Chopping Down the Amazon Causes a Short-Term Boom, Long-Term Bust

By Eliza Strickland | June 15, 2009 9:00 am

Amazon deforestationLeaving the rainforest of the Amazon standing has obvious benefits to the environment, as the living forests absorb and store carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to global warming. But cutting down the forests has been assumed to be the only route to economic development for the local people, as it provides work in the timber industry and then clears the way for farming and cattle raising. Now, a new study has found that deforestation brings only short-term and temporary economic benefits, in what researchers call a boom-and-bust cycle.

The researchers say the boom is probably due to a number of factors, including better roads and therefore better access to healthcare and schools. For a short while, the community benefits from the natural resources of the forest, and makes money off the timber and the farms that are set up in the cleared lands. But the soil is rapidly degraded making farming and cattle ranching unsustainable. “A lot of that land ends up being abandoned” [New Scientist], says study coauthor Robert Ewers.

For the study, published in Science, the researchers visited 286 Amazonian towns at varying stages along the timeline of deforestation, development and decline…. The scientists monitored key indicators of human prosperity — income, education and health — among settlers along the Amazon’s deforested areas. “We contrasted those values in different stages of the deforestation frontier: before deforestation kicks in, bang in the middle of the deforestation frontier and after it’s already passed by” [Reuters], says lead author Ana Rodrigues. Once a town had passed through its period of deforestation, researchers found that the area’s scores on such indicators as income, life expectancy, and literacy all dropped.

The researchers hope that the study will provide one more piece of evidence that forests — especially for those who depend on them — are ultimately worth more alive than dead [Time]. To provide an alternative to chopping down the rainforest, researchers are pinning their hopes on the next international treaty that will govern the world’s response to global warming, which is expected to include provisions that reward countries that leave carbon-absorbing forests intact. “Reversing this pattern will hinge on capturing the values of intact forests… so that local people’s livelihoods are better when the forest is left standing than when it is cleared,” [says study coauthor Andrew Balmford]. “Discussions being held in the run-up to this December’s crucial climate change meeting in Copenhagen… offer some promise that this lose-lose-lose situation could be tackled, to the benefit of everyone – local Brazilians included” [BBC News].

Related Content:
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80beats: As Amazon Rainforest Destruction Continues, Brazil Pledges Drastic Action
DISCOVER: Want to Save the Trees? Try Paying People Not to Chop Them Down

Image: Alexander Lees

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Patimus

    It’s amazing that people who lived in unison with nature for thousands of years are now firmly against it. It’s despicable that they feel they have to destroy the environment to feed themselves. Last I checked, we can’t digest wood pulp. Why not find another way to put food on the table that doesn’t require destroying an ecosystem and , in turn, the world? I guess, once again, it all comes down to overpopulation, otherwise they’d be able to live with what the forest provides them.

    I have recently cut my caloric intake to a fraction of what it once was, and I’m fine. I haven’t lost weight and I feel as energetic as ever. It’s more about variety than density. Hunger pains aren’t bad unless nothing is available to cure them. We’d better adapt to thrive with hunger pains, because at our current rate of reproduction, we’ll all be feeling them before long. Feeling hungry never killed anyone. There is a difference between feeling hungry and actually starving.

  • Jumblepudding

    I think I was taught about the long term inefficacy of slash-and-burn farming because of soil degradation in elementary school.

  • Patimus


  • James E.

    @ Patimus,
    I don’t think the work despicable is the right word. You can’t discount that they have the same right to a modern life style that we all enjoy. True people did live in unison with nature, when we lived in caves with no schools or health care, but once we started farming the land, we were bending nature to feed us. All across North America we changed the land to fit our need. You can’t eat wood pulp but they can sell it for limber and paper to feed them selves and build a more modern society with the same schools and health care that we enjoy.

    I do agree with you the a lot of society has become gluttons with the readily available recourses that our society provides and we do take too much without regard for conservation or sustainability. The key for the people that live in the Amazon basin and need to use the land to live is in the article its self. Make it so they can use the forest as a recourse where it is sustainable, feasible and maybe even more profitable to keep it alive and untouched or put a logging process in place where it is a sustainable operation, e.g. non-clear cutting. Its either that or tell them they do not have the right to develop where they are and they either live off the land without damaging the forest or leave.

  • Patimus

    Despicable is a pretty harsh term. I’m just in a bad mood.

    Not one of us is good for the environment, but we should be educated enough (or have sense enough) to know that destroying natural forest is bad. Instead of raising cattle, maybe they can plant trees in some of the areas which have been cleared, only, they should have started that 50 years ago. Then, they wouldn’t have to continue destroying the forest, but only harvesting what they grew.

    If that beef is only for South Americans, maybe they should chill out on the chimichurri steak and start Eating More Chik’n. If it is shipped to the U.S., we should boycott it.

    A desert Earth might support small nomadic groups, but it won’t support billions of lives.
    Unless we want to destroy mankind in the quest for the “modern lifestyle” we should probably rethink what a modern lifestyle should be.

  • Sally

    Very interesting discussion from Patimus and James. But when we are arguing what the Amazonians can do to fill their stomach without cutting the carbon-absorbing trees, I wonder the scientists who conducted the research together with those so-called educated people have seriously begun to cut their carbon dioxide emission.

    And is it a very selfish action to the Earth that some countries with a low birth rate now encourage or reward people to have more children?

  • Nick

    You must also remember that our big corporations got all this kick started. Before we start pointing the finger at them and take a closer look at our house.

    Most of that happened in the last 150 years of our inhabitance of this continent – the previous 230 years or so it wasn’t that bad but then the industrial revolution kicked off…

  • James E.

    Patimus, this is not directed at you. This is just something that bugs me about the conservationsave the planet debate, and I would like to here what you have to say about it as well.

    People keep saying “save the planet”, what we are doing is “destroying the planet”, or things we do are “un-natural”. The problem I have with this is the implication that humans are a un-natural product of the earth. Like we are an artificial thing that exist apart from the rest of the universe.

    In my view, everything we do is natural because we are a natural product of the process that exist on this planet. We cut down forests and people think it is unnatural. A fire started by lightning, tornado, ice storm, ice age, meteor, or the sun dies and destroys a few acres to the entire solar system, and it is perfectly fine because it is natural. That is ridiculous if you ask me. We can not destroy the planet with our current technology. The planet will exist for several more millions or even billions of years and it does not care if there is life here or not. What we can do is make it un-inhabitable, less hospitable, or decide to change our way of life to live a more balanced life with the current biosphere.

    The difference between us and the other “natural” phenomenon that change the planet is that we can decide how we will change the planet. We are the first natural phenomenon on this planet that has an independent will and the knowhow to decide how we change our environment. Then it becomes about saving people, our future generations, and not the planet. The planet is a hunk of rock. The planet does not care, but I for one like living here and enjoy both the city and country life and would like to see a more balanced approach to using our recourses that exist on this world.

    Just my little rant.

  • YouRang

    Although I hope I’m not about to encourage slash and burn farming; but I read (long time ago in Scientific American I think) that in the pre-Columbian Amazon the burning wasn’t burning–it was charring. Charcoal is a better soil conditioner than humus. IOW, in the tropics charring improves the soil. Of course making charcoal also generates air pollution. Maybe something can be worked out. Help with clean air charring and help with birth control. (Too bad John Paul the First was assassinated before his plan to Catholics to use birth control was implemented.)

  • Helga Vierich-Drever

    Slash and burn traditional farming is not the problem. In such systems, the big trees are left standing and the field is left fallow after a few years to return to forest. A typical village of horticulturalists will have only 20% of their village territory in crop at any one time, while the rest is a mosaic of secondary growth. Land is fallowed for 20-30 years, which restores soil fertility. The problem in the Amazon is that cattle ranchers move in and their animals keep the forest from regenerating. The cattle are raised for the export market and this commercialization -part of the globalization of commodity trading, is what is destroying the Amazon.
    The rising population in this region is also making it hard for farming villages to leave land fallow for a long enough time, as they run out of options and must switch to some form of permanent arable farming using manure or chemical fertilizers once they need to crop more than about 20% of their land.

    The Amazon can only be saved by population control and the curtailment of globalization.

    Blaming the small farmers is not helping this situation.


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