RAINFOREST DEFORESTATION, FIRES, CATTLE AND PLANTATIONS

RAINFOREST DEFORESTATION

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Amazon deforestation fishbone pattern
Millions of acres of rain forest disappear every year, destroying biodiversity and pouring billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to “State of the World’s Forests 2007,” 13 million hectares of rainforest, an area about the size of England, Greece or Nicaragua, is lost every year. This works out to an area the size of a football field being chopped down every four seconds and an area twice the size of Paris disappearing every day. The net loss is around 7.3 million hectares a year if reforestation and natural regrowth are factored in.

This is slightly better than before. It is estimated that the tropical rainforests were being cut down at an annual rate of 55,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Minnesota or Great Britain, through the 1990s and early 2000s. This was nearly twice the 1980 rate of 29,000 square miles. The 55,000 square mile figure is equal to about 35 million acres or 14 million hectares or about 1 percent of the world’s rainforests. There is about 1.2 billion hectares of tropical forest in the world.

Before human populations had much impact on them the world's tropical rainforest's covered an area of about 8.08 billion acres. In the late 1990s they covered less than 3.04 billion acres. The rate of deforestation has increased most dramatically in Brazil, India, Indonesia and Myanmar. Among the places that have already been largely deforested are Madagascar, the Philippines, coastal Brazil, West Africa and islands in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. There are some predictions that the remaining rainforests will largely be gone in 50 years.

Deforestation causes erosion, silting of rivers, landslides and floods. It strips water-absorbing and flood-controlling vegetation that prevents these disasters and problems. Logging, mining and roads have all played a part in the destruction of rainforests. But by most estimates over 75 percent of all tropical rainforest deforestation has been the result of ranching, and plantation and slash and burn agriculture.

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In the early 1980s, the U.S. National Academy of Science estimated that 50 million acres of rainforest being lost annually. The World Wildlife estimated about 25 million was lost during the same time and the United Nations agencies came up with a figure of 7.5 million. The estimates varied so widely because different criteria were used. The United Nations figure was based on the removal of all trees while the Academy of Sciences figured represented any change from virgin forest..∩

Websites and Resources: Rainforest Action Network ran.org ; Rainforest Foundation rainforestfoundation.org ; World Rainforest Movement wrm.org.uy ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Forest Peoples Programme forestpeoples.org ; Rainforest Alliance rainforest-alliance.org ; Rainforest Portal rainforestportal.org ; Prince’s Rainforest Project rainforestsos.org/about-rainforests ; Nature Conservancy nature.org/rainforests ; National Geographic environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/rainforest-profile ; Rainforest Books:

Book: The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); Portraits of the Rainforest By Adrian Forsythe.

Websites and Resources on Rainforest Animals: Rainforest Animals rainforestanimals.net ; Rainforest Animal Photos mongabay.com ; Rainforest Plant Photos rain-tree.com/plantimages ; Rainforest Animal Photos leslietaylor.net/gallery/animals ; Rainforest Plants wheatonma.edu/rainforest ; Enchanted Learning enchantedlearning.com/subjects/rainforest ; Amazon Plants junglephotos.com

History of Deforestation

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Bolivia satellite image in 1986_
The Economist reported: “For at least 10,000 years, since the ice last retreated and forests took back the earth, people have destroyed them. In medieval Europe an exploding population and hard-working monks put paid to perhaps half its temperate oak and beech woods---mostly, as is usually the case, to clear space for crops. Some 100m hectares of America’s forests went in the 19th century, in an arboreal slaughter similarly reinforced by a belief in the godliness of thus “improving” the land. That spirit survives. It is no coincidence that George Bush junior, one of America’s more god-fearing presidents, relaxed by clearing brush.[Source: The Economist, September 23 2011]

In most rich countries the pressure on forests has eased; but in many tropical ones---home to around half the remaining forest, including the planet’s green rainforest girdle---the demand for land is increasing as populations rise. In Congo, which has more rainforest than any country except Brazil, the clearance is mostly driven by smallholders, whose number is about to double. Rising global demand for food and biofuels adds even more to the heat. So will climate change. That may already be happening in Canada, where recent warm winters have unleashed a plague of bark beetles, and in Australia, whose forests have been devastated by drought and forest fires.

