Causes and consequences of reduced biodiversity in tropical rain forests In many tropical countries, the majority of deforestation results from the actions of poor subsistence cultivators. However, in Brazil only about one-third of recent deforestation can be linked to cultivators. A large portion of deforestation in Brazil can be attributed to land clearing for pastureland by commercial and speculative interests, misguided government policies, inappropriate World Bank projects, and commercial exploitation of forest resources. For effective action it is imperative that these issues be addressed.
Focusing solely on the promotion of sustainable use by local people would neglect the most important forces behind deforestation in Brazil. Brazilian deforestation is strongly correlated to the economic health of the country the decline in deforestation from 1988-1991 nicely matched the economic slowdown during the same period, while the rocketing rate of deforestation from 1993-1998 paralleled Brazil’s period of rapid economic growth. During lean times, ranchers and developers do not have the cash to rapidly expand their pasturelands and operations, while the government lacks funds to sponsor highways and colonization programs and grant tax breaks and subsidies to forest exploiters.
Clearing for Cattle Pasture
Cattle ranching are the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. This has been the case since at least the 1970s: government figures attributed 38 percent of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large-scale cattle ranching. However, today the situation may be even worse. 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.
* CURRENCY DEVALUATION—The devaluation of the Brazilian real against the dollar effectively doubled the price of beef in reals and created an incentive for ranchers to expand their pasture areas at the expense of the rainforest. The weakness of the real also made Brazilian beef more competitive on the world market [CIFOR]. * CONTROL OVER FOOT-AND-MOUTH DISEASE—The eradication of foot-and-mouth disease in much of Brazil has increased price and demand for Brazilian beef. * INFRASTRUCTURE—Road construction gives developers and ranchers access to previously inaccessible forest lands in the Amazon. Infrastructure improvements can reduce the costs of shipping and packing beef. * INTEREST RATES—Rainforest lands are often used for land speculation purposes.
When real pasture land prices exceed real forest land prices, land clearing is a good hedge against inflation. At times of high inflation, the appreciation of cattle prices and the stream of services (milk) they provide may outpace the interest rate earned on money left in the bank. * LAND TENURE LAWS—In Brazil, colonists and developers can gain title to Amazon lands by simply clearing forest and placing a few head of cattle on the land. As an additional benefit, cattle are a low-risk investment relative to cash crops which are subject to wild price swings and pest infestations. Essentially cattle are a vehicle for land ownership in the Amazon.
Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture
A significant amount of deforestation is caused by the subsistence activities of poor farmers who are encouraged to settle on forest lands by government land policies. In Brazil, each squatter acquires the right (known as a usufruct right) to continue using a piece of land by living on a plot of unclaimed public land (no matter how marginal the land) and “using” it for at least one year and a day. After five years the squatter acquires ownership and hence the right to sell the land. Up until at least the mid-1990s this system was worsened by the government policy that allowed each claimant to gain title for an amount of land up to three times the amount of forest cleared.
Poor farmers use fire for clearing land and every year satellite images pick up tens of thousands of fires burning across the Amazon. Typically understory shrubbery is cleared and then forest trees are cut. The area is left to dry for a few months and then burned. The land is planted with crops like bananas, palms, manioc, maize, or rice. After a year or two, the productivity of the soil declines and the transient farmers press a little deeper and clear new forest for more short-term agricultural land. The old, now infertile fields are used for small-scale cattle grazing or left for waste.
Road construction in the Amazon leads to deforestation. Roads provide access to logging and mining sites while opening forest frontier land to exploitation by poor landless farmers.
Brazil’s Trans-Amazonian Highway was one of the most economic development programs ever devised, and one of the most spectacular failures. In the 1970s, Brazil planned a 2,000 mile highway that would bisect the massive Amazon forest, opening rainforest lands to settlement by poor farmers from the crowded, drought-plagued north and development of timber and mineral resources. Colonists would be granted a 250-acre lot, six-months’ salary, and easy access to agricultural loans in exchange for settling along the highway and converting the surrounding rainforest into agricultural land. The plan would grow to cost Brazil US$65,000 1980 dollars to settle each family, an amazing amount for Brazil, a developing country at the time.
Recently, soybeans have become one of the most important contributors to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Thanks to a new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists to flourish in rainforest climate, Brazil is on the verge of supplanting the United States as the world’s leading exporter of soybeans. High soybean prices have also served as an impetus to expanding soybean cultivation.
In theory, logging in the Amazon is controlled by strict licensing which allows timber to be harvested only in designated areas. However, there is significant evidence that illegal logging is quite widespread in Brazil. In recent years, Ibama Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency has made several large seizures of illegally harvested timber including one in September 2003 when 17 people were arrested for allegedly cutting 10,000 hectares worth of timber.
Logging in the Amazon is closely linked with road building. Studies by the Environmental Defense Fund show that areas that have been selectively logged are eight times more likely to be settled and cleared by shifting cultivators than untouched rainforests because of access granted by logging roads. Logging roads give colonists access to rainforest, which they exploit for fuel wood, game, building material, and temporary agricultural lands.
Virtually all forest clearing, by small farmer and plantation owner alike, is done by fire. Though these fires are intended to burn only limited areas, they frequently escape agricultural plots and pastures and char pristine rainforest, especially in dry years like 2005. Many of the fires set for clearing forest for these purposes are set during the three-month burning season and the smoke produced creates widespread problems across the region, including airport closings and hospitalizations from smoke inhalation.
These fires cover a vast area of forest. In 1987 during a four-month period, about 19,300 square miles of Brazilian Amazon were burned. The burning produced carbon dioxide containing more than 500 million tons of carbon, 44 million tons of carbon monoxide, and millions of tons of other particles and nitrogen oxides. An estimated 20 percent of fires that burn between June and October cause new deforestation, while another 10 percent is the burning of ground cover in virgin forest
Mining in the Brazilian Amazon presently results in limited deforestation due to crackdowns on informal miners known as garimpeiros. The pig iron industry may have the largest role in mining-driven deforestation by consuming wood to produce charcoal to fuel steel production.