Ecoscience: Tropical Rainforest Destruction

Rainforest destruction is proceeding at an alarming pace in South America, with potentially dire consequences for the planet’s climate. But there is some hope in one Central American country.

| September/October 1978

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    Anne and Paul Ehrlich warn that rainforest destruction is wiping out a reservoir of biological diversity, cultural diversity, and knowledge.

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The accelerating rate of tropical rainforest destruction is one of the saddest ecological events in the history of our planet. There is some dispute as to just how rapidly these areas are being cleared. But there is no question that if current trends continue, there will soon (perhaps sometime between the years 2000 and 2050) be no tropical forests at all except for a few scattered reserves and small patches on hillsides too steep to be put to any other use.

There are several reasons for the disappearance of these forests. One factor, of course, is the rapid population growth of the tropical countries. In many Latin American, African, and Southeast Asian nations the population is still increasing at a rate of two to three percent each year. This figure implies that the human density in these lands will double during the next 20 to 35 years. And it seems only natural to suppose that those ever-increasing numbers of people—very poor people at that—will continue to cut their forests (one of the few readily available resources at their disposal) at an ever increasing rate to supply themselves with firewood, building materials, and subsistence farm plots.

In most places, however, it is not population pressure per se that is directly responsible for the destruction of tropical woodlands. It is the opening up of new areas for economic reasons. University of Michigan political scientist Kathleen Foote Durham, for instance, has shown that much of the deforestation in the Peruvian section of the Amazon Basin has not been caused by invasions of subsistence farmers from the "overcrowded" highlands. Instead, large and small "cash-cropping" organizations are behind most of this destruction. These cash-cropping operations, supported in part by the Peruvian government, are producing profitable exports as well as food and lumber for the country's cities located west of the Andes.

In short, then, the forests of Peru—with the help of cheap migrant labor from the highlands—are rapidly being destroyed for the sake of a quick buck. And this is happening while the population and economic pressures on those highlands could be greatly diminished in a far more environmentally sound manner merely by raising the abysmally low yields of native domestic crops (such as the potato). Peruvian government policies to date, however, have consistently favored the colonization of lowland forests over programs designed to improve highland agriculture.

Perhaps an even more dramatic example of the destruction of tropical forests, though, is occurring now in the Amazon Basin of Peru's neighbor to the east, Brazil. This five-million-kilometer (two-million-square-mile) area is being deliberately cleared by the government—over the protests of ecologists in Brazil and elsewhere—in the interests of mineral exploitation, cattle raising, and large cash-crop operations.

For a short time during the early 1970's this development of Amazonia (and especially the Trans-Amazon Highway) was given much publicity as a program designed to provide farmland for people from the overpopulated and ecologically ravaged northeastern part of Brazil. More recently, however, even that facade has been dropped.


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