Clearing forests may enrich those who are doing it, but over the long run it impoverishes the planet as a whole. Rainforests are an important prop to continental water-cycles. Losing the Amazon rainforest could reduce rainfall across the Americas, with potentially dire consequences for farmers as far away as Texas. By regulating run-off, trees help guarantee water-supplies and prevent natural disasters, like landslides and floods. Losing the rainforest would mean losing millions of species; forests contain 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity. And for those concerned about the probable effects of climate change, forests contain twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, in plant-matter and the soils they cover, and when they are razed and their soils disturbed most is emitted. If the Amazon went up in smoke---a scenario which a bit more clearance and a bit more warming makes conceivable---it would spew out more than a decade’s worth of fossil-fuel emissions.

Measuring Deforestation

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Bolivian deforestation by 2001
The Brazilian space agency has two systems for measuring deforestation. Prodes, a yearly satellite analysis, measures deforested areas as small as about 15 acres, while Deter, a lower-resolution system, maps areas greater than about 60 acres in real-time, giving law enforcement information to act quickly to stop further destruction.

In recent years Brazilian scientists have issued reports that rely heavily on progressive deforestation, a relatively new measure that is is widely accepted by environmentalists but that some in company and industry contends is tantamount to lying. The space agency argues that this slower-paced deforestation, where parts of the forest are thinned out little by little rather than at once, can be just as devastating.

The dispute over the space agency’s figures has centered on the information provided by Deter. In the past, Gilberto Câmara, a Brazilian space agency scientists, told the New York Times the agency included mostly large swaths of cleared land in its analysis. But environmental researchers have been clamoring for years for satellite researchers to expand monitoring to include areas thinned by logging and surface fires, rather than just areas that have been clear cut. [Source: Alexei Barrionuevo, New York Times, May 25, 2008]

Câmara said agency uses the term progressive deforestation to refer to the slower form of forest degradation that has become increasingly common in the Amazon in recent years and which Dr. Câmara said the agency began including in its analysis in 2005. The latest deforestation alerts have shown that about one-third of newly deforested areas were from progressive degradation, of which more than 75 percent were “severely degraded,” he said.

“We had to ask ourselves what happened between forest and clear-cut,” said Dr. Câmara, 52, who has been with the agency for 26 years. “With a view that if you are going to do prevention and enforcement, you need to be there as rapidly as possible.” In other words, if farmers, loggers and others are clearing illegally, but slowly, the government, by identifying thinned-out areas, has a better chance to catch them before a large area has been affected.

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“We are satisfied with the technology we have,” Dr. Câmara said. “It is the largest use of remote sensing data for environmental protection worldwide on a systematic basis of any country.” The environmental agency in Mato Grosso, where much of Brazil’s deforestation occures, worked to gather evidence to prove the space agency had overreached. Technicians compared satellite images dating from 2000, went to disputed locations and shot photos of what was there today. Mr. Daldegan said the pictures proved that the space agency was declaring land that had been deforested as far back as 2000 as newly cleared.

Mato Grosso’s agency provided Dr. Câmara with a detailed report that included 854 photos of areas in Mato Grosso that the space agency had included in its tally. The state report contended that only 10 percent of the areas had recently been deforested. Dr. Câmara put 10 of the 50 specialists that had produced the deforestation analysis onto the task of analyzing Mato Grosso’s photos and data. They worked intensely for six weeks, he said, sometimes time-stamping their analysis of the photos after midnight.

“There was clearly a sense of urgency,” Dr. Câmara said. In the end, the space agency said that 96 percent of its initial assessments had been correct. “INPE is very proud, and the internal pressures were almost stronger than the external pressures to show that science would win out,” Dr. Câmara said. He did, however, agree to try using higher-resolution satellites in the future to improve the reliability of his agency’s analysis.

