Brazil is an object lesson in forest destruction. One nearly extinct rainforest is the Atlantic forest of Brazil, which originally had an area of one million km2, but by now, consists of only 35,000 km2. Much of it has been cut for farms and ranches, and the government at one time offered tax breaks for raising Asian water buffalo (still a favored project in Amazonia). The Atlantic forest is the only home of the highly endangered golden tamarin, among many other threatened species. Although only 5% or so of this forest remains, the government still plans to develop this area further. The forest now consists largely of remnant patches in a sea of agricultural fields. There are some protected areas, but they are small (the largest are 2000 hectares in size), virtually unprotected, and subject to great hunting pressures. Many birds, such as guans, chachalacas, toucans and aracaris, which are dispersers of large seeds, are near extinction, and the Alagoas curassow is extinct in the wild because of hunting. Most large vertebrates have also disappeared due to habitat fragmentation and hunting. The loss of these seed-dispersing animals will lead to alterations in the composition of the remaining forest, because the tree species (those with large seeds; about one-third of tree species in the Atlantic forest) dependent upon seed-dispersers will not be able to reproduce.

The Brazilian Amazon consists of more than five million km2, of which slightly more than four million km2 are forested. Prior to 1970 only about 30,000 km2 (0.6%) of the Brazilian Amazon had been cleared, mostly in the southeast, which had never been heavily forested. By 1980, 125,000 km2 had been cleared, by 1988, 600,000 km2, an area the size of France (Moran, 1996). Skole and Tucker (1993) give a figure of 230,324 km2 of deforestation, or 5.6% of the Amazon forest. Deforestation continues at a rate of 15,000 to 20,000 km2 annually. (These figures are only estimates, as mapping forest loss accurately is very difficult.)

Large-scale deforestation in the Amazon region of Brazil began in the late 1950’s, when the government relocated the capital to Brasilia, in the interior, and embarked upon a program of highway construction to connect this area with the coast. During the first twenty years after road construction, twenty million people settled along the road. Large areas near the roads were cleared for cattle pasture, and the cattle population went from zero to five million (Moran, 1996; Dobson, 1995). The governor of one state announced plans to shoot, catch and sell all the wild animals in the forest, exploit the plants in the forest, and then convert it all to agricultural land (Jacobs, 1988)! In Rondonia state, where government policies and road construction activities have encouraged immigration, more than a quarter of the land was deforested between 1975 and 1988, and the process has only accelerated since. The average area deforested in Rondonia per year equals the total area deforested prior to 1980 (Moran, 1996).

Among the ancillary consequences of deforestation is a loss of the immense biodiversity of the Brazilian Amazon. Mammals are declining everywhere from the impact of hunting (for food, skins, and medicines) and habitat loss. Jaguars are collected for zoos and illegally hunted for their skins. They are also declining because of habitat loss, as each jaguar requires large areas for hunting. The giant anteater, the armadillo and others have been depleted by habitat loss, demands from zoos, and hunting. Birds are being lost for similar reasons. Reptiles, especially tortoises, alligators, and freshwater turtles, are hunted for food (and hides, in the case of the alligator). Populations of the arrau, a turtle found in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, are in great decline because of the consumption of eggs and adults by humans, and the terecay turtle is in similar dire straits. Fish, the main protein source for humans in the Amazon, are intensely sought as the human population increases and fishing becomes more efficient and mechanized. And the bushmeat trade is growing. Many species of mammals and reptiles can be found in markets and on restaurant menus.

Animals and plants are also sought for pets and gardens. Fish are extracted from tropical forest rivers and streams for the aquarium trade, although most of them die en route to their foreign destinations. Many animals are found for sale as pets in tropical town markets. Monkeys, for instance, are common in South American markets.

Why is Brazil a leader in deforestation?

a. Land policies and speculation: The government also gives low-interest loans and other incentives to clear forest land, considering it “land improvement.” Because of this policy, the person clearing it has the right to sell the “improvements.” Thus, since Brazil’s population continues to rise and the number of impoverished people does also, land is at a premium. This has led to a frenzy of deforestation, as people hasten to “improve” land for sale at inflated prices. Ranchers do not utilize the timber on land as they deforest it, they burn it. Much land in the Amazon is also “unclaimed” and so logging companies can operate in these areas virtually without cost. Since uncleared land cannot be claimed in Brazil, deforestation proceeds indiscriminately in efforts to take land title. In fact, one can receive six additional hectares of land for each hectare cleared, although the land is frequently used for a few years and subsequently abandoned.

