|Imperiled Riches—Threatened Rainforests|
At least 60 percent of tropical deforestation is caused by subsistence activities on a local level by people who simply use the rainforest's resources for their survival. Having neither the money nor the political power to acquire holdings on productive lands, these transient settlers follow and settle along roads constructed in the rainforest by development or extractive firms. After cutting trees for building material, these people use the slash-and-burn technique to clear the surrounding forest for short-term agriculture. First, understory shrubbery is cleared and then forest trees not used as construction material. The area is left to dry for a few months and is then burned. The land is planted with crops like bananas, palms, manioc, maize, or rice. After a year or two, the productivity of the soil declines, and the transient farmers press a little deeper and clear additional forest for more short-term agricultural land. The old, now infertile fields are left for waste or sometimes used for small-scale cattle grazing.
The colonizer not only brings his fire to the rainforest, but also his domestic animals and diseases. Domestic animals decimate local wildlife by infecting them with disease and eating their young, while local indigenous peoples, where they exist, can be infected by the colonists' diseases. When not actively burning forest for agricultural clearing, the colonizer cuts fuel wood and hunts wildlife for food.
It is not solely the fault of the landless peasants for their plight; the unequal distribution of land and inability of the government to provide sufficient legal mechanisms for them to gain title to land are also to blame. These people have few options, and without a better alternative they will continue to do what they must to survive: destroy the forest. This subsistence activity on a local level is the greatest threat to the future of the rainforest and the most difficult to address, especially in regions with fast-growing populations.
The governments of other countries like Brazil and Ecuador encourage settlement of the Amazon Basin by opening roads and offering tax incentives to settlers. Indonesia has a huge resettlement program in the outer islands of the country (Irian Jaya, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Sumatra) to alleviate some of the population pressures of the central islands, develop new regions for economic growth, and to establish regional hegemony over local populations that may harbor ambitions for political autonomy.
[full photo version]
Continued: Economic Restructuring
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Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2005