Decreasing Rates of Deforestation

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Brazil sugarcane regions
Michael Lemonick wrote in National Geographic, “The news from the planet's forests has been surprisingly good lately, at least compared with the news of a decade or two ago. Globally, according to a United Nations report that came out last year, the rate at which forests are destroyed---logged or cleared to make way for farms or mines---was nearly 20 percent lower from 2000 to 2010 than it had been in the previous decade.

Huge tree-planting programs, especially in China, reduced the net loss of forest even further. But vast areas are still being slashed, mostly in the tropics, including each year a Switzerland-size area of previously undisturbed, ecologically precious "primary" forest. Most of those trees are burned, and the carbon stored in their wood literally goes up in smoke. Rough estimates indicate deforestation still contributes around four billion tons of planet-warming CO2 to the atmosphere each year, an eighth of the human total.

The Economist reported: “Brazil’s deforestation rate has dropped astoundingly fast. In 2004 some 2.8m hectares (10,700 square miles) of the Amazon were razed; last year only around 750,000 hectares were. This progress is not isolated. Many of the world’s biggest clearers of trees have started to hug them. Over the past decade, the UN records, nearly 8m hectares of forest a year were allowed to re-grow or were planted anew. This was mostly in richer places, such as North America and in Europe, where dwindling rural populations have taken the pressure off forestland. But a couple of big poorer countries, notably China, have launched huge tree-planting schemes in a bid to prevent deforestation-related environmental disasters. Even in tropical countries, where most deforestation takes place, Brazil is not alone in becoming more reluctant to chop down trees. [Source: The Economist, September 23, 2011]

The global recession was good for the rainforest in that it lowered demand for agricultural goods and things produced on deforested land like rubber and palm oil.

Deforestation and Plant and Animal Life

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Deforested areas are not barren. The contain scrubby growth and trees that are too small to sustain a true rainforest ecosystem. It takes 500 to 1000 years for a cleared forest to return to the level of biodiversity that existed before the clearing. Selectively cleared land returns much faster. If the soil is good an "artificial forest" returns after about 30 years. If the soil isn't very good: grass and shrubs take over.«

A reduction of a tropical rainforest to one tenth its original size means an eventual loss of about half its species. In other words, if a forest of 10,000 square miles with 100 resident bird species is cut back to 1,000 square miles, it will eventually lose about 50 of the bird species. At the current worldwide rate of deforestation at least a half a percent of the world's species are lost every year. That means if the rainforest holds 10 million species, possibly 50,000 species are dying off every year, and they are vanishing 100 times faster, maybe 10,000 times faster, than new species are being created. If these numbers are accurate half the world’s species will be gone by the end of the century.

The estimates above have been arrived at by studying "islands" of trees of different sizes surrounded by cleared land. One reason why the declines have been so dramatic is that often a particular plant will rely on one species of insect or animal, say a bat for pollination,. The bat may in turn fed on a particular nectar from a fruit found elsewhere. If the bat’s food source, found in a different part of the forest, is destroyed, it might mean that the bird has to go elsewhere leaving the plant with no way to pollinate itself and thus dying.

When a rainforest is cleared generally the monkeys, large mammals and birds are the first species to go. A chimpanzee war in Gabon was blamed on a forest disturbed by logging. Some species adapt better than other to the disturbed rainforest conditions. Flycatchers spend more time foraging below the canopy than they usually would and normally arboreal animals like the tree opossum move to ground level and started eating more insects. Some animals like lorises actually do better in secondary forests than they do in virgin ones.

Deforestation and Chimpanzee Warfare

In the 1990s scientists in Gabon noted that the population of chimpanzees had been reduced by 80 percent in areas logged in Lope National Park and the surviving animals demonstrated unusual aggressive and agitated behavior.

Logging in Gabon rain's forest reportedly touched off a chimpanzee war that may have claimed the lives of as many 20,000 chimpanzees. Even though only about 10 percent of the trees had been selectively logged in the areas where the war occurred, the lost trees seem to have set of violent territorial battles.

