Requiem for Rain Forests?

December 20, 1985

Report Outline
Clearing the Forests
Examining the Causes
Conservation Moves
Special Focus

Clearing the Forests

About 28 Million Acres Destroyed Annually

In The Heart of the Amazon rain forest, the Brazilian government bulldozes a new road, No. 429. Thousands of landless peasants follow its progress, swarming over the land that flanks the unpaved strip. Pioneers in quest of a dream, they hack and burn the forest to make way for crops. Lured by government land agency promises of a better life, Renato and his wife, Maria, claim a 15-acre homestead. They clear the trees in six months and plant 2,200 coffee seedlings, corn, pumpkin and melons. “I won't leave here,” says Renato, a former sharecropper, as he anticipates his first harvest. “Here one works for one's self. Plant today, eat tomorrow.” But after only a year, they give up and move on. “This land is not good. Nothing grows,” Renato says. “It's impossible to stay.”

Renato and Maria are small players in a worldwide game of ecological roulette. Each year 28 million acres (an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania) of the Earth's remaining tropical forests are cleared, primarily to grow crops but also for logging and cattle ranching. Nearly half of the rain forests already have been cleared, mostly in this century. The rural poor—whether in tropical Latin America, Africa or Asia—are the main agents of destruction, although poverty and skewed land distribution are the real causes. Sometimes the soil is good enough to support long-term farming. Most often it is poor and the land is abandoned after only two or three years of diminishing harvests. Regeneration of the forest, if it happens at all, can take hundreds of years.

Landless peasants, often with government encouragement, repeat this cycle year after year. They have no other means of meeting their daily survival needs. The governments have no land or jobs to offer elsewhere. The cumulative effect of this routine destruction adds up to an ecological disaster of major proportions. “The deforestation occurring in the tropics today is one of the great tragedies of our time,” said T. N. Khoshoo, former Secretary of the Environment of India. “It is a classic example of a Third World problem the industrial nations cannot afford to ignore.”

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