A surge in Brazilian wildfires struck areas of the Amazon rainforest with high deforestation, NPR reported August 21. Farming and illegal logging have catalyzed the disappearing rainforests, but overall, many sources are to blame—most of which are man-made.
According to NPR, the Amazonian wildfires have gotten so far out of control that they’ve blackened the skies over major Brazilian cities like São Paolo. Even worse, 36,000 fires broke out last month alone, which is nearly as many fires as the entire year of 2018. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has expressed a lack of concern over the fires, suggesting that various nongovernmental organizations (or NGOs) have lit the fires as a conspiratorial retaliation for their funding being cut, while other officials blamed the dry, hot weather. Throughout history, land change has accelerated at a dramatic pace.
“Deforestation was a well-known problem in the classical world,” said Dr. Paul Robbins, Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “For example, the historian Strabo wrote in the 1st century B.C.E. that the lowland areas of the island of Cyprus were once covered with forests that prevented cultivation, but these had all given way to farming and other activities.”
According to Dr. Robbins, at the beginning of the 13th century, a rise in urban populations led to far higher demands for food, which in turn necessitated more and more farming. “At the same time, improved iron technology allowed [for] more efficient clearing of forests and breaking of the land for cropping, because it’s very hard to clear a tree like the kapok tree with a hand saw,” he said.
Some historical data suggests that China began clearing forests in the 5th century, although Dr. Robbins said it wasn’t until much later that deforestation truly became a global-scale practice. “The rise of plantation economies in the Americas and Asia, where British, French, and Portuguese colonists settled and intensified agriculture for global commodity trade, had a huge impact,” he said. “The increasing shift to industrialized production that followed only accelerated this process further. Demand for fuel wood, charcoal, and timber at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution—coupled with the rise of this large, hungry urban population requiring farmland—all led to widespread forest clearance.”
Current Amazonian Deforestation
When it comes to the Amazon rainforest, Dr. Robbins pointed out three connected factors that have changed the face of the land. “One, economic integration; two, infrastructural revolution; and three, population settlement—none of these can be examined separately, and their entanglement is an important part of our story.”
“First, state development policy in the region has put an emphasis on exploiting the resource frontier,” Dr. Robbins said. “The Brazilian government has stressed programs in road building, and these provide access to regions really deep in the forest that had previously been impenetrable to mining companies, timber companies, ranchers, and small farmers. So, starting with the trans-Amazonian highway—that was back in 1972—infrastructure development has led the way to deforestation in all the decades since.”
Dr. Robbins said that when looked at from the air, the signs of humanity’s “footprint” on the forest are “unmistakable,” spreading out in a spiny, fishbone-like pattern from the major highway. “The Belém-Brasília highway, as it’s known, opened the land to settlement by two million people,” he said.
“None of this government activity and policy would make much difference, however, without massive international markets for the commodities that come from deforested land,” he said. “Timber exports from Brazil represent a roughly $200 million annual industry. Now, once cleared of timber, a vast majority of the deforested land in the Amazon is converted to livestock pasture.”
Governmental policy of infrastructure development, populations settling in to claim and convert rainforest land, and integrating Amazonian resources like timber and soybeans form the three-pronged face of Brazil’s loss of forest cover. As the wildfires rage, many are wondering how much longer the Amazon has left.
Dr. Paul Robbins contributed to this article. Dr. Robbins is the Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in Geography from Clark University.