Biologists say the chimps near the logging areas were disturbed by the presence of humans and the noise generated by the logging machines and moved out of the area, fighting with and displacing other chimp communities, which in turn attacked their neighbor who then in turn attack their neighbors setting off a chain reaction of aggression and violence.

Disturbed Rainforest and Gap Specialists

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damage caused by forest elephants
Forests are disturbed by things like falling branches, broken off by wind or the weight of waterlogged epiphytes; heavy or diseased trees falling in shallow wet soil; burning after lightning storms; and clearing by loggers, ranchers or farmers.

In disturbed forest the remaining trees are often blown down and understory plants grow rapidly with exposure to sunlight. Tough, weedy pioneer plants invade and the "supertramp" insect populations skyrocket. An "edge effect" significantly alters the forest for at least 300 feet from the disturbed area, increasing the number of plants, animals and insects but reducing the number of species. An area in the deep rainforest might have 1,000 kinds of beetles while an area of similar size in the disturbed area might have only 300.

Some kinds of plant, called gap specialists, thrive in gaps created by physical disturbances. "When the canopy is broken up, sunlight falls more abundantly on the ground, and a new burst of vegetation springs up," Wilson wrote. "The species of trees and smaller plants in this assemblage are mostly different from those in the surrounding mature forest. So are many of the insects and animals that live on these gap specialists." ▸

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Madagascar erosion
Gap specialist grow thick and dominate deforested areas, river banks and clearings. They grow quickly, creating the so called impenetrable jungle. Eventually they die out when slower growing canopy trees mature, robbing the gap trees of sunlight. A mature forest at ground level is dark and has few obstacles. It is possible to walk in all directions without problems. It is only in the dense gap-filled forests that you need a machete.▸

Some scientist believe the disturbed areas may in fact be vital areas for the evolution of new rainforest species, stronger and tougher and adapted to new environments.

Deforestation, Global Warming and Climate

Trees absorb sunlight, warming the earth but their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and generate clouds has a net cooling effect. Many environmentalists consider protecting the world’s rainforest to be a more efficient way to reduce carbon emissions than replacing coal-fired power plants. United States President Barrack Obama said in the fall of 2009, “It is probably the most cost-effective way for us to address the issue of climate change, having...mechanisms in place to avoid further deforestation.”

By some estimates deforestation and destruction of the world’s rainforests is responsible for around 17 to 20 percent of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions---about the same as China’s or the U.S.’s emissions, and more than the emissions generated by all of the world’s cars and trucks.. [Source: Reuters]

The annual deforestation rate of 7 million to 8 million hectares a year annually between 1990 and 2005 produced 5.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or 17 to 20 percent of all global emissions, more than all the cars, boats and planes in the world. Calculated another way, slash-and-burn agriculture, the primary cause of rainforest deforestation, accounts for 15 percent of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions. Indonesia and Brazil are the world’s third and forth largest carbon dioxide producers chiefly because of their high rates of deforestation.

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Fires in Sumatra
Deforestation and the burning of the tropical rainforest contributes to global warming mainly by using up oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide during the burning process. Instead of improving the air we breath by adding oxygen it is now believed that the forest itself is neutral. The amount of oxygen trees give off during photosynthesis is roughly equal to the amount used up through the decay of organic material. The main source of carbon dioxide the greenhouse affect in the world today is the burning of the fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

The effect of deforestation on rain fall may be more alarming. It is estimated, for example, that half of the water that falls on Amazonia is generated by the forests in Amazonia. The forests gives off water as respiration. If there are no forests the water either seeps into the ground or runs of into river. The decreased surface area of the water means that less is available for evaporation.

In areas that have been cleared the humidity drops and hot winds start to rustle leaves that have never felt a breeze before. Clouds sometimes stop forming over barren tracts of land and rain patterns shift. Some deforested areas have already noted drops in rain fall, and, some believe, the process could feed on itself. Deforested and dried up wetlands release methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere ∩

Effects of Global Warming on the Rainforest

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In rainforests global warming could actually cause a cooling trend in the day as more clouds might be generated by a warming affect. More clouds could cause higher temperatures at night as clouds keep warm air from escaping into space. This in turn could cause more rain. In deforested areas however global warming could cause not only hotter temperature but also less precipitation as there are less trees to give off water by transpiration.

Global warming is already believed to be affecting the world’s rainforests. Studies have shown that even pristine areas untouched by deforestation, logging and other human intrusions are showing changes. One study published in Nature found that tree growth patterns during the past 20 years have been dramatically different growth patterns in previous 20-year period, with large trees in the Amazon rainforests growing more quickly and smaller trees growing more slowly. Scientist theorize that extra carbon dioxide is “fertilizing” the trees, accelerating their growth and blocking out the sun for smaller trees and other plants.

Global warming could set off a chain reaction with deforestation resulting in more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the increased heating causing the rainforest to dry and shrink resulting in even more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Deforestation, Flooding and Run Of Water

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tea plantation in Uganda
The trees and plants in a rainforest hold water like a sponge and gently distribute it the springs and streams. Without trees the water flows off the land n a great rush, eroding soil and quickly filling streams, causing floods and flood and drought conditions.

Rainforests also hold water from the wet season and slowly release it in the dry season. One study found that rivers flowing through primary forests release double the amount of water halfway through the dry season, and between three to five times more at the end of the dry season that those flowing through areas were forest have been replaced by coffee plantations.

Deforestation reduces the quality of the water that runs of the land surface and increases the amount of soil washed away. Water is cleansed when it percolates through soil with tree roots and soil that is anchored in place. It becomes dirty when the there are no roots and the soil washes away easily. One sign of a good healthy rainforest is clear river water. The slightest disturbance can set off erosion, causing the water to become muddy and brown.

A study released in 2005 by the United Nations and the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research concluded that major flood was the result of major climatic patterns rather than deforestation and human elated activities such as logging and slash and burn agriculture. The study found that flooding was not significantly different in areas covered in rich forest and those that had been deforested and the floods were caused by prolonged periods of rain.

The conventional wisdom had been that forests prevented floods by acting as giant sponges, and soaking up water from heavy rains. According to the report, flooding “is a natural process that would have happened no matter what, Whether you had deforested, farmed, or logged, the amounts of water involved and the severity of these floods is just overwhelming.” Other studies have found that flooding in valleys increases after deforestation.

Erosion, Deforestation and Soil

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Haiti deforestation and erosion
The top soil in deforested areas is often washed way in the torrential rain storms, leaving behind laterite, a soil with a high-clay content that becomes rock-hard when it is baked by the sun, making it hard to plants t grow, and swell when it rains, blocking drainage into the ground and increasing run off.

During the dry season the trees continue to absorb water from the ground, causing the soil to dry up and crack. During the wet season, with no trees to absorb, flat areas flood and drown plant roots.

Erosion is a serious problem in deforested areas. Tree roots help aerate the soils, which means that rainfall can percolate through it, and holds the soil in place. The tree canopy and leaf litter help protect the soil form the impact fo heavy rain. With the roots and protective leaf litter the soil is easily washed away.

Erosion increases the chances of destructive mudslides and landslides by depriving slopes of trees that hold the soil in places, prevented it being releases like an avalanche in a heavy rains. Erosion also causes siltation of dams and reservoirs and clouds up rovers and streams. .

Burning the Rainforest

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Amazon burning
The burning of the rainforest has been compared with the burning of the ancient library in Alexandria. A veteran botanist once said: "The rainforest is the very core of the biology of this planet." Some rainforest fires are triggered accidently by careless fires or ignited by lightning but many are set off intentionally.

Most of the fires are set by farmers clearing the land for crops or ranchers burning off grasses to bring up tender shoots for their animals to feed on. At the end of the dry season, especially after a prolonged drought, these fires can spread to the forest and burn out of control.

