Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Who's burning the rainforest?

Many people believe tropical rainforests, in the Amazon and elsewhere, are being destroyed by poverty-stricken people with no other means of making a livelihood or providing for their families. The sad truth is that very seldom is rainforest cut or burned by those with a genuine need.

In Brazil, 200 people own 90% of the cattle ranches in the country. Those ranches, mostly located in areas where there used to be rainforest or on clear partches within the Amazon, provide over four million head of cattle each year. These ranch owners are the ones responsible for a large part of the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.

Logging is another major cause of deforestation, and here again the situation is one of the rich getting richer, not of the poor taking advantage of the vast resources of the Amazon basin. In addition, many of the trees destroyed for logging purposes are neither useful nor desired - they are simply in the way of the valuable hardwood trees, many of which are sold with falsified approval documents.

Photo: A truck loaded with logs
on the Trans-Amazonian Highway.
September 2009

Until recently, I was one of the many who believed that most of the deforestation of the Amazon was being done by people, indigenous or not, who had no other means of survival. This was something I had been taught somewhere along my education, and it was a fact which seemed to make sense - but the reality is very different.

When the Brazilian government begain construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the 1970's the road was intended to encourage settlement in the Amazon, particualrly by poor Brazilians who had nowhere else to go. The government soon realized that the settlement plan was not bringing the results intended. Instead, the "highway" - a narrow, barely two-lane dirt road which turns to a sloppy, muddy, dangerous mess in the rain - was allowing penetration of the Amazon by cattle ranchers and loggers, among others.

Some of the burning which happens in the Amazon is done on the lands of indigenous tribes or by poor settlers. Much more, however, is done by a very different group of people. They use the "burning season" to exploit more areas of primary forest to enhance a profit which, usually, is already extensive.

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