b. Road construction: Road construction into the Amazon basin began in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the government embarked upon its development and colonization plans for this region. The Belem-Brasilia, Cuiaba-Santarem and Trans-Amazon highways are huge arteries opening access to previously inaccessible parts of the country.

b. Small-scale agriculture: As roads are built, impoverished urban dwellers or landless farmers from other areas move in along them, deforesting small areas for agriculture. After they clear 50 hectares of land, they receive title to the land, which they cultivate or use to raise cattle. After a few years, the soil is exhausted and they move on. The result is the loss of forest and fertile land, and no solution to poverty.

c. Ranching: The majority of projects for the development of the Amazon have involved cattle ranches, some very large (up to 560,000 hectares). Five hundred ranch owners have caused 85% of the deforestation in Brazilian Amazon (Sponsel, Bailey and Headland, 1996). Huge areas of land are deforested and burned for these ranches. Moreover, they employ few people and are profitable only when they receive tax benefits and subsidized credit, and when the land is overgrazed. Although overgrazing soon results in the destruction of forage grasses and soil, and within three to five years, the ability of converted forest land to support cattle declines from one head per hectare to 0.3 head, there are so many incentives to convert forest to pastureland that it is cheaper to deforest additional land than to maintain pasture in good condition (Amelung, Torsten and Diehl, 1992). This occurs even where the soil is conducive to grazing, which it very often is not. Only about 15% of Amazonian soils are suitable for sustained agriculture or ranching (Terborgh, 1989). Forested land is regarded as inferior to “developed” land, indeed as an impediment to development, and so tax rates are lower for agricultural or ranch land than for forested land. A government policy, begun in the 1970’s, allows people to use tax payments to establish ranches, and to keep any capital gains, without tax liability (Moran, 1996). Thus forests become a “ranching subsidy” (Uhl, 1994). (Incidentally, much of the capital for these ranches has come from overseas.) Sales of meat from the ranches generate only about $100 per hectare over the lifetime of the property (Terborgh, 1989) – a measly profit and a catastrophe for the rainforest, which has been converted into a wasteland.

d. Dam construction: Dam construction has been the second-largest cause of deforestation in Brazil. Development banks such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Funds have, in the past, been particularly inclined to provide funds for development projects such as dams, as well as for highway construction and colonization schemes. These dams have provided remarkably little energy (see Part III, Section C14).

e. Mining: Mining of various kinds (for gold, tin, petroleum, natural gas) has led to deforestation and severe environmental degradation because mines are cut into forest land and roads are driven through the forest to them. In mining processes, toxic chemicals are released into waterways, degrading forest around and near the mines. In addition, the miners are forced to subsist from the forest, so that the areas near mines are depleted of animals. Some of the mines were established because the Brazilian government began a project to produce pig iron. The pig iron plants were designed to run on charcoal; thus, large areas were and are being deforested to provide wood for charcoal (more than a million tons in 1985; perhaps double that by now) (Moran, 1996). Nearly 500,000 gold miners have also invaded the Amazon, using mercury to extract gold and releasing the mercury into waterways. Centuries will be required before the mercury is eliminated from the forest ecosystems in these areas.

f. Timber extraction: Timber extraction began in a large-scale way in the 1980’s, and several Brazilian states depend heavily on timber and wood products for a great part of their economic base. Economic incentives are given to logging companies in the form of tax breaks. The government continues to license more and more sawmills, and the production per mill has doubled since 1965. Much of the logging activity benefits ranchers, who take over the logged land for ranches. As wood production declines in Asia due to the exhaustion of timber supplies there, the demand for Amazonian wood products is increasing.

g. Fires: Much has already been said in this document about the destruction wreaked by fires in tropical rainforests. Human activities have set fire to forests both intentionally and unintentionally. Forests in the Brazilian Amazon are being burned to provide agricultural land and pastures. Even those which are not burned intentionally are being lost in conflagrations because of the destructive cycle of logging – increased inflammatory conditions – burning. According to Cochrane (2001), many areas of Brazil, only a decade ago pristine forest, are now expected to burn in cycles of every between five and fourteen years because of human activities near new roads. In Para, half of the forest within 12 kilometers of the main road has already burned once during the past 10 years. With this type of fire regime, no rainforest can regenerate or maintain itself. Cochrane estimates that at least 259,000 km2 of forest in southern and eastern Brazil will be deforested by fire within the next few decades.

