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Amazonian Deforestation and Agricultural Expansion


Amazonian Deforestation and
Agricultural Expansion

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This topic plays into economic geography, population dynamics, language, religion, and political geography. It affects all life at some level. Tropical deforestation continues to fuel a battle between people who think they should stop destroying the tropical forests and people who think the tropical forest should be removed. Most of the clearing is done for agricultural purposes, grazing cattle, and planting crops. Large cattle pastures often replace rain forest to grow beef for the world market. Many indigenous people say that the tropical forest is sacred and holy. Others depend on the forest for their sustenance, their clothes, and their homes. Some believe we should clear the forests to make fields to grow crops. Herein we will explore the controversy of deforestation, arguments for and against deforestation, and the spiritual, economic, atmospheric, and global concerns revolving around the destruction of the rainforests.

Philip M. Fearnside is a Research Professor in the Department of Ecology at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. He is a permanent resident in Brazil where he has lived in Amazonia for over 30 years doing ecological research. He also has field experience in India, Indonesia, and China. He completed his Ph.D. in 1978 in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. His understanding of the deforestation situation in the Amazon area
is unique. He commented regarding the causes of deforestation, “the causes of deforestation are very complex. A competitive global economy drives the need for money in economically challenged tropical countries. At the national level, governments sell logging concessions to raise money for projects, to pay international
debt, or to develop industry. For example, Brazil had an international debt of $159 billion in 1995, on which it must make payments each year. The logging companies seek to harvest the forest and make profit from the sales of pulp and
valuable hardwoods such as mahogany.”

“Brazil is still losing upwards of 3,900 square miles a year…” said William Laurance, a tropical ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. Laurance had a letter published in a 2007 copy of the journal Science where he stated that ‘beef, timber, and other commodity prices influence the race to cut trees and clear land’. The government of Brazil funds dams, highways, gas pipelines, and other massive infrastructure projects. This will open the heart of the Amazon and with this an increase in land speculation, farming, ranching, and environmental destruction are likely to take place. The Amazonian rainforest is one of the world’s richest and most magical tropical rainforest. The rate of forest loss increases daily as the 21st century opens and unfolds. 

The Transamazon Highway was settled by small farmers, many of whom were brought from other parts of Brazil by the federal government and settled in official colonization projects. This much-publicized initiative was soon overshadowed in terms of its impact on deforestation by the large cattle ranchers who received generous tax incentives and subsidized financing from the government through the Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia (SUDAM). Large and medium-sized ranchers continue to account for the bulk of clearing in Brazilian Amazonia.

A state of lawlessness prevails in substantial areas in Amazonia, leading to distinctive “leaps” in the deforestation frontier. Most notorious is the “Terra do Meio”, or “Middle Lands” to the west of the Xingu River encompassing the Iriri River basin. This area, the size of Switzerland, has effectively been outside of the control of the Brazilian government and is the realm of drug traffickers, illegal loggers and grileiros, or large land thieves who appropriate land through fraudulent (and sometimes violent) means.

Agricultural expansion is the principal culprit behind tropical deforestation. When the forest is cleared, the land is divided into three categories, ‘forests’, ‘crops and pastures’, and ‘other uses’. Hundreds of millions of hectares of tropical forest are converted to other land uses such as growing crops, pastures, roads, mines, reservoirs, industrial, residential, administrative areas, and wastelands. The motives of those involved in deforestation and the arguments of those in opposition to deforestation are in the spotlight.

The topic of deforestation is extremely important to the field of geography. Due to its global impact, deforesters continue to struggle against activists standing against the idea. The activists say that the destruction of tropical forest results in a weakened planetary atmosphere. They discuss issues such as, the destruction of medicinal plants, the negative effects in the atmosphere, the global impact of deforestation, pros and cons, as well as potential solutions.

On the flip side, those supporting and involved in deforestation argue that it is a logical project. It can supply us with many trees and then it can be made into farmland to raise crops and cattle. It is argued that food production is more important than forests.

