Magazine article The American Prospect

The Fractured Landscape: A Road Here and a Cattle Ranch There Imperil More Than the Immediate Vicinity

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Fractured Landscape: A Road Here and a Cattle Ranch There Imperil More Than the Immediate Vicinity

Article excerpt

THE LANDSCAPE IN AMAZONIA IS rapidly becoming fractured, weakening the rainforest s capacity to withstand the escalation of everstronger assaults, ranging from chainsaws to climate change. The forest is not only being crisscrossed by highways, pipelines, and other kinds of infrastructure. It is also riddled with clandestine logging roads and the scars of forest fires.


The dominant form of rainforest destruction is still deforestation, the deliberate cutting of trees with chainsaws, followed by burning to prepare the land for planting. Cattle pasture is the principal land use replacing forest, and large- and mediumsized ranches account for around 70 per cent of the clearing. The portion that is cleared by small farmers is often planted for a year or two in annual crops such as manioc or rice, but after this initial use the land winds up converted to cattle pasture just the same.

In some parts of the Brazilian Amazon, highly capitalized soybean plantations are making inroads in the forest. However, the greatest impact of soybeans is not the land directly cleared for this crop, but rather the highways that are built or improved to transport the harvest to deepwater ports, most importantly the BR-163 (Santarem-Cuiaba) Highway that is expected to bring soybeans from Mato Grosso state to the Amazon River. Highways like these set in motion a process of deforestation for ranching and for securing speculative claims to the land that suddenly becomes much more valuable due to the presence of the road. The road also brings logging, landless migrants, and investments in all sorts of forestdestroying activities, both legal and illegal. In addition to highways, other kinds of infrastructure projects lead to forest fragmentation and destruction. These include pipelines for oil and gas, industrial waterways, electrical transmission lines, and hydroelectric dams.

Logging is one of the most pernicious activities. Most Amazonian logging is still illegal and is done with no regard for the damage it causes to the remaining forest when logs are removed. Even legal logging in forest management areas has significant impacts. In Amazonia, the extraordinary diversity of tree species means that most of the trees are not commercially valuable. Clear-cutting for timber, as in the coniferous forests of North America, is not economically viable. Future technologies may change this: Biofuels represent a potential threat to the forest not only for plantations of crops like sugarcane and oil palm, but also for direct production of alcohol from wood cellulose of any species if methanol production technologies advance as some expect in the coming decades. The future threat of clear-cutting apart, today's selective logging has major consequences.

Logging spreads to vast areas, and the expansion of the highway network dramatically increases the area affected. Logging spreads deforestation by providing access to a vast network of"endogenous roads," by motivating clearing in order to establish land claims to timber-rich forests, and by providing money to pay the costs involved. The aftermath of logging is a forest with many holes in the canopy, allowing sun and wind to dry out the forest floor. A large stock of fuel for forest fires is created by the dead trees killed by machinery or pulled over by vines when neighboring trees fall, together with the branches and other debris left from the harvested trees. This sets the stage for a vicious cycle of degradation by fire that can destroy the remaining trees, leaving a bare area that will appear as deforested on satellite imagery. Logged areas are much more likely to burn than are unlogged areas, and when a fire does occur it is more destructive in the logged area.

Forest fires in Amazonia are very different from those in North America, where fires in coniferous forest like the one portrayed in Walt Disney's film, Bambi, rush through the crowns of the trees. …

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