g. Grandiose schemes and dreams: One of the more grandiose schemes for the Brazilian Amazon was begun in 1967 by American billionaire Daniel Ludwig, who bought a piece of the Amazon rainforest larger than the state of Connecticut. There he intended to build an agricultural, mining and industrial empire – Jari Cellulose. Today Jari Cellulose is for sale, after an investment of US$1 billion (and complete with debt of US$354 million), the victim of “one of the most hostile natural and business environments on the planet” (Norris, 1999). Pace the eternal Amazonian dream of untold wealth. Ludwig built 3000 miles of road, a paper mill and power plant, a port, and a company town, meanwhile offending Brazilian sensibilities with his grandiose ideas and the thought that foreigners might get rich from Brazilian resources. Abandoned were plans to raise cattle, pigs, rice, and some exotic imported trees such as Burmese melina and Caribbean pine (Jacobs, 1988). Knowing little about rainforest ecology or soils, Ludwig had the land bulldozed, removing the topsoil along the way. Soil conditions were unsuited to the melina tree, and they failed to grow. Jari Cellulose is now marginally profitable but needs US$400 million in investment, which it seems unlikely to obtain. Many years ago Henry Ford established Fordlandia, a grand rubber scheme, which failed completely and had to be abandoned in 1946 after an investment of US$10 million, (or $30 million, according to Prance, 1986), a huge sum in the early twentieth century (Sponsel, Bailey and Headland, 1996). Ford’s attempt to establish rubber plantations was a disaster because the leaf rust fungus happily attacked the closely-spaced domestic rubber trees. (Also see Prance, 1986, for information on Jari Cellulose and Fordlandia.) And so go most “dreams that never seem to die” in the Amazon (Norris, 1999)

h. Social inequities: Social inequalities exacerbate the environmental problems in Brazil. More than half of the agricultural land is held by a tiny percentage of landowners; while the vast majority of rural households are virtually landless. Land distribution and equalization has been quite unsuccessful due to the efforts of the wealthy landowners and ranchers, who usually have political muscle as well as money. When necessary, they resort to violence to prevent land redistribution to the landless. This forces the latter to invade virgin forest land. The government here, as in other tropical countries, exports its underclass to the forest frontier rather than tackle the powerful landed interests.

All of this activity has not succeeded in making agriculture and ranching very profitable. In the 1970’s, the average profits from ranching in Para state were $10 to $20 per hectare. Since the land degrades rapidly, profits vanish within five years. Often the projects are unprofitable from the beginning and are viable only because of government subsidies (in various forms; see below). In the mid-1980’s, the average price of accessible land (pasture and arable) in the Amazon was about $140 per hectare, for forested land, $40 per hectare. Thus a person would gain about $100 per hectare (at most) by deforesting and setting up a plantation or ranch (Katzman and Cale, 1990).

The consequence of all of this is that Brazil is removing its rainforest at an annual rate higher than the global average of 1%. In the mid-1990’s, it averaged losses of 2.2% of its forest per year (Dobson, 1995). There are now three seasons in Brazil: the wet season, the dry season, and “the burnings.” In 1987, 50,000 km2 were deforested and burned in only four Amazonian states. The same thing occurred in 1988, and continued to the present day. Smoke hangs over millions of square kilometers of Brazil.

i. The future: The government long ago established policies to colonize the interior and built roads to provide access to it. The major projects, however, were failures and much of the former forest land has become unproductive. Despite the dismal picture and the obvious conclusion that forest clearing is economically unsound, Brazil has proposed a $US 45 billion infrastructure development programs, Avança Brasil, for the Amazon region. The stated goal of this program is to provide infrastructures in the Amazon for the development of industrial agriculture, timbering and mining. This includes plans to pave 6245 km of roads, to improve river ports, to build railroads and hydroelectric plants, and to channel rivers. Two of the proposed highways (Santarem-Cuiaba and Humata-Manaus) will cut through the yet-undeveloped core of the Brazilian Amazon. The ostensible reason for these two highways is to reduce transportation costs for soybean farmers in north-central Brazil, but will inevitably lead to another round of colonist infiltration, logging, and land conversion in these pristine areas. It is estimated that 120,000 to 270,000 km2 of additional forest will be cut if this plan is accomplished, not to mention ancillary damage to much additional forest land in the vicinity (Carvalho, et al., 2001). Another typical project is a plan to deforest 18 million hectares of land to plant soybeans. These policies could lead to an increase in area of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon from the current 14% to about one-third within twenty or thirty years, and would release between six and eleven billion tons of carbon just from forest clearing. Interestingly, the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment and other environmental agencies are not included in these planning efforts. To counter this, Brazil has earmarked a few hundred thousand dollars for conservation.

There are variety of nongovernmental organizations working in the Amazon, and international sources (through the Pilot Program to Conserve the Brazilian Rainforest) plan to provide about $340 million for conservation over the next 10 years. This is less than a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed and what the government plans to spend on Avança Brasil (and ironic, considering the incompatibility of conservation efforts with government policies). More necessary is an alteration in government thinking about the Amazon as an expendable and infinite resource. Under even the most optimistic scenario, the southern and eastern portions of the Amazon will be heavily denuded within 20 years, with a great deal of degradation and fragmentation elsewhere. Under a less optimistic projection, very little pristine forest will be left except in the westernmost regions of the Brazilian Amazon (Laurance, et al., 2001). Avança Brasil is representative of the type of planning occurring in the Amazon and elsewhere in the tropics. Vast projects which purport to be economically hugely beneficial are envisioned, but they are conceived without considering any of the environmental or social implications. This is “top-down” planning, programs for the enrichment of the powerful and influential, with almost nothing for anyone else. It results in more land and profits for the wealthy, and almost nothing for anyone else.

A more optimistic assessment of the future of Brazil comes from José Silveira, the Secretary of Planning for Avança Brasil, in a letter to Science (2001). His claim is that Brazilian policies have now changed, and that major projects are subject to open discussion, public hearings, and monitoring of rainforest development. According to him, Avança Brasil has been carefully planned and has involved many international consultants and nongovernmental experts, and that the projects approved for this program had to undergo environmental licensing, and have been designed for sustainable use of the areas involved. No new highways are to be added, but some existing ones will be paved. Laurance, et al. (2001), in response, counter that half of the Avança Brasil moneys would not be used to alleviate poverty, but are to be used for highway construction and other projects which would have serious detrimental effects on the environment. Among these is the development of logging, soybean, and cattle-ranching industries. The paving of highways inevitably leads to increased access to forests and promotes the development of secondary roads. Moreover, they point out that, although surely Brazilian environmental legislation attempts to protect rainforests, deforestation is still occurring at an extremely high rate, and that illegal forest destruction through logging and burns continue unabated. Public input is minimal, and experts consulted for these projects are often taken from industry. Moreover, the Ministry of Environment has had minimal input into the process and environmental impact studies will be considered only during the final stages of the planning, when the projects have attained a life of their own and will be almost impossible to stop. Moreover, the indirect consequences of large projects have not been considered, and land-use planning in Brazil is often fragmented and highly subject to political pressures. It is feared that the Avança projects would open large areas of the Amazon for development. As they state, “…the megaprojects of Avança Brasil present precisely the wrong vision for the Amazon.”

The Brazilian government now plans to add 50 million hectares (the size of Spain) to the national forest system. These forests will not be totally protected, but will be “sustainable-use conservation units” which will produce timber and non-timber goods while preserving environmental values. Similar managed forests have increased dramatically in the past decade to almost one million hectares. Controlled forests, combined with fully-protected areas, provide the possibility of maintaining a great deal of Amazonian biodiversity, but only if they can be carefully planned and monitored. This will require enlisting the cooperation of the population and taking socio-economic issues into account (Verissimo, Cochrane and Souza, 2002).

On October 12, 2001, The New York Times reported the murder of Ademir Federicci, a popular and effective labor, peasant and environmental leader in the city of Altamira (and one among seven such persons killed within a few months). Mr. Federicci had been opposed to a large dam project, had denounced corruption in an agency concerned with construction projects in the Amazon (Superintendency for the Development of the Amazon) which apparently funneled money to ranching, logging and mining interests, and most of all into the pockets of Jader Barbalho, the governor of the state of Para. This gentleman was recently forced to resign after it was determined that he had acquired US$10 million in dealings with this agency. No serious attempt has been made to find Federicci’s killers, since the local authorities are allied with Mr. Barbalho and other important interests. Threats are openly made to all who oppose the logging and ranching interests in the region. Also, according to this article, destruction in the Amazon, after a respite of a few years due to economic problems, is returning to the stupendous levels of the mid-1990’s. It is especially dangerous since the dry seasons have been almost rainless, and this has made it easy for ranchers and loggers to burn and cut forest. Marcio Aruajo of the Human Rights Commission of the Brazilian Congress said (as quoted in this article), “It’s the Wild West around here.”