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Science, Vol 307, Issue 5712, 1044-1045 , 18 February 2005
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[DOI: 10.1126/science.307.5712.1044]

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A Delicate Balance in Amazonia

In their letter "Deforestation in Amazonia"(21 May 2004, p. 1109), W. F. Laurance et al. cogently summarize the threats that roads and other infrastructure development projects pose to Amazonian forests. However, their implicit suggestion that the best way to prevent forest loss is by halting these projects ignores important political and social constraints faced by the region (1), as well as evidence that land-use patterns can change when viable alternatives to deforestation are presented (2). There is no doubt that roads and other infrastructure projects are conduits for agents of forest loss. However, they also provide important benefits, such as access to markets without which community-based timber management, the extraction of nontimber forest products, and other strategies for slowing deforestation advocated by the conservation community would not be economically viable.

Laurance et al. argue that the Brazilian government should "curtail" their expansion, and we agree that without their doing so, the region's forest will certainly be degraded. However, we also believe that progress on the issue of balancing Amazonian infrastructure needs and environmental conservation will not be made by advocating a sweeping rejection of further development, which is at best unrealistic and at worst counterproductive. Instead, the question must be rephrased as, "Given our goal of minimizing deforestation, what projects are necessary and will be most beneficial?"

Emilio M. Bruna
Tropical Conservation and Development Program,
The Center for Latin American Studies,
University of Florida,
Gainesville, FL 32611-5530, USA.
*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: brunae@wec.ufl.edu

Karen A. Kainer
Tropical Conservation and Development Program,
The Center for Latin American Studies,
University of Florida,
Gainesville, FL 32611-5530, USA

References

  1. M. Schmink, C. H. Wood, Contested Frontiers in Amazonia (Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 1992).
  2. D. Nepstad et al., Science 295, 629 (2002).

Response
Bruna and Kainer imply that Brazil's Amazonian road building could help to promote "community-based timber management, the extraction of nontimber forest products, and other strategies advocated for slowing deforestation." Our collective experience in Amazonia over the past quarter century suggests otherwise. Although their optimistic view may apply in a few, rather rare situations, it seems entirely foreign to the major hotbeds of deforestation.

For example, when completed, the Cuiabá-Santarém Highway (BR-163), one of the top priorities of the Brazilian federal government, is likely to create an 800-km-long swath of forest degradation across southern Amazonia. The highway will transport soybeans from Mato Grosso to the Amazon port of Santarém, almost entirely for the benefit of large corporations and landholders (1). The planned route is already swarming with land speculators, cut-and-run loggers, cattle ranchers, and soybean investors--hardly the cast of characters likely to promote a "community-based" utopia focused on maintaining forest for nontimber products. BR-163 typifies the ecological impacts that often accompany major new highways in the Amazonian frontier (2-4).

Moreover, we do not advocate a "sweeping rejection" of proposed transportation and infrastructure projects in Brazilian Amazonia. We do, however, believe that a limited subset of the proposed projects--particularly those that would create major corridors between densely populated areas and the remote Amazonian frontier--will be so damaging environmentally that their potential societal and economic benefits are clearly outweighed (1-5).

The notion that society has "needs" for new infrastructure, whereas it merely has concerns for the environment and its services, is a false dichotomy that implicitly will always lead to choices in favor of infrastructure. The implied conclusion that planned projects should never be rejected or delayed, but only "balanced" with environmental add-ons, would clearly imperil Amazonian forests (5). Current efforts to reduce rampant forest loss are likely to fail, we believe, unless the Brazilian government addresses one of the most fundamental causes of forest destruction: the dramatic proliferation of new transportation projects throughout the heart of the Amazon basin.

Philip M. Fearnside
Departmento de Ecologia,
Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia,
C.P. 478, Manaus,
AM 69011-970, Brazil
*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: pmfearn@inpa.gov.br

William F. Laurance
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute,
Apartado 2072,
Balboa, Panama

Ana K. M. Albernaz
Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi,
Avenida Perimetral 190,
Belém,
PA 66077-530, Brazil

Heraldo L. Vasconcelos
Instituto de Biologia,
Universidade Federal de Uberlândia, C.P. 593,
Uberlândia,
MG 38400-902, Brazil

Leandro V. Ferreira
Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi,
Avenida Perimetral 190,
Belém,
PA 66077-530, Brazil

References

  1. P. M. Fearnside, Environ. Conserv. 28, 23 (2001).
  2. W. F. Laurance et al., Science 291, 438 (2001).
  3. P. M. Fearnside, Environ. Manage. 30, 735 (2002).
  4. W. F. Laurance et al., J. Biogeogr. 29, 737 (2002).
  5. W. F. Laurance, P. M. Fearnside, Science 295, 1643 (2002).

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Volume 307, Number 5712, Issue of 18 Feb 2005, pp. 1044-1045.
Copyright © 2005 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved.