10) Case Study – Brazil

Again we turn briefly to Brazil, the country with one-third of the world’s tropical rain forests. In Brazil, all land which is not privately owned belongs to the states, although some supra-state agencies regulate forest exploitation. Both states and the federal government are able to issue land titles and engage in land sales, however, a situation which quite naturally leads to confusion and impotent regulation. The central government is also the sponsor of colonization. Neither states nor central governments have shown much mercy to or understanding of Brazil’s amazing assets, which are regarded mainly as sources of immediate wealth.

The Brazilian Amazon contains a billion cubic meters of wood with a value (as timber) of several trillion dollars. As in other places, timber extraction has been destructive and has had a significant impact on the standing forest. Little logging activity here even pretends to be sustainable. At present, forest destruction is occurring at about two million hectares per year (Laurance, 2001a), the world’s highest absolute rate. The causes of deforestation are the rapid increase (by tenfold) of the non-indigenous population in the Amazon, a substantial increase in industrial logging and mining, encouraged by road construction, and the movement of deforestation deep into the core of the Amazon rather than more localized deforestation along the margins.

In Para State, for example, large-scale logging began in the 1960′s in the usual way – a road built, a few areas colonized for slash-and-burn farms, logging, then ranching and land speculation when the road was paved. At first, only high-value hardwoods such as mahogany were logged, and, as these trees are dispersed throughout the forest, logging was selective. Such trees are now rapidly being exhausted in accessible areas, and they often must be hauled as far as 300 miles to mills. However, new systems have been introduced which are much more intensive, and are intended to supply the many local sawmills and mills in the Amazon estuary (more than 1000). Under this system many species of trees, and often fairly small ones, are utilized. Only a few species and trees per hectare are taken at first; then logging becomes more intensive as roads and market access improve. Along the Belem-Brasilia highway, logging has become mechanized, and as many as 100 tree species are utilized. Where high-value species are absent, settlers often log areas themselves near government roads and send the logs to local mills. Mechanized, intensive timber extraction requires capital, creates vertically-integrated timber companies, and provides export timber. It has a severe impact on the forest; as many as 30 trees of substantial size are destroyed for every one harvested, and the canopy cover is reduced from 80-90% to less than 50% (Uhl, 1997).

In Para state alone, 4000 km2 of forest are logged every year, and the pace is accelerating as the Brazilian population grows and the economy expands, increasing demand (Uhl, 1997). The amount of timber removed is beginning to exceed natural regrowth, which inflates the price of wood and thereby enhances the attractiveness of timber extraction to large companies. Harvestable timber is beginning to disappear near government roads, which will lead to the construction of roads by logging companies deep into virgin forest.

Any number of examples of rampant deforestation could be given; almost every country which has tropical rain forest can offer a tale similar to that of Brazil, if not on the same scale. In most places, trees are first cut for timber and wood pulp; then the logging roads are used to provide access for a transient population of farmers, who clear what vegetation remains by burning.