Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why Isn't the Amazon Rainforest Worth More?

An earlier post analyzed how the planet as a whole values the Amazon Basin of Brazil in a way that the host nation may not.  This blog takes a look at how Brazil can look to the United States for both cautionary tales and positive examples concerning long term land planning, management and preservation.

To see the result of valuing the economics of agriculture over the preservation of natural resources, Brazil can look to the corn belt of the American Midwest. Small fragments are all that remain of old forests; floating in a sea of corn and soy fields sit postage stamp parcels of woodlands so small that one can almost shout from the center and be heard all around the edge.  One example is Black Hawk State Park in Rock Island, Illinois.  The woodlands overlooking the Rock River became a recreation area and amusement park in the late 1800s, and later a CCC camp served as the base for construction of a lodge and hiking trails that operate to this day.  The park is rich in original biodiversity which generations of visionaries labored to preserve, but the site is fragmented from other natural areas by neighborhoods, businesses, a bisecting roadway and a massive gravel quarry that operates across the river.  The natural pocket is an island, fully separated by development even from other nearby parcels that lie near the confluence of the Rock and the Mississippi Rivers a few miles to the east.

Some land types survived alteration and domestication due to the difficulty of the task to efficiently work the soil, such as the steep slopes overlooking riverbeds.  The wide open spaces weren't spared. Technologies such as field tiling allowed acres of wetlands to be drained, and the self-scouring plow allowed farmers to cultivate acreage at an unprecedented rate.  Some places were actively protected through the efforts of vocal, sometimes famous champions who loved the land.  Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir come to mind.  But the conversion to national (or state or county) parks and preserves was not an easy transition.  Displacement of homesteads occurred, and visiting crowds could inadvertently destroy an ecosystem as efficiently as a plow or axe. The obvious benefit of natural preserves to humans is recreation, as well as protection of flora and fauna.  But ecosystem services are invisible benefits that we take for granted, such as air and water quality and habitat for pollinators.

Brazil’s current model of requiring landowners to preserve 80% of their forested lands while farming 20% has met mixed results.  The government has the daunting task of balancing the carrot with the stick to encourage landowner compliance, with little logistical ability to measure and enforce land use requirements.  Instead of piecemeal management of individual land owners great and small, Brazil would be wise to work toward establishment of protected zones that can be more easily enforced (through simple surveillance of geometry) and focus development along corridors of infrastructure. A tangible line can be drawn around such areas that have been determined to be culturally and environmentally significant.  Infractions into the protected land will be visible from the ground, in the air or with satellite imagery.  Coupled with strategically placed infrastructure, agriculture will cease to spread unchecked into the rainforest and will concentrate around desperately needed new roadways and rail lines intended to streamline the currently inefficient and costly shipping process.  Additional improvements such as schools and clinics can be located along travel corridors as well, raising overall quality of life for the Brazilian people. 
The Brazilian government has the opportunity to define what is to be protected and enforce it fiercely from the front rather than try to pull the reigns on agricultural expansion that shows no signs of slowing. 

A closing example of environmental planning is the creation of Central Park in New York City.  When Olmsted and Vaux developed plans for the park, the acreage was a remote swampland with settlement camps throughout.  The expanding city enveloped the land, and its value increased exponentially as access to other green areas shrank.  Central Park is now bordered by the most expensive real estate in the world.  The park is certainly fragmented, but the vast acreage of the park allows a fully functioning ecosystem to reside within its borders.  While agricultural land may not appear to draw the same value from adjacent forest as a vibrant city might, there is an important lesson to be had about recognizing what enriches our lives before it is gone.  The value of the rainforest that remains will be compounded as agricultural land swells to max capacity- capacity that can be defined and planned now.  The land needs a few visionaries to orchestrate the expansive task of strategic preservation, so benefits can be reaped for generations to come.


  1. Great post, Sally. I agree that Brazil would be wise to consider the establishment of additional protected zones, although working with individual landowners would probably still be important as well, given the scale of the issue. (Incidentally, the notion of working with private landowners brought to mind what we studied about parcelization of forests in the U.S., and the challenge of working with so many individual landowners / farmers on forest preservation, livestock exclusion, riparian buffers and so forth.) If certain privately owned areas were targeted as protection zones, perhaps those landowners could receive compensation (from the government?) which would exceed any revenue they could possibly generate from development.

  2. I was reminded of conservation easements and the challenges with protecting forests that we covered in March's class as well. It's a difficult sell, especially when the actors are more concerned with short term profits rather than the long term benefits. Your Central Park example is very compelling though and I'll probably borrow it at some point. The government has the ability to enforce and regulate how land is developed and besides the world crying to them to preserve the Amazon, knowing the economic benefits of protecting the Amazon may motivate them.

  3. Thank you for putting into word the example of the midwest as the american example of the amazon. I've thought about this in the past, and how that land was transformed, indigenous people were displaced, the gulf dead zone was created, all the while an economic boom resulted...for some. People in Brazil may look to the "american breadbasket" as something to emulate, yet wouldn't it be horrifying if only parcels of amazon were left in 50 years. Perhaps we need to better come to terms with what we lost from this transformation and what strategies would've altered the course for a more balanced approach.
    The example of Central Park is compelling for its foresight. I would add the example of NYC purchasing land in upstate NY to ensure clean drinking water rather than building a treatment plant ( Perhaps a similar strategy can be taken in the Amazon.