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Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

After Russia, Canada, China and the United States, Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world. It is the biggest country in South America and takes up almost half of the continents area. Its northern part is called Amazonia, after the Amazon river, which runs through it. This region covers 40% of Brazils surface and extends into many of the surrounding countries. It is mostly covered with dense tropical rain forests and contains an enormous variety of plants and animals. Although rain forests constitute only 7% of the earths land surface, they contain 50% of its living species!

Revkin, 34) Unfortunately, these forests are now being cut down for profit. Some say this is not a major problem and that deforestation provides a source of revenue for people who need it. In reality, deforestation has few advantages all of which are in the short term, it has terrible consequences and its long term effects are devastating, this is why it should be stopped. Since its discovery, 30% of Brazils rain forests have disappeared, and the country is still losing more rain forest each year than any other on the planet.

Brazilian forests are burned or felled at the rate of 1800 hectares (about 4500 acres) every hour! (Dwyer 39) Deforestation started hundreds of years ago, but only became a major problem in the second half of this century, when it increased dramatically. It was enhanced by the Brazilian government which started cutting down the forest to construct a vast network of highways in an effort to establish a good transportation system and improve Brazils economy. The government wanted to encourage the countrys development by transporting poor families from overpopulated areas of the country to Amazonia.

Many poor people saw emigration into the Amazon as an opportunity to attain a higher standard of living. This finally offered them a chance to own their own land, and take advantage of jobs offered by multinational corporations, petroleum corporations and logging companies. An example of this happened in the late 60s, when a 2160 kilometer road was constructed to join the capital Brasilia with the Amazonian port of Belem. Just a decade after the road was completed, the population in that area had risen from practically nothing to hundreds of thousands! (Anderson 63)

The main reasons for deforestation are clearing of the forest for agriculture or building of ranches to raise cattle, commercial logging and timber production, exportation and trade of wood, and local demand for fuel wood. An other cause is the building of massive hydro-electric dams which drain rivers and devastate extremely large portions of forest. These dams are often build by international companies to produce energy which is used in the production of materials such as aluminum. (Ransom) One source of deforestation is what is know as the devastation farming technique.

Small farmers cut down the forest in order to create space to plant crops or raise cattle. First they cut down any undergrowth and small trees, thenleave them to dry in the sun and set them on fire. Then they use the space created to plant different kinds of crops such as corn, dry-land rice, brown beans, and manioc. At first, these plantations flourish under the hot sun and heavy rains, but this doesnt last long. The soil of the Amazon is actually one of the most sterile on earth. It is no good for farming. So after a year or two the crops become weaker and weaker, until at about year four they are barely worth the effort.

The earth hardens and is washed away by rain, it becomes impossible to cultivate. So the farmers have to move to an other parcel of forest and so on… (Larson) Under normal conditions, very few demands are made of the soil. Its protected from the sun by trees, and from rain by a thick carpet of leaves, branches and trunks. The litter is quickly decomposed into inorganic nutrients, which are soon absorbed by the roots of plants. This is very efficient, there is virtually no soil erosion or loss of nutrients. But when the forest is cut, the whole ecosystem collapses.

There is no leaf carpet to cover the ground, so rain leaches easily through the porous soil, carrying soluble nutrients deep beyond the reach of plant roots. Under these conditions, 1 hectare of forest loses 1 kilogram of soil a year to erosion. When the forest is removed, the same area loses 34 tones of soil a year! Such exposed soil may be easily laterized, or turned to stone. (Larson) Small farmers are not the only source of deforestation, if fact, most of it is done by large companies who eliminate the forest to clear area for cattle ranches, or cut the trees for timber.

Here again, the Brazilian government wanted to promote the industrial and agricultural development of the region. So it encouraged these companies to move to Amazonia by offering them tax breaks if they made industrial investments in the region. Many logging, farming and cattle companies seized the opportunity and came to the Amazon. And although today the government has stopped encouraging these companies, they are still a major cause of deforestation. (TED case studies) Because of such government encouragement, deforestation in the region peaked in the late 70s and early 80s.

Then, after much publicity and efforts it started to decrease and reached a low point in the early 90s. But now it is on the raise again, it increased by 34% between 1992 and 1995, and an area of forest the size of Denmark has been destroyed during this period. (Schemo) This constant destruction of the forest has many terrible consequences, some of which are irreversible. After an area of the forest has been cut down, it is practically impossible to restore. Even if it is allowed to regrow, the new forest will lack the diversity of the original one. It can take hundreds of years for it to regain its original state!

Sterv) Thousands of animal and plant species disappear each year because of deforestation, many of which havent even been discovered yet! If they were to be discovered and studied, those species might reveal to be very useful, they might have medicinal value or other qualities. (Reveret) But because of deforestation, well never even know they existed. The cutting of the forest also harms native people whose territory is being invaded and destroyed. (Revkin 47) An other consequence is what is called the greenhouse effect, progressive warming of the planet.

This effect is caused by gases produced by human activities that accumulate in the earths atmosphere. They then trap the suns heat, which gradually heats up the earth. Carbon dioxide is one such gas, and because of deforestation fires, large amounts of it are being released into the air. (Larson) This contributes to global warming, which is a major problem for the future of our planet. Deforestation can also lead to a decrease in rainfall. In the presence of the forest, the rain water is absorbed by vegetation and soon evaporates back into the air creating clouds and rain.

Without trees, the water sinks deep into the land and flows down into underground rivers which lead it to the sea. The consequences of this have already been observed, for example, the flow of the Sao Francisco river has shrunk from 2800 cubic meters a second in 1850 to only 200 cubic meters a second in 1980. (Anderson) Some, like the Brazilan government, argue that cutting the forest and converting it into pastures and fields provides a needed source of revenue for Brazil. But in fact, there are ways to earn even higher revenues without destroying the forest.

One of them is sustainable harvesting of natural forest products. Rain forest trees produce fruits, spices, dyes, raisins, edible oils, medicines, and fibers. They also produce a wide assortment of industrial compounds such as latex and rubber. But only a few of those products are traded on the international market. If those products were introduced to international markets, they could yield revenues even higher than those from deforestation. (Larson) An other alternative would be to plant alley crops between hedgerows of trees instead of cutting them down.

This would allow continuous farming of the land with much higher annual yields. (Dwyer 73) The forests are definitely worth more while they still exist then when they are cut down. In conclusion, deforestation really is a major problem, but it is not something that is impossible to stop. There are alternatives to it that would have the same financial advantages, but none of the ecological disadvantages. The governments of major countries around the world should realize this, and make an effort to stop deforestation before it is too late.

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