By Paul Robbins, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
It’s clear that human activity has long served to transform the Earth’s surface, but there’s been an acceleration of that process, and the loss of forest and grasslands, and the expansion of farmland, have been incredibly dramatic, especially in the last few centuries. Let’s consider the case of the Amazonian Rainforest. Three interacting factors led to this transformation: economic integration, infrastructural revolution, and population settlement.
None of the factors mentioned can be examined separately, and their entanglement is important, so let’s look at them together. Several factors have come together here to create a real catastrophe in deforestation. First, state development policy in the region has put an emphasis on exploiting the resource frontier.
The Brazilian government has stressed programs in road building, and these provide access to regions really deep in the forest that had previously been impenetrable to mining companies, timber companies, ranchers, and small farmers. So, starting with the trans-Amazonian highway, which was back in 1972, infrastructure development has led the way to deforestation in all the decades since.
Network of Roads in the Forest
Within its first two decades, The Belém-Brasília highway, as it’s known, which was begun in the late 1950s, opened the land to settlement by more than two million people, so you can imagine lots of people flowing in on this road into the forest.
And the growth of this network of roads in the region, over time, creates an unmistakable pattern if you look at it from the air. The initial forest-cover loss follows the main highway after it has been laid across the forest. And then, secondary roads begin to emerge off of the main road.
Seen from air photos and satellite images, the distinctive signature of a human footprint is totally unmistakable. There are big spines of a denuded landscape that reach deep into the forest, with smaller spines leading off to fields and to clearings and pastures. This creates what’s been called a fish-bone effect, for what it looks like. Forests begin to decline along a spiny lattice, and new road construction leads out into these bone-like structures.
Using It Leads to Owning It
In the initial phases, mining and timber companies come in and clear the largest areas and trees, but these are followed later by smallholder settlers, that is, people who settle the land to bring crops and cattle.
State policy further reinforces this settlement because the so-called productive use of lands, in other words, farming or ranching, can assure a settler official land rights over time. As such, there’s no incentive for a settler to rest the land, leave trees there, allow it to reforest, or put it to anything, except intensive, productive use. By using it, the settler owns it.
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Economics of the Amazonian Rainforest
None of the government activity and policy would make much difference, however, without massive international markets for the commodities that come from deforested land. Initial clearance of much of this land was done by timber contractors, for example. Timber exports from Brazil represent a roughly 200 million dollar annual industry.
Now, once cleared of timber, a vast majority of the deforested land in the Amazon is converted to livestock pasture. This production is not in any way for subsistence; Brazil exported more than a half-million head of beef cattle in 2012, so these pastures are being used to produce export-oriented crops.
Brazil is also the second-largest exporter of soybeans, which is a big part of this story. In fact, between 2001 and 2004, a few short years, the areas of the Brazilian Amazon under intensive mechanized soy production grew by 3.6 million hectares, remembering that a hectare is considerably larger than an acre; this is a large area of land. In short, the forest is being consumed by people, not in Brazil, but very far away, in the wood, in the meat, and the biofuels that we consume in the United States or in Europe.
Resistance Inspired by Chico Mendes
It’s critical to point out that all of this deforestation didn’t happen without a fight, and it was contested by many people in the region. In a series of increasingly well organized movements, many local groups in Brazil banded together to resist the destruction of the forest and the appropriation of their land.
The most famous of these in the Amazon was led by someone named Chico Mendes, and Mendes organized local peasants, whose economy depended on tapping rubber from trees in the forest. They united with indigenous groups to oppose state settlement policies.
Mendes became a key founder of a vocal international movement to resist the relentless destruction of these forests. And although he was assassinated by a rancher in 1988, his efforts inspired numerous campaigns to promote the preservation of the rainforest that is still ongoing today.
Common Questions about the Deforestation of the Amazonian Rainforest
The construction of the Belém-Brasília highway led to millions of people getting access to the Amazonian Rainforest. Such growth lead to many smaller roads branching out of the main highway into the forest, resulting in a fish-bone effect that greatly accelerated the rate of deforestation.
Deforested land comes with many commodities that have massive international markets. As an example, Brazil’s export of timber is a roughly 200 million dollar annual industry. Deforested land in the Amazonian Rainforest that has been cleared of timber can be converted to pastures which are also tied to a massive industry.
Chico Mendes organized movements with local peasants whose efforts to stop the destruction of the Amazonian Rainforest inspired many campaigns after he was assassinated in 1988. Mendes was a key founder of a vocal international resistance movement.