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Science, Vol 307, Issue 5712, 1046-1047 , 18 February 2005
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[DOI: 10.1126/science.307.5712.1046]

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Underlying Causes of Deforestation

In their letter "Deforestation In Amazonia" (21 May 2004, p. 1109), W. F. Laurance et al. present an outdated argument for some of the causes of deforestation in Amazonia. Although the expansion of highway infrastructure can explain part of the deforestation in the 1970s and 1980s, it does not explain deforestation in the 1990s, when this expansion basically came to an end, but the rates of deforestation remained high.

The current expansion in infrastructure is probably a consequence (rather than a cause) of the agricultural and agroindustrial expansions toward northern Brazil (1). Blaming the Brazilian government's plans to dramatically expand highways and other major infrastructure projects in the region hides the real causes behind the problem. The underlying forces behind deforestation in the region are complex and involve an interaction of cultural, demographic, economic, technological, political, and institutional issues (2-4).

The active and passive participation of the Brazilian government in deforestation occurs in many different ways: government investments and financing granted to the private sector for gross fixed capital formation, boosting production capacity over the long term; underwriting investments in areas that have been recently cleared for farming and ranching purposes; the lack of a firm policy for transferring unused government lands with lapsed titles to the private domain (along with complacency or even connivance in the takeover of vast tracts of these unused government lands with lapsed titles through claim jumping and counterfeit land titles); acceptance of large tracts of land lying fallow and property speculation; large-scale expropriations of land for agrarian reform; and the ineffectiveness of the Rural Land Tax (ITR) as a mechanism for regulating the land market.

For products involving high technology that have become competitive in international markets, such as soybeans, with significant expansion spurred by international demands, the easy availability of land makes Amazonia a natural setting for this expansion. For low-technology activities, such as open-range grazing, rising domestic beef demands are met largely through extending pasturelands rather than higher productivity, with severe direct consequences on deforestation. In brief, the underlying government policies (economic and environmental), as well as institutional (fragility), agritechnological and socio- economic factors (i.e., population, income, food demands) interact among themselves and function together, driving deforestation in Amazonia (5).

Roberto Schaeffer
Energy Planning Program,
COPPE,
Centro de Tecnologia,
Bloco C, Sala C-211,
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro,
Cidade Universitaria,
Ilha do Fundao,
Rio de Janeiro 21941-972, Brazil.

Ricardo Leonardo Vianna Rodrigues
Energy Planning Program,
COPPE,
Centro de Tecnologia,
Bloco C, Sala C-211,
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro,
Cidade Universitaria,
Ilha do Fundao,
Rio de Janeiro 21941-972, Brazil.

References

  1. S. Margullis, Causas do Desmatamento da Amazonia Brasileira (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2003).
  2. H. J. Geist, E. F. Lambim, BioScience 52, 143 (2002).
  3. A. Angelsen, D. Kaimowitz, World Bank Research Observer 14 (no. 1), 73 (1999).
  4. R. L. V. Rodrigues, Ph.D. dissertation, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2004).
  5. R. L. V. Rodrigues, R. Schaeffer, in preparation.

Response
Schaeffer and Rodrigues list a plethora of socioeconomic and societal factors that likely influence Amazonian deforestation, many of which we have previously assessed in detail (1-9). Nonetheless, despite the seeming complexity of deforestation drivers, it is dangerous to obscure the central role of new highway and infrastructure expansion in promoting rapid forest loss.

New deforestation drivers in Amazonia (such as soybeans) have not replaced the "old" drivers that were promoting deforestation 25 or more years ago. Rather, they have been added to the list of existing drivers. Evidence indicates that the relationship between road building or paving and burgeoning forest loss along highway routes is as strong today as it was decades ago (3, 5-7).

Moreover, Brazilian plans for infrastructure expansion in Amazonia are readily amenable to policy modification (5), whereas many of the endemic societal and institutional problems cited by Schaeffer and Rodrigues are less so. Despite weak frontier governance, the Brazilian federal government is pushing ahead with a dramatic expansion of Amazonian highways, roads, and other transportation projects. The net result, we believe, will be further acceleration of already rampant rates of forest loss and degradation.

In addition, Schaeffer and Rodrigues misunderstand the key role of highways and roads in promoting past deforestation, especially during the 1990s. Contrary to their claims, the 1990s did see significant expansion of highways and roads, such as paving of the 800-km-long Manaus-Boa Vista Highway (BR-174) that is promoting dramatic changes in central Amazonia, highway paving in Acre and Mato Grosso, and a proliferation of many secondary roads ramifying out from existing highways. Moreover, highway and road construction not only has an immediate impact on deforestation, as they imply, but also longer and more pervasive effects that persist for many years. Forest loss in the 1990s would certainly have been less severe were it not for the infrastructure created in preceding decades.

Finally, it is vital to emphasize that new highways and roads exacerbate many current development pressures. By continually opening up new frontiers for colonization, such projects promote land speculation, weakening incentives for more sustainable land uses, such as perennial crops and plantations (3, 5, 6). Abundant, cheap land means that destructive, fire-based agriculture, such as cattle ranching and slash-and-burn farming, will continue to thrive. In Brazilian Amazonia, an area the size of France has already been deforested, a large fraction of which is now degraded cattle pasture with minimal benefit for Brazilian society. A vital step in promoting more sustainable development is to intensify land-uses in these already degraded areas, rather than opening up immense new tracts of primary rainforest for exploitation.

William F. Laurance
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute,
Apartado 2072,
Balboa, Panama
To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: laurancew@tivoli.si.edu

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

Philip M. Fearnside
Departamento de Ecologia,
Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia,
C.P. 478, Manaus,
AM 69011-970, Brazil

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

Leandro V. Ferreira
Departamento de Ecologia,
Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia,
C.P. 478, Manaus,
AM 69011-970, Brazil

References

  1. P. M. Fearnside, in The Future of Amazonia: Destruction or Sustainable Development?, G. Goodman, A. Hall, Eds. (MacMillan, London, 1990), pp. 179-225.
  2. P. M. Fearnside, Ambio 8, 537 (1993).
  3. W. F. Laurance, Trends Ecol. Evol. 13, 411 (1998).
  4. L. V. Ferreira et al., Áreas Protegidas ou Espaços Ameaçados? (World Wide Fund for Nature, Brasília, Brazil, 1999).
  5. W. F. Laurance et al., Science 291, 438 (2001).
  6. P. M. Fearnside, Environ. Conserv. 28, 23 (2001).
  7. W. F. Laurance, A. K. M. Albernaz, C. Da Costa, Environ. Conserv. 28, 305 (2001).
  8. W. F. Laurance et al., J. Biogeogr. 29, 737 (2002).
  9. P. M. Fearnside, Environ. Manage. 30, 748 (2002).

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Volume 307, Number 5712, Issue of 18 Feb 2005, pp. 1046-1047.
Copyright © 2005 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved.
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