exploit the Amazon’s abundant, but finite, natural resources.
Profits as Global Exporter
The asphalt brings growth and opportunity to a big swath of the world’s wilderness, essentially expanding the Brazilian economy as never before experienced and enabling the country to drastically reduce the price of sending its crops abroad. With consumers inherently attracted to such bargains, and with the World Bank’s past commitment to building roads, these desecrated resources have in turn yielded enormous profits.
The roads are helping to bring the developing country into the forefront of globalized trade, placing it on a level playing-field with other major world exporters. Brazil is now the world’s 19th largest exporter, the world’s second top soybean exporter, and among the world’s largest agricultural exporters.
Paulo Adario, head of Greenpeace’s Amazon project gloomily assures that “economics are determining the fate of the Amazon, the paving is inevitable, and at the end of the day, the discussion is centering on what we are willing to lose.” For the Brazilian government, it appears that the economic benefits of becoming a global leader outweigh concerns for environmental preservation.
Short-Term Gains, Eternal Costs
The question of how economic development and biological conservation can complement each other, rather than compete in a place valued both as a local resource and a global asset, deserves a multi-faceted analysis. For the planet, the preservation of the Amazon Rainforest far exceeds the short-term market value of its individual local resources.
The goal of development should be to ease the poverty of Brazilians through the generation of jobs and opportunities, but instead it comes at the heaviest of prices: putting the world’s greatest biosphere into jeopardy. In the end, most will come to agree that this price is not worth the cost.
Presumably, replacing forest with crops and pastureland best achieves the appearance of satisfying the region’s legitimate aspirations for development. At first, development yields schools, hospitals, and other social services, but alas, such gains are unlikely to be sustained.
The top two inches of rainforest soil contains 99% of the nutrients, meaning that once trees are felled, the remaining soil is infertile. When trees are cleared for agricultural cultivation in the Amazon, the thin soil is only fruitful for a year or two before the heavy rains erode the productive layer of topsoil.
Consequently, farmers must penetrate deeper into the forest in a painstaking quest for rich soil that inevitably leaves behind barren lands in its wake, lands only suitable for cattle pasture. Destroying the most unique, diverse and globally indispensable environment is not only maddeningly illogical, but also highly unsustainable. If nothing is done in the near future, the Amazon will be forever lost and, in its place, only a desolate wasteland will remain.
Settlements that have sprung up along the highway in the Amazon as a result of land speculation and scattered development will initially provide opportunities for employment, but these communities will eventually experience a downturn and face difficulties once the farmland is exhausted and the incessant quest for new land relentlessly pushes onward. Families who lack the resources necessary to relocate will be left behind with the cows.
Research presented in the Science Journal attacks the argument that deforestation is a crucial step towards development in Brazil, and indicates that this process only generates short-term benefits and economic growth, but fails to increase affluence and the quality of life in the long-run. The article found that “relative welfare increases as deforestation begins, but then declines as the frontier progresses on to other areas, leaving pre- and post-deforestation levels of human development statistically equal.”
These findings, while having profound implications and appealing to common sense, may also be destined to be ignored. The boom and bust cycle generates few lasting benefits for local, settled populations; most gains will only impel a population of migrants – loggers, ranchers, speculators, miners and farmers – along the frontier, exhausting natural resources and degrading the land.
Proposed Solutions on the Table
As opposed to converting forest to farmland, Ana Rodrigues, a researcher with the Center of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France, suggests that compensating communities who keep their forests intact is perhaps a better approach to improving human welfare, while simultaneously sustaining biodiversity and ecosystem services in rainforest areas.
This idea coincides with the REDD initiative (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), which will be debated this December at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen.
REDD would essentially pay tropical countries to keep their forests standing. In an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, REDD creates an initiative for Brazil to invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development, thus reducing emissions.
Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva puts forth a hard-line position on REDD as part of his plan to save the rainforest. He pushes for a giant fund to be financed with donations from industrialized nations, arguing that contributors should not be eligible for carbon credits, which could be used to meet emission reductions obligations under a binding climate treaty.
This overly optimistic attempt by the Brazilian government has failed to address the underlying causes of rainforest degradation. As Brazil has emerged as the world’s top exporter of many agricultural products, the country now has a strong domestic political block that lobbies for new infrastructure developments in the Amazon. It is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, the future of the Amazon is increasingly linked to globalized markets, which have an insatiable appetite for timber, beef, soybeans, palm oil, and many other farm products.
Chainsaws, bulldozers, and fires are the tools of rainforest destruction, but roads are the enablers which link markets to resources and empower loggers, farmers, ranchers, miners, and land speculators to convert remote forests into economic opportunities.
As William F. Laurance insists, “actively limiting frontier roads is by far the most realistic, cost-effective approach to promote the conservation of tropical nature and its crucial ecosystem services.”
However, governments will continue with road construction to supply the world market until they realize the ultimate costs of those roads far exceed the short-term benefits, for Brazil and for the world.
Once the ecocide is complete and the Amazon destroyed, the people of Brazil will be in a statistically similar position of development and a state of general welfare as they were before, but the abundance of natural resources that would have sustained itself indefinitely will be gone, therefore, objectively leaving them worse-off.
For the most part, the development occurring in Brazil is a biological and social one-way street; where roads advance, trees fall and the inhabitants of the forest – human and nonhuman- are forever changed.
Stephanie Brault is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org. The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.