Many severe fires get started as brush fires and build up enough heat to set the trees on fire, beginning with the small trees. If the brush is burned off there is not enough material to get the fire going and the big trees are large and tough enough to withstand catching on fire from limited fires. In the United States, fires have been stopped with patches of forest that have been selectively logged and had their brush burned off.

A study by Oregon University found that after a fire new seedlings are more likely to take root and the forest recover if trees are left standing and timber is not cleared away. The study found that seedlings grow even in severely burned areas but often die when trees are cut down and hauled away. In addition, material left from cutting down trees is more likely to fuel future fires than trees left untouched after a fire.

Cattle Ranching, Plantation Agriculture and Logging

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logging
Especially in the Americas large swaths of rainforest have been cut down to make way for cattle ranches. In Brazil in the 1980s they were cut down for cattle ranches that weren't even profitable. The ranchers cleared the forests for tax credits and low interest loans backed up by the World Bank. Reacting to criticism the Brazilian government and the World Bank has ended most of these credits and loans. Afterwards many of the cattle ranches failed and the pastures were reclaimed by secondary growth.

For a while most tropically grown beef ended in fast food hamburgers, microwave meals or in cat and dog food. McDonald’s was singled out as a major villain.

Large tracts of rainforest have been cleared for cash crops such as tea, coffee, tobacco, sugar, rubber, cotton and palm oil. Governments have often provided funding for large projects operated by large multinational corporations. There are also large tree plantations for paper and wood with mahogany, teak and fast-growing trees such as pine and eucalyptus.

Now the rain forest is being felled by “industrial forestry, agriculture, the oil and gas industry---and it’s globalized, where every stick of timber is being cut in Congo is sent to China and one bulldozer does a lot more damage than 1,000 farmers with machetes,” Bill Laurance, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian, who has worked extensively in the Amazon, told the New York Times.

Logging, See Timber, Separate Article

Amazon Deforestation

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cattle pastures
Experts estimate that roughly 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been destroyed, with much of it turned into ranchland or farms. The summer dry-season is when the Amazon rainforest gets cut and burned. The smoke this causes can often be seen from space.

Paulo Adario, the Amazon campaign director for Greenpeace in Brazil, told the New York Times, Brazil’s economic choices have driven much of the deforestation in the Amazon, he said. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the military government encouraged landless families to settle in the region. Road-building, land speculators and ranchers followed, and the forests fell at a quickening pace.

Brazil’s economy is centered on the export of agricultural products, like soybeans and beef, and commodities like iron ore. “The Brazilian model is to be the food supplier to the world and a big supplier of ethanol,” Mr. Adario said. “The economy will continue to move in the same basic direction. There is no magic in Brazil.”

The Amazon rain forest was deforested more than twice in 2008 as it was in 2007, Brazilian officials and AP reported, acknowledging a sharp reversal after three years of declines in the deforestation rate. Environment Minister Carlos Minc said coming elections were partly to blame, with mayors in the region turning a blind eye to illegal logging in hopes of gaining votes. Environmentalists blame the global spike in food prices for encouraging soy farmers and cattle ranchers to clear land for crops and grazing. Deforestation increased 228 percent in August compared with the same month a year ago, according to the National Institute for Space Research, which uses satellite images to track logging. [Source: Associated Press, New York Times, September 30, 2008]

Cattle Ranching, Agriculture and Amazon Deforestation

Greenpeace contends that the cattle industry in the Amazon is the biggest driver of global deforestation. Mato Grosso is the the Brazilian state with the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon and the country’s largest cattle herd. [Source: Alexei Barrionuevo, New York Times, October 6, 2009]

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In June 2009 Greenpeace released a report called “slaughtering the Amazon,” which detailed the link between forest destruction and the expansion of cattle ranching in the Amazon. The report led some multinational companies, including shoe manufacturers like Adidas, Nike and Timberland, to pledge to cancel contracts unless they received guarantees that their products were not associated with cattle or slave labor in the Amazon. Beef customers like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart also pressed producers to change their practices in the Amazon, Mr. Furtado said.

