CAUSE & EFFECTS OF HABITAT DESTRUCTION IN BRAZIL
This essay follows on from COUNTRY ROUND-UP: BRAZIL
All Brazil’s biomes are amazingly diverse; wet tropical forests on earth are the most diverse of all biomes and South American wet tropical forests are by far the most diverse of all biomes. Brazil contains the vast majority, by area of these South American tropical forest and this along with its other diverse biomes mean Brazil has by far the highest biodiversity of any country on earth. This is not the same as having the most biodiverse habitat on earth; per km square, the west slope of the Andes along the Colombian and north Ecuadorian coast (the choco) and the east slope of the Andes from southern Peru into northern Bolivia (SW) both claim this title.
The claims of vast diversity although they can be calculated, have not yet been fully catalogued. Though most of the vertebrates and tree species have already been discovered possible half the diversity of the tropical forests lies in as yet undescribed species such as insects and plants. Unfortunately much of this undescribed biota may remain total unknown as so much habitat and consequently species are being destroyed so fast and the pace is accelerating, especially in Brazil. Anyone doubting the increase in destruction can consult the Brazilian government’s own figures, (see Mongabay for year by year figures) which state that more of the Amazon forest was destroyed in 2007 than in virtually any other year. Though this may reflect mainly better data gathering the figures are non-the-less pretty horrific. The Brazilian government have made some efforts to reduce the devastating effects of clear felling by introducing laws that state that conversion of forest to farm should be allowed at 50% of the land holding area but this percentage has now been reduced to 20%. The frontier however is lawless and the enforcement ineffectual and there are even simple legal ways around these laws. It remains a fact that the Brazilian government has already sold off logging rights for two-thirds of the Amazon (the third not sold off is the massive seasonally flooded Igapo forest area which would at the moment be the most difficult area to develop) and has plans for major new roads, bridges and hydro-electric dams throughout the region. Looking at Amazon forest loss state by state, the worst affected are Mato Grosso (80% forest gone), Para (50% gone), Rhondonia, Acre and others all with large losses. There is no doubt that with the present socio-political and economic climate that these clearances will continue and possibly accelerate. The fact is that 80% of land in Brazil is owned by only 5% of its population, so the pressure for claiming new land for the rapidly growing population is immense. The Brazilian government only allows land-claims on land that has been ‘improved’ that is land cleared of its forest. It believes in land for the landless and the landless poor are increasing with the exploding population, and what is worse is that all landless poor need new land every few years, because the poor soils soon become exhausted.
The forest clearance is set in motion by rich western countries that demand expensive tropical hardwoods. The Brazilian government sells logging rights to forest areas and the logging companies move in with bulldozers and make logging roads, removing all the valuable trees, often for export. They do not own the land and they then have no further use for it and push on further into the virgin forest. Following the logging companies are the masses of landless poor, who in their struggle to exist have little time for laws or conservation. They clear whatever amount of land they can with their hand tools and fire, which once so ‘improved’ they can claim as being legally theirs from the Brazilian government. Unfortunately the soil is extremely poor and infertile and the ash from the burnt forest only supports crops for a few years, after which virtually nothing will grow except poor grass. The area of grass they own is not enough to rear enough animals even for their subsistence level of living so they sell, or are driven off their land by huge multinational cattle ranching companies (sometimes soya companies). The once again landless poor cannot afford to buy any land anywhere and so are stuck in an inexorable cycle of following the logging company roads deeper into the jungle.
Unfortunately Brazil has an even worse track record with its other major tropical forest, the Atlantic forest, of which only 7% of its area remains in a near natural state. The destruction here has largely stopped only because the whole of the remainder has been designated a World Heritage environmental area. What does remain is so fragmented that further large-scale extinctions seem inevitable. A staggering 85% of Brazil’s threatened species of bird and mammals occur only in the Atlantic forest and its species are therefore in a far more perilous state than say the Amazon endemics. As for the cerrado there is even less of that left in a natural state than the Atlantic forest, as 50% has been ploughed and converted to arable land with most of the remainder being used for cattle ranching. Many crops are grown but only with the introduction of large amounts of fertilisers, such as sugar beet, maize and beans and many are for home consumption. However by far the main arable crop (not just in the cerrado but the whole of Brazil) is soya beans. Any arable farming is often owned by foreign interests and requires large amounts of chemicals to be viable. Crops increasingly have to be genetically modified to withstand their extreme environment and they have to be bought from rich countries that produce the specially genetically modified seed. Over 80% of the soya beans are exported to Europe (the USA grows most of its own soya) for winter cattle feed. Whether in Europe we eat Brazilian beef or home grown we are still contributing to the destruction of cerrado and to a lesser extent the Amazon.
