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,
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).