Alexei Barrionuevo wrote in the New York Times, “Here in Mato Grasso, 700 square miles of rain forest was stripped in the last five months of 2007 alone, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which tracks vanishing forests. “With so much money to be made, there are no laws that will keep forest standing,”John Carter, a rancher who settled here 15 years ago, told the New York Times as he flew his Cessna over the denuded land one day this summer.

Until very recently, developing the Amazon was the priority, and some settlers feel betrayed by the new stigma surrounding deforestation. Much as in the 19th-century American West, the Brazilian government encouraged settlement through homesteaders’ benefits like cheap land and housing subsidies, many of which still exist today.

“It was revolting and sad when the world said that deforestation was bad---we were told to come here and that we had to tear it down,” said Mato Grosso’s secretary of agriculture, Neldo Egon Weirich, 56, who moved here in 1978 and noted that to be eligible for loans to buy tractors and seed, a farmer had to clear 80 percent of his land. He is proud to have turned Mato Grosso from a malarial zone into an agricultural powerhouse. “Mato Grosso is under a microscope---we know we have to do something,” Mr. Weirich said. “But we can’t just stop production.”

Even today, settlers around the globe are buying or claiming cheap “useless” forest and transforming it into farmland. Clearing away the trees is often the best way to declare and ensure ownership. Land that Mr. Carter has intentionally left forested for its environmental benefit has been intermittently overtaken by squatters---a common problem here. In parts of Southeast Asia, early experiments in paying landowners for preserving forest have been hampered because it is often unclear who owns, or controls, property.

Disaster in the Amazon

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Natural deforestation
from Hurricane Mitch-
Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times, “For many years, indigenous people from a formerly pristine region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador have been trying to get relief from an American company, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron), for what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever...Texaco operated more than 300 oil wells for the better part of three decades in a vast swath of Ecuador’s northern Amazon region, just south of the border with Colombia. Much of that area has been horribly polluted. The lives and culture of the local inhabitants, who fished in the intricate waterways and cultivated the land as their ancestors had done for generations, have been upended in ways that have led to widespread misery. [Source: Bob Herbert, New York Times, June 4, 2010]

Texaco came barreling into this delicate ancient landscape in the early 1960s with all the subtlety and grace of an invading army. And when it left in 1992, it left behind, according to the lawsuit, widespread toxic contamination that devastated the livelihoods and traditions of the local people, and took a severe toll on their physical well-being.

In a lawsuit filed by the indigenous people of the region against Chevron the plaintiffs said: the oil company deliberately dumped many billions of gallons of waste byproduct from oil drilling directly into the rivers and streams of the rainforest covering an area the size of Rhode Island. It gouged more than 900 unlined waste pits out of the jungle floor---pits which to this day leach toxic waste into soils and groundwater. It burned hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas and waste oil into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and creating “black rain” which inundated the area during tropical thunderstorms.”

The quest for oil is, by its nature, colossally destructive. And the giant oil companies, when left to their own devices, will treat even the most magnificent of nature’s wonders like a sewer. But the riches to be made are so vastly corrupting that governments refuse to impose the kinds of rigid oversight and safeguards that would mitigate the damage to the environment and its human and animal inhabitants.

Ranchers and Drug Barons Threaten Rain Forest in Guatemala

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burning in Lacanja Mexico.
Reporting from El Mirador, Guatemala, Blake Schmidt wrote in the New York Times, Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest, once the cradle of one of the world’s great civilizations, are being razed to clear land for cattle-ranching drug barons.Other parts of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Central America’s largest protected area, have been burned down by small cities of squatters. Looters and poachers, kept at bay when guerrilla armies roamed the region during the country’s 36-year civil war, ply their trades freely. [Source: Blake Schmidt, New York Times, July 17, 2010]

“There’s traffickers, cattle ranchers, loggers, poachers and looters,” Richard D. Hansen, an American archaeologist, told the New York Times. “All the bad guys are lined up to destroy the reserve. You can’t imagine the devastation that is happening.” Hansen is leading the excavation of the earliest and largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, in the northern tip of the reserve.

President Álvaro Colom has grand plans to turn the region into a major eco-tourism destination, but if he hopes to bring tourists, officials say, he will have to bring the law here first. The reserve, about the size of New Jersey, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the Petén region, a vast, jungly no man’s land that juts north into Mexico and borders Belize to the east. Spanning a fifth of Guatemala and including four national parks, the reserve houses diverse ecosystems with niches for jaguars, spider monkeys and scarlet macaws. Pre-Colombian inhabitants mined limestone quarries here 2,600 years ago to build the earliest Mayan temples. The temples would tower above the jungle canopy before the cities were abandoned as Mayan civilization mysteriously collapsed around the ninth century A.D.

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The threats to the reserve are many and interlocking, legal and illegal. Claudia Mariela López, the Petén director for the national parks agency, said about 37,000 acres of the reserve was deforested annually by poachers, squatters and ranchers. The squatters are mainly peasants who have come in search of farmland. But the population of Petén has grown to more than 500,000 from 25,000 in the 1970s, according to a UNESCO report. Not all of the residents are illegal, and many seek no more than subsistence.

Willingly or not, they often become pawns of the drug lords. The squatters are numerous, frequently armed and difficult to evict. In some cases, they function as an advance guard for the drug dealers, preventing the authorities from entering, warning of intrusions and clearing land that the drug gangs ultimately take over.

A recent State Department report said that “entire regions of Guatemala are now essentially under the control” of drug trafficking organizations, mainly the Mexico-based Zetas. Those groups enjoy a “prevailing environment of impunity” in “the northern and eastern rural areas” of Guatemala, the report said. The drug organizations have bought vast cattle ranches in the Petén to launder drug profits, as well as to conceal a trafficking hub, including remote, jungle-shrouded landing strips. Cattle ranching in the Petén has quadrupled since 1995, with herds totaling 2.5 million cattle, according to Rudel Álvarez, the region’s governor. “Organized crime and drug traffickers have usurped large swaths of protected land amid a vacuum left by the state, and are creating de facto ranching areas,” Mr. Álvarez said. “We must get rid of them to really have conservation.”

Fires, tree poaching and ranchers are encroaching in parts of the Laguna del Tigre national park in the western part of the reserve, threatening a sanctuary for 250 endangered scarlet macaws, the country’s last, said Roan McNab, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Jaguars, crocodiles, river turtles and monkeys are also losing their habitat, he said.

The government remains hopelessly outgunned. The entire Petén, nearly 14,000 square miles, is patrolled by 600 soldiers, police officers and park guards, Mr. Álvarez said. Isolated and underpaid, the security officials are also susceptible to corruption. Governor Álvarez himself is under investigation for money-laundering, charges he says are false and intended to intimidate him for supporting Mr. Colom’s crackdown on squatters and traffickers.

The park guards at El Mirador are expected to monitor up to 12,000 acres of jungle each. “We have nothing,” said one guard, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to antagonize drug lords. “How are we supposed to stop drug gangs trying to run this place?”

To Mr. Hansen, an Idaho State professor of archaeology, the risks of not protecting the region are obvious in every stone he unearths. The Maya, he said, largely sealed their fate through deforestation and erosion.”The Maya destroyed their environment,” he said. “They cut down their jungle” and it ruined them forever. “And we’re doing the same thing today.”

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gold mine

Deforestation, Economics and Corruption

Rising food prices have been bad news for rainforests as farmers have more incentive than ever to chop down forests and plant cash crops. By some estimates already 4.5 million acres in conservation areas is being farmed.

The economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 was a blessing for rainforests. In Brazil, where cattle grazing is a leading cause of Amazon deforestation, falling beef prices and shortages of farm credit caused rates of deforestation to fall 70 percent.

According to the World Resources Institute perhaps the greatest threat to the rainforest is corruption and politics. The group’s president, Jonathan Lash, told the Independent, “Much of the threats facing the remaining intact forests boil down to bad economics, bad management and corruption. Much of the corruption occurs on the local level.

Image Source: Mongabay mongabay.com ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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