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Fearnside, P.M. 1989. Deforestation in the Amazon. Environment 31(7): 4-5.


ISSN: 0013-9157


Copyright: Heldref Publications


The original publication is available at:
















Philip M. Fearnside

Department of Ecology

National Institute for Research

in the Amazon (INPA)

C.P. 478

69.011 Manaus - Amazonas










Aug. 26, 1989

I am glad that the researchers from Maryland agree with my

conclusions both on the necessity of slowing deforestation and

the potential effectiveness of the measures suggested in my

article "A Prescription for Slowing Deforestation in Amazonia"

(Fearnside, 1989). They give an accurate description of the

sensibilities of many Brazilians to being lectured from abroad on

how to develop Amazonia.


In this case, however, Environment cannot be criticized for

providing too much unsolicited advice, as the article in question

is a translation of a paper that I presented at the annual

meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science

(SBPC) in 1988. The original Portuguese language version is

being published by one of the groups that has been most forceful

in defending Amazonia against foreign interference: the National

Campaign for the Defense and Development of Amazonia (CNDDA)

(Fearnside, nd-a). It is well to remember that Brazil and the

Brazilian government contain a diversity of views rather than a

single "Brazilian perspective" -- I, after all, am a Brazilian

government employee. It is healthy for the readers of

Environment to be exposed to some of the debate underway in

Brazil on the subject of deforestation. Although the article was

written from the perspective of what Brazil can do (the original

title was "How Brazil could Slow Deforestation in Amazonia"),

people in other countries can also do many things to help slow
deforestation; these have been reviewed elsewhere (Fearnside,



It is true that advice from abroad is often rejected in

Brazil, and that historical parallels with the destruction of

natural ecosystems in North America are frequently invoked as

rationalizations. These parallels ignore key differences between

North America and Amazonia and, in any case, are not legitimate

arguments. Clearing natural ecosystems in the central United

States resulted in agriculture that, in many cases, has produced

annual crops continuously for over a century on the same fields.

In contrast, fields cleared from Amazonian forest typically

produce annual crops for only one or two years, followed by

cattle pasture that produces virtually nothing after less than a

decade. The fact of widespread environmental destruction from

the European occupation of North America in no way justifies

following the same course in Brazilian Amazonia. To imply that

suggestions in North American publications such as Environment

are made suspect by the history of the United States would

amount to simple argumentum ad hominem -- the logical fallacy of

attacking the source rather than the argument. While Fisher and

Alves are careful not to endorse repeating North American history

in Brazil, it must be stated clearly that the argument is

fallaceous. It would not matter if it were Bozo the clown

telling the Brazilian government not to convert the Amazon forest

to cattle pasture: maintaining substantial tracts of forest

remains the correct conclusion from the standpoint of long-term
benefit of the Brazilian people (see Fearnside, 1989b). It is

Brazil itself that stands to lose the most from deforestation --

no sentiments of "paradise lost" on the part of other countries

need be invoked.


The commentators suggest that allowances must be made for

Amazonia's "dark romantic allure" as a motive for Brazilians

taking up the spirit of "Go west, young man." I think, however,

that removing the windfall profits from land speculation, fiscal

incentives and other nonproductive investment channels would go a

long way towards dampening the spirits of some of the most

destructive agents of deforestation in Brazil.


I am glad that my analysis of the problem was considered

"cold." It is difficult to muster much warmth for the investors

who would be deprived of short-term profits by implementing the

measures suggested. My compassion is not aroused when the

commentators state that "businesspeople from the towers of So

Paulo to the beaches of Rio cannot afford to miss opportunities

for investment." It is the poor migrants and residents of the

region who deserve much more compassion than they have received

so far from the Brazilian government. The measures proposed in

my article would not affect clearing for subsistence crops by

poor farmers in the region, and, by offering employment

alternatives elsewhere, the measures would greatly improve the

options available to potential migrants.


The idea that deforestation in Brazil is driven by "economic

neccessity" is misleading. From the perspective of individual

poor farmers, of course, economic necessity looms large.

Fortunately, small farmers clearing subsistence plots represent a

relatively small portion of the deforestation taking place in the

Brazilian portion of Amazonia. From the perspective of the

Brazilian government, most deforestation is far from a

"necessity": it is costing the country a great deal of money and

is increasing its foreign debt faster than it generates returns

to pay back the loans.


The Brazilian government is responsible for assuring the

wellbeing of all Brazilians, including future generations and

disadvantaged segments of society. One of the most important

ways that the government could act to fulfill this responsibility

is by taking effective measures to slow deforestation by removing

the motives that now lead to rampant destruction of a potentially

renewable resource in exchange for a landscape of rapidly degrading cattle pasture.




Fearnside, P.M. 1989a. A prescription for slowing deforestation

in Amazonia. Environment 31(4): 16-20; 39-40.


Fearnside, P.M. 1989b. Extractive reserves in Brazilian Amazonia:

Opportunity to maintain tropical rain forest under sustainable
use. BioScience 39(6): 387-393.


Fearnside, P.M. nd-a. Como frear o desmatamento da Amaznia.

Amaznia Brasileira em Foco (In press).


Fearnside, P.M. nd-b. Practical targets for sustainable

development in Amazonia. In: J. Burnett and N. Polunin (eds.)

Maintenance of the Biosphere: Proceedings of the Third

International Conference on the Environemental Future. Edinburgh

University Press, Edinburgh, Scotland. (In press).