There is a way to stop the destruction, today, which the Brazilian government would be extremely happy to accept. Instead of the West decrying and pleading with the Brazilians to halt the destruction for the sake of the planet the Brazilians would like the richer countries of the world to show how much they value their forests by monetary means. If the forests truly are of benefit to every person on earth, should not everyone, not just the Brazilians pay for their upkeep? This is a valid argument however what Brazilians’ seems to be overlooking though is the fact that it would be immensely more beneficial and productive to the people of Brazil to save their for their benefit alone. Forests have been proven to be more productive and create more jobs than arable land time and again. They also prevent the soil turning to desert and provide endless fresh clean drinking water. They lower the temperature by as much as 5oC and provide shade. Shade dairy cattle in tropical countries provide a third more milk than the same cattle without shade. Forests provide a huge range of products and are vast storehouses of potentially as many again yet, waiting to be discovered. They provide food, fuel, medicine, timber, fibres, cosmetics and other things and what is more unlike any farming on the mostly poor soils here it is all totally renewable forever. The remaining major biomes are also being destroyed by the landless poor and their need to grow crops, regardless of however fleetingly; when you are starving the future is not yours to consider, only the present.
The attitude of the people of Brazil is turning towards saving their natural resources and some major steps have been introduced, with even some tough laws and increasing policing of them. The sad fact is that greedy multinationals and corrupt politicians seem to be dictating the destruction and the average man has little say. It only takes one greedy idiot (with a match or bulldozer) to destroy a forest that took nature many millions of years to build and even if replanted by hand would require the labour of many thousand man-days.
Most countries have a national park system often complimented with a network of other designated areas and Brazil is no exception. It has a bewildering array of protected areas and an equally bewildering array of designations.
These protected areas cover a vast number of habitats and area of land and it would be fairly good coverage for a similar sized country with far less biodiversity, say located in the temperate zone. But for a country with Brazils biodiversity the coverage is not adequate. Indeed it does not even cover some habitats and the level of enforcement varies dramatically from good to non-existent.
For a country that was up until recently run by a military junta, who’s ideas on conservation were totally lacking, it could be worse, however the police force like outlook and ways still persist within federal run conservation bodies, as we shall see.
Brazil is not a poor country but it is strangled with the legacy of foreign debt mostly left from the military juntas grand schemes (hydro-electric dams and massive road systems to open up the forests etc) and the junta also placed much of the countries wealth and land in the hands of its cronies. This crippling debt means Brazil is unable to move forward on its most pressing issues, those of the favellas and the inherent exploding population. The political will may be present but the funds available for planning and rebuilding are not. There was an exception to this however, when the capital was moved from the south coast city of Rio de Janeiro to the interior of the cerrado, and in a couple of years a completely new city was built; Brazilia. This was a great dream, but unfortunately, it was not a city built to house the poor, it was a city built by the junta for their administrative needs. So instead of improving the situation for the masses all it did was increase the debt.
The government body responsible for the protection of the environment, IBAMA, is unfortunately run along a police force theme. They wear uniforms and carry guns and much of their work is purely patrol work. Many of its reserves are closed to the public and their interaction with the public on educational and recreational level is virtually non-existent. IBAMA, or at least the people at its higher levels, seem to believe that the vast super-abundance of biodiversity that this country is blessed with is the exclusive preserve of the government, rich landowners and scholars.
I visited 14 protected areas run by different agencies, some were run by IBAMA. This included national parks and Biological Reserves such as Sooretama and Augusto Ruschii (see accounts on BSG). At the national parks, the role IBAMA has is not the same as other countries’ ranger services. There are few public trails and little or no interpretative or educational material. The public are not encouraged to have any interest in the place at all beyond the view that it is purely a place to come and camp and hold outdoor parties. The facilities that are in place for this include toilets and sinks, basic campsite and barbecue pits. The public are not allowed deep in the pristine forest and are in no way encouraged to take an active interest or concern over the wildlife found there. Brazilians will tell you they love the outdoors and nature, but what they invariably mean is that they have come purely to enjoy football, music, beer, barbecues and food and to swim in the pools below waterfalls. The few short trails around the campsites and car parks are generally through degraded and sometimes landscaped ‘forest’ and full of noisy kids and equally noisy adults with no interest in the wildlife.
