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Loving the Rainforest to Death
PORTO VELHO, Rondonia, Brazil - International criticism of the Brazilian government's efforts to continue to open up this tropical forest region for migrant settlers is at a fever pitch. Environmental groups, the U.S. government and even "60 Minutes" have weighed in to condemn, usually without qualification, the large-scale tropical-forest destruction accompanying the huge Polonoroeste development project in Rondonia and the ongoing 300 mile extension of the paved road from Porto Velho to Rio Branco in Acre.

Bowing to this pressure, both the World Bank and the Inter-American development Bank have formally protested the Brazilian government's failure to adhere to environmental protection policies. During World Bank meetings two weeks ago, environmental lobbyists demanded a cutoff of multimillion dollar loans to development projects in this vast Amazonian region. So far, there have been minor steps in this direction, but no long-term, permanent action.

This organized international campaign has highlighted issues of critical importance for the future of the world's greatest tropical rain forest. However, continued sweeping condemnations of the development programs that lead to forest clearing is a dangerous tactic. It actually could contribute to greater long-term forest and environmental destruction in the Amazon and threaten the economic well-being of hundreds of thousands of settlers who have migrated here in the past decade.

Clearly, the development that has taken place has made a mess of things. Landsat photos show that about 20% of the state of Rondonia - an area almost as large as West Virginia - was deforested between 1980 and 1987. This resulted primarily from land clearing associated with Polonoroeste settlement efforts or spontaneous settlements facilitated by the opening of Route 364 between Cuiaba, Mato Grosso and Porto Velho, Rondonia. Wanton forest destruction, land degradation and soil erosion have been well documented, even by the government. Provisions for environmental protection have been largely ignored in construction along Route 364. Even where they exist, forest reserves, national parks and Indian reserve boundaries are routinely violated for timber and mineral exploitation.

Despite this abysmal record, what is needed to slow the wave of forest destruction in parts of Rondonia and Acre not suitable for agriculture and cattle ranching is more - not less - investment capital for agriculture and more road improvement within already established project areas and along existing transportation arteries. Providing these investments to ensure the availability of adequate farm inputs, technical assistance and transportation to markets is critical for stabilizing and intensifying agriculture in the areas already shorn of their forest cover.

The original conception of Polonoroeste envisioned creation of a large, decentralized community of relatively self-sufficient pioneer farmers along a central corridor through Rondonia. In reality, the community has turned out much differently. Urban dwellers and peasant farmers who migrated here in recent years from the south of Brazil burned the forest, planted a crop of manioc, which can be planted and harvested quickly, unlike coffee trees, which take years; they followed subsequently with the requisite rice, beans and squash. But they have seen their harvests decrease each year as soil fertility has declined. Environmentalists correctly point out that many of the colonists are on the move again, seeking new lands to subject to the same debilitating cycle, especially in new areas being opened up in distant Acre.

Many Brazilian agricultural-development experts now realize that the type of farming likely to be economically and ecologically sustainable in the cleared areas of Rondonia does not revolve solely around subsistence crops, but must also include intensive cultivation of perennial bush and tree crops (such as coffee, nuts, cocoa and rubber). This type of agriculture requires more capital inputs and better transportation for marketing, but it is more likely to protect soil fertility and produce a surplus for small farmers in the long term.

Polonoroeste officials say that those areas closest to Route 364 have moved into their second phase of agricultural development. Also, the average lot size maintained by each family in these areas is considerably smaller than was originally given to settlers. That is, rural population density is increasing, and farmers are making a living on smaller plots of land because they are using up the land more intensively. (This contrasts with the trend in areas where land is being exhausted; here holdings are being consolidated into large and unproductive cattle ranches.)

Over time, this more intensive land-use pattern, if it can be sustained, will decrease the unit costs of providing public services, stimulate a more active rural trading system, encourage closer economic ties between rural areas and rapidly expanding urban areas and reduce strain on the remaining forested areas.

To send the nearly one million settlers who have migrated here in recent years back to the poverty and landlessness they faced in the south and the northeast of Brazil would be virtually impossible. Thus, conservation of undeveloped areas requires greatly increased investment and technical assistance to turn the settlers into better and more intensive farmers and conscious stewards of the land. To attain their goal of protecting the remaining tropical forests of Rondonia and Acre, Brazilian and international conservationists must develop much stronger lobbying for policies that promote investment in sustainable agriculture and forestry development.

International pressure to halt or slow the paving of Route 364 or to terminate agricultural investment in areas where soils can support crops could have serious repercussions for the environment and for the poor farmers who now consider this region their home. (Leonard, 1987, p.29).

[ Slash & Burn Agriculture ] [ From the Seat of the Bulldozer ] [ Regrowth in a Tropical Rainforest ]
[ Data Collection in the Amazon ] [ Colonization of the Rainforest ] [ Loving the Rainforest to Death ]
[ Frogs in the Rainforest ] [ Tropical Deforestation & Habitat Destruction ]
[ The Importance of Forests & the Perils of Deforestation ] [ Hamburgers in the Rainforest ]
[ References ] [ PBL Model

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Last updated November 10, 2004

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