Responding to their ideas, those against deforestation say it is better to save the forest and make farmland elsewhere. The life of the forest is precious and difficult to replace. Many natives consider these forests to be sacred. The displacement and death of wildlife in these areas continues to fuel the fire of opposition as well. Many
natives depend on these forests for the support and survival of their families and villages.

In a growing world, food production is of the utmost importance, but at what cost? The destruction of forests disrupts the natural rhythms of nature and throws off the balanced ecosystem. This results in global changes that affect everyone.The most rapid deforestation is in tropical Central and South America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.  Deforestation in the Amazon River basin is proceeding at a rate of about 11,600 square miles per year. By 2000 a total of over 250,000 square miles has been deforested, which is an area about the size of Texas. At these rates, there will not be much left before long.

Deforestation sacrifices environmental services such as maintenance of biodiversity, water cycling, and carbon stocks. The substantial impact of this deforestation on loss of environmental services has so far not entered into decision-making on infrastructure projects, making strengthening of the environmental assessment and licensing system a high priority for containing future loss of forest.

It is our obligation to plan ahead for the sake of future generations. It takes thousands of years for rainforests to grow and mature. It takes days to destroy it all. Clearly, such large-scale destruction of tropical forests worldwide results in changes not only in the local area, but atmospheric changes that upset the natural equilibrium of nature and how it conducts itself harmoniously to maintain balance globally. “Assorted figures concerning deforestation have been incorporated into the scientific analysis informing international environmental agreements. The Global Environmental Facility, the World Bank funding envelop for combating biodiversity loss…[uses these figures]…in the construction of models which assess and predict global environmental change.

Trees are natural consumers of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a green house gas whose buildup in the atmosphere contributes to global warming. Destruction of trees not only removes these “carbon sinks,” but tree burning and decomposition pump into the atmosphere even more carbon dioxide, along with methane, another major greenhouse gas. Deforestation worldwide has a current rate of approximately 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2 per year. In comparison, fossil fuel burning (coal, oil, and gas) releases about 6 billion metric tons per year, so it is clear that
deforestation makes a significant contribution to the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. Releasing CO2 into the atmosphere enhances the greenhouse effect, and could contribute to an increase in global temperatures.

According to the World Resources Institute, more than 80 percent of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed. Seventy percent of the Earth’s land animals and plants reside in forests. This is a huge loss of living space. Rain forests help generate rainfall in drought-prone countries. Studies have shown a clear link between decades of drought, which increases hardship and famine, and the destruction of rain forests.

The state of Rondonia in western Brazil is one of the most deforested parts of the Amazon. About 51.4 million acres have been destroyed. Small farmers migrate to the claim land along the road and plant crops. Rains and erosion deplete the
soil, and crop yields fall. Farmers then convert degraded land to cattle pasture, and clear more forest for crops. Although tropical deforestation can meet some human needs, it also has profound, sometimes devastating, consequences, including social conflict and human rights abuses, extinction of plants (medicinal tropical plants that are rare), the death and displacement of animals, and climate change-challenges that affect the whole world.

Statistics show that enough food is being produced to feed the world. However, several parts of the world do not have enough food and people are starving. People in other parts of the world have too much and so much is wasted. The distribution of food should go to all in need, but instead it goes to whoever is wealthy enough to buy it. The two extremes of starvation and obesity indicate clearly that resources are not being used properly and in many cases, are being abused. If the need for agricultural land for food production increases to the extent that tropical rainforests need to be cleared, then the world will be in trouble. However, the excess of clear land worldwide provides the needed
ground. Because the world is not in a desperate need to increase food production and because there is plenty of clear land that can be used for agriculture, there is no reason to destroy the tropical rainforests. The life of the forest is sacred and should be treated as such. All things in should be done moderation. Too much is being destroyed. For every action there is a reaction. If deforestation continues at the rate it is going now, tropical forests will be a part of the past…