Amazonian Deforestation

Amazonian Deforestation
Of all of the issues that effect the planet Earth from a Global Change standpoint, one of the most visible and highly publicized is the issue of rainforest destruction. The loss of this emerald on the planet?s crown will end life as we know it, if something is not done?

Rain forests are shrinking at a rate of 100 acres per minute?
There are primarily three activities which are causing rainforest destruction: agriculture, logging, and mining.

Agriculture is an absolute necessity for human life on Earth to continue. There are too many people on the planet for existence as hunters and gatherers to work anymore. That said, it must be realized that concessions must be made to allow such food growth and production to occur. But this does not mean that another important element of life on Earth can be destroyed for it. Unfortunately, that is indeed what is occurring, at an alarming rate. The rainforests of the planet are dwindling as the land they belong on is used more and more for agriculture, all over the world. In the Amazon, ,the most commonly detrimental agricultural practice is the technique of land clearing known as Slash and Burn.

Slash and Burn

This practice is a quick and economically inexpensive method or clearing land for grazing or raising crops. It is accomplished by cutting down all the trees and brush in an area, as fast as possible (Slash) and then setting fire to the area, to get rid of all of the mess (Burn). It has proved to be a quite efficient way to pointlessly destroy the forest, because the land shortly becomes arid and barren without the trees there to maintain it?s former richness. This is compounded by the lack of crop-rotation, which only speeds up the process of dry desert formation where there was once lush rainforest, full of life.

There was a great increase in the amount of rainforest fires last year, due to slash and burn farming practices. After years of recession, cattle ranchers have more money to invest in clearing land. Small farmers continue to move into the rain forest. While people are setting fires to clear forest land, the El Nino weather phenomenon is aggravating those fires. El Nino has dramatically reduced humidity in the Amazon, turning loose foliage into kindling. The extremely high temperatures and drought conditions make it easier for fires to spread. In an effort to control deforestation, Brazil?s environmental inspectors are fining those who burn or log illegally. Government regulations require landowners in the Amazon to preserve 80 percent of their land. But for every person who is fined for destroying the rain forest, hundreds are never caught. There are only about 300 inspectors monitoring the vast Amazon region. ?They?re outnumbered. Just a handful of inspectors can?t possibly control an area that?s 5 million square kilometers.? ? Philip Fearnside of the Institute for Amazon Research


The utilization by man of trees for wood has been occurring since man threw together his first sleeping shelter. This was not a problem, because only a few trees were being taken at a time, so the overall population worldwide was never really effected. But now, there are so many people that trees are being cut down faster than they can grow back. Much faster. Worldwide, forests are shrinking rapidly. This is a particularly large problem in rainforests, which are already losing ground to agriculture, literally. Logging occurs illegally all over the Amazon, and even the legal logging is not very carefully monitored. As a result, logging companies are doing a lot of business, and the rainforest is disappearing because of it.

Logging captures little of the value of timber extracted. Because of government subsidies, royalties and taxes on logs cut, timber companies capture only 3 percent of the total value of the wood cut. Logging has also greatly contributed to habitat fragmentation and declining biodiversity in some areas, while the area under logging concession has doubled in the last seven years.


Ah, greed. One of the Seven Deadly Sins. Man?s lust for riches may indeed prove to be deadly for the rainforests. Gold mining runs rampant in the Amazon, and causes any number of problems there, such as habitat loss, excess silt production, and pollution. Small-scale gold miners, operating illegally, produce an estimated $50 to $100 million worth of gold per year, while paying no taxes. Small-scale mining has resulted in increases in sedimentation in rivers, and mercury contamination, while also causing conflicts with indigenous communities. Venezuela has no standards for reclamation of industrial mining sites. Performance bonds, which force mining companies to be financially responsible for any potential post-mining environmental impacts, are not collected systematically nor set to reflect potential environmental degradation.

Other facts

The poorly controlled logging and mining in the Amazon poses a challenge to Venezuela?s potential for a sustainable economy and secure society. Government plans to stimulate mining and timber production are not accompanied by adequate capacity of environmental regulation and oversight.

The Amazon rainforest and others like it are home to half of the Earth?s animal species?
The Amazon Basin

The largest rainforest on Earth is in the Amazon River Basin of northern South America. It spreads over most of Brazil and parts of Venezuela. These forests supply the Earth with about one fifth of its oxygen. Twenty percent of the world?s fresh water flows through these forests, and the trees there are indispensable to maintaining the water supply.


About two thirds of the Amazon River basin lies within Brazil, in a region known as Amazonia. Over the past thirty years portions of Amazonia have been developed for small-hold farms, cattle ranching, and mining. Farming and ranching in Amazonia resulted in the widespread clearing of tropical forest. Recent estimates of deforestation by the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (inpe) based on satellite imagery reveal that about 8.5 percent of Amazonia?s forest had been cleared by 1991.

The extent of deforestation varies by state, with Rondnia being the most recent state to undergo transformation from a remote intact forest to a nearly-developed frontier. A 1991 Landsat Thematic Mapper satellite image shows a ?fishbone? pattern of deforestation along the BR-364 highway. This road runs the length of the state and its opening in the early 1970?s led to Rondnia?s rapid development and widespread land degradation. Today much of the cleared land along BR-364 is abandoned or under-used grazing land. The problems of road building and land overuse became apparent after several rainy seasons. Though Amazonia lies in a broad basin, much of the topography below the forest canopy is hilly. The straight roads cut across the unleveled land, flattening it, and during the wet season washouts closed many roads to traffic. In the early 1980?s planners considered topography when they outlined the development of ?Projeto Machadinho? under the polonoroeste Program. Machadinho has a curvy pattern of roads that works with the local terrain and drainage.

Machadinho?s planners made an effort to work with the local environment, but no amount of planning could mitigate the region?s poor soil conditions. The Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuaria ? Nucleo de Monitoramento Ambiental e de Recursos Naturais por Satelite (embrapa-nma) reported that by 1993 over two thirds of the original settlers of Machadinho had left their allotments after several years of unsuccessful farming. The remaining farmers have worked hard to cultivate an optimal combination of perennial and annual crops.


Venezuela, which is home to one of the last large frontier forests, is presently facing a dilemma regarding its forest-related development policies. In seeking to stimulate the sagging Venezuelan economy by diversifying from oil as its primary export (Venezuela is one of the world?s leading oil producers), the government is faced with a crucial decision: either to implement plans for increased oil-extracting activities in forest areas in ways consistent with Venezuela?s long tradition of making conservation and sustainability a priority, or proceed without the necessary management, controls and monitoring capabilities that ensure that long-tested policies are followed. The path chosen will directly impact the potential for long-term economic benefits, versus shorter-term gains that mean substantial risks to the highly-valued ecosystems and indigenous cultures of the region.

?This is a critical moment and special opportunity for Venezuela. The southern portion of the country still retains most of its forest and cultural wealth, but there are pressures to develop the area quickly. With the proper planning, Venezuela can make strides to strengthen its economy while serving as a global leader in forest conservation and sustainability.? ? Marta Miranda, a research analyst and the principal author of the new study, All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Balancing Conservation and Development in Venezuela?s Frontier Forests

The potential development of the Guayana region (the area south of the Orinoco River, covering half of the country) is new for Venezuela, which has a progressive history of conservation dating back to the turn of the century. Nearly 30 percent of Venezuela?s national territory is partially protected, a greater portion than any other country in Latin America. Unsurprisingly, the government?s recent development plans have resulted in national debate and stimulated legal challenges from local environmentalists and forest-based indigenous communities. A new zoning plan decreed by President Rafael Caldera, proposing that almost half of the Imataca Forest Reserve (containing some 14 different forest ecosystems) be opened for mining, has resulted in two lawsuits. One brought by environmentalists is before the Venezuelan Supreme Court and a decision is expected soon. A separate suit on behalf of indigenous communities living within the Imataca Reserve is also pending. Meanwhile, demonstrations in the nation?s capital city of Caracas, have served to heighten public awareness of the threats to Venezuela?s forests.

The major source of protein in the Amazon Basin is fish, yet much of the fish population is being destroyed or threatened by gold mining?
The Domino Effect

The Brazilian government has decided to allow big business to cut millions of acres of trees in the Amazon River basin. The government maintains that the new program will put loggers under strict controls ? limiting them to one-year concessions and designating how much wood can be cut during a given period. The government says these regulations will allow the forest to regenerate, and it maintains that, despite its flaws, the plan is a step in the right direction.

But critics argue that the country doesn?t have the funds necessary to enforce the government regulations. They say that thousands of acres of forest are cut down illegally every day. The laws designed to protect the trees have done nothing to stop the massive clear-cutting so far, and the government?s new plan will allow even greater access to the remote forest areas. It is said that loggers will no doubt open new roads, and even moderate environmentalists believe the plan will do more harm than good.

Analysts say that when it comes to protecting the environment in a country with a great deal of poverty and unemployment like Brazil, then it?s a choice between the present and the future. In other words: it?s a choice between jobs and opportunities now, and a livable environment for the people of tomorrow. Logging in Brazil means jobs for workers, and money for the national government. It has been suggested that some efforts to protect the Amazon forest are less than honest because they are aimed at squeezing Brazil out of the market. Environmentalists agree that Brazil should be allowed to find an acceptable way to profit from its enormous resources. But they also say that monitoring and control measures must come first.

Pros and cons

The foresting companies and agricultural companies which are destroying the rainforest are numerous. Fortunately, there are also many environmentally active groups which are attempting to stop this activity, or at least curb it. Most people are aware of this conflict. However, the groups which are usually forgotten by Western culture are the natives of the rainforests.

Environmental organizations such as the apeca have missions. The primary mission of apeca, Inc. is to promote the conservation of the rainforest and local communities in the remote Amazon river villages. Through conservation, empowerment, and education projects, the mission is accomplished by assisting in the development of sustainable methods of health care, nutrition, and sanitation. apeca, Inc. (Association Promoting Education and Conservation of the Amazon), and its sister association, ?Associacion Para la Educacion y Conservacion de la Amazonia,? were started in 1993 when Gina Low, a Connecticut resident, began operating a floating health clinic on a river boat in the Amazon rainforest. Since 1993, the scope of APECA?s projects have grown.

Aside from the wildfires which rage over the rainforests and cause mass destruction of wildlife, there also are other culprits, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature: ignorance, greed, questionable agricultural and forestry practices, and inappropriate land development. All are considered causes for international concern.

?We like to think of the Amazon as the global air conditioner. It cools and cleans the planet and rejuvenates oxygen levels in the atmosphere. With these massive fires, we?re seeing large areas destroyed. They?ll never properly recover. This, I believe, is folly for humans on this planet.? ?What we?re looking at is 6,000 to 8,000 years of human evolution, and during that time we?ve actually stripped away a full two-thirds of the forests that were existing before then. So we?re looking at an enormous, devastating problem.?

- Francis Sullivan of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature

Security and stability of much of the upstream forested areas are partly dependent on indigenous groups, 70 percent of whom do not have land rights. Oftentimes, when faced with accusations of wanton forest destruction, foresting companies point to the native peoples, who employ Slash and Burn methods usually just to survive. Because of all the competition from big business, indigenous tribes are dying out. Over 90 tribes have become extinct in Brazil alone since the turn of the century.

Dr. Mark Plotkin is one of a handful of ethnobotanists in the US. Ethnobotanists are scientists who combine the study of anthropology (the study of people and their cultures) and botany (the study of plants). Their aim is to study how indigenous people use native plants for healing purposes.

Shown in an imax film, Dr. Plotkin and Mamani, a Bolivian Callawaya shaman, go on a quest for native plants with healing powers. Under the rain forest canopy, Western medical science meets the magic and myth of shamanism. For thousands of years, the native tribes have used the plant life of the Amazon to heal everything from an upset stomach to diabetes. With the native tribes going extinct at a rate of one per year, the shaman?s priceless information is in danger of being lost forever. Dr. Plotkin?s film journey is but a small slice of what he has been doing for over 15 years: Gaining the trust of native tribal shamans in order to study and learn what he can from them. His work is documented in his best-selling book ?Tales of a Shaman?s Apprentice.?

?The shamans are not only the crucial link between the tropical rain forest and our neighborhood pharmacy; I believe they are our greatest hope for finding cures to currently incurable diseases (cancer, aids, the common cold), as well as diseases that will undoubtedly appear in the future.?

- Dr. Plotkin, from his book
The healing powers of plants are not really new to Western medicine. One-fourth of all prescription drugs used today were originally derived from plants, but as yet only 5 percent of the world?s plant species have been extensively studied for medicinal use. It is estimated that 10 percent of the world?s plant species will be extinct by the year 2000, and with them, potentially useful healing properties. One out of every four plants on Earth can be found in the Amazon basin. This amounts to about 60 thousand species, many of which remain unseen and unstudied by Western scientists. In an area of the Amazon rain forest the size of one suburban front lawn, one could find up to 300 different species of trees. To let that all die seems an awful shame?

Disturbing statistics

The rainforests began to be depleted at a measurable rate in only the past few decades. The rate of destruction has increased over the years, and effects of this detrimental activity are being felt already at this time. It may only be worse in the future.

The number of fires blazing through the Amazon River Basin has increased by 28 percent during the past year, strongly suggesting that the rate of deforestation continues to rise. The Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund said the latest satellite data revealed that there were 24,546 fires burning in the Amazon Basin, which is often referred to as the ?lungs of the Earth? because the jungle filters much of the planet?s carbon dioxide.

An estimated 12% of Brazil?s Amazon rainforest has already been lost to development, farming, and logging. Both legal and illegal logging feedback operations, massive forest fires and clearances by farmers trying to claim land are contributing to the record rate of deforestation. In the past five years, the depletion has increased by more than a third, causing serious concern among environmentalists.

Closing points

?The earth is a global village, and the rain forests of the world harbor resources for maintaining the health of this global village and its inhabitants. As deforestation and the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands continue to threaten the harmony of the rainforest, it becomes the task of all earth?s citizens to help rain forest communities become self-sufficient and healthy. Education can provide solutions to problems such as pollution, disease, and malnutrition, thereby strengthening these communities. People who are not consumed with concern for survival are able to be concerned about the larger community.?

- motto of the apeca
Possible governmental actions to write your local Congressman about:

Establishing new options for financing forest conservation initiatives to protect forest ecosystems under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol for reducing the risk of climate change.
Considering higher fees for the use of national parks, which better reflect the costs of park management.
Requiring that companies post performance bonds that adequately reflect potential environmental and social costs.
Conduct baseline studies to gather information on the forest ecosystems of the region, so that possible environmental impacts can be monitored and measured against a ?scientific yardstick.?
Enact a moratorium on new mining and logging concessions until there is a clearly defined policy on environmentally responsible mining, and reclamation standards have been established.
Establish an ?early warning? monitoring system to minimize negative environmental and social impacts while increasing governmental capacity for effective oversight of forest extractive activities.
Develop a regional land-use plan in collaboration with local communities, local governments, ministry officials, non-governmental organizations and universities.
Demarcate indigenous territories, in consultation with indigenous peoples, and consider new collaborative arrangements between parks personnel and indigenous communities.
Publicly disclose and discuss government plans, such as environmental impact assessments or forest management plans.

Amazonian Deforestation 7.8 of 10 on the basis of 2428 Review.