Deforestation in Brazil: an issue that has persisted since the colonial era

Translated by Marine El Hajji

To reflect on the 54th episode of PNYX directed by my colleagues of Le Journal International, I would like to go back to the issue of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. In what way does this deforestation draw from the colonial heritage, but also from the military dictatorship of which Jair Bolosnaro, the current president of Brazil, claims to be an avid follower?

To answer this question, it is important to understand that the Amazon rainforest has always been subject to a more or less widespread deforestation depending on the historical, political or economic context.

Deforestation during the Colonial Era

Very soon after Brazil was discovered in 1500, the settlers established an economy based on the exploitation of various natural resources such as wood, ores, medicinal plants, and so on. Sugar cane gradually became part of the landscape as slave trade intensified towards the end of the 16th century. Thanks to sugar cane monoculture, Brazil became considerably richer and rose to the rank of the world’s largest sugar producer in less than a century.

At the same time, the gold rush started to take place everywhere in Latin America, exacerbated by the myth of Eldorado. As sugar production declined, the discovery of gold and diamond deposits in Minas Gerais gave new life to the economy. It is estimated that a fifth of the Portuguese population came to try its luck at extracting the precious minerals.

It goes without saying that these exploitation models were established at the expense of local populations, slaves and nature, which was perceived as nothing but a means to make money.

It was not until the 1830s, as coffee production intensified through industrialization, that deforestation increased considerably. For a long time, the coffee monoculture remained a profitable activity, as coffee lovers, who mostly lived in the United States and in Europe, grew increasingly fonder of this plant which became a mass consumption product. Soon, the industrialization of practices was also accompanied by the emergence of heavy industry which gave rise to the first railroads, allowing people to venture more easily and deeper into the rainforest.

The Military Regime Maintains Colonization