This is all very well and I can see nothing against people having a good time in a degraded part of the national park, and shutting off the rest of the park for preservation. Except for the odd long-distance trail, it does no harm to the protection of the wildlife, but it also does nothing to encourage its protection by the public either. People who are not exposed to the joys of nature, particularly at a young age, invariably do not value it or regard themselves as its guardian.
The biological reserves are even worse, there is no public access, except along public roads. At Sooretama there is a house in the guarded and fenced compound where researchers can stay and sometimes other people who are visiting like me but only if they have permission in writing from the head office in Vitoria beforehand as I had. The public may as well not know the place exists, so it is little wonder many do not care. This is not to say that many people within IBAMA think the same, many IBAMA staff are clearly itching to inform the public and also want to learn more themselves but are severely restricted from being able to do so through lack of resources. At Sooretama, at least one of the staff was extremely keen on his birds, but the place clearly had virtually no resources. None of the men had binoculars (though I believe the Director did have though he did not lend them out and he rarely managed to get out into the reserve himself to use them) the fieldguide they had for birds was ancient and dog-eared and the other few books equally poor. Worse yet they had no official list of species of any kind for the reserve, not even birds, what they did have was a pile of scraps of paper lists from previous visiting researchers and guests. The one of the staff who was quite good at bird identification clearly struggled on anything a bit more difficult or unusual and it was no wonder with no binoculars or decent field guide. How they are supposed to be able to protect anything without knowing what they have, I do not know. Whilst there I was asked to compile a reserve list from all the various disjointed sources of data, and this I did over many nights, painstakingly writing a list out by hand. I was also involved in identifying some 200 birds of around 20 species confiscated from local markets and brought to the reserve for release back into the wild. Again, how they can ever hope to measure the impact on the biota by the wildlife trade if they cannot identify which species are being traded, I do not know. It made me quite sad and angry that clearly many of the staff were very committed to the protection of their reserves but did not have even the most basic tools to carry out their duties.
Thankfully not all state or municipal agencies are the same as the federal ones, some of the state run agencies are very good. For instance in Minas Gerais state there is the IEF who are the state forestry and conservation agency. This huge state (roughly the size of France) is located in the south and the state capital is Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil, so consequently this state has a lot of income. The IEF run several very important reserves including Rio Doce State Park (see write-up on BSG). The director of this reserve, Marcus, is a very intelligent well educated man and also a keen birder, though he admits to not being able to get out of the office as much as he would like. Although all the usual paraphernalia associated with the national parks is present, there is also a conscious effort to educate the public about the wildlife and indigenous Indian groups. Sadly some measures which could make a visit far more informative and enjoyable for the naturalist have yet to be implemented, and this is probably again down to lack of funding. These would include: visitor access right to the camping ground by public transport (the bus drops you 7km from there, a fact I only discovered when I was abandoned on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere with my wheeled suitcase and huge rucksack). Walkable trails you can actually find and walk yourself at a reasonable distance from the camping area. The 3 long trails they do have are about 20km from the camp ground and the entrances to them are overgrown due to lack of maintenance and cannot be found without a park guide with a GPS. The few short trails at the campground held few birds and invariably led either to the lake or fishing points. The third thing required would be a basic camp shop, where gas and other essentials might be bought, as the nearest shop is 40km away and I had no idea what to bring. The cooking facilities I was told were present were only the ubiquitous barbecue pits, and I could not cook any of the food I had brought because I could not get charcoal, firewood or gas. There were no washing facilities except sinks; there was a shower but only for the IEF staff and I had to request the key when I needed a shower. There was no electric, except shaver points so I had to use these and a portable kettle heating element to warm noodles. I was apparently the first foreign visitor that year (2006) according to the visitor book, so it is no wonder there was no information available on what to bring and that the place did not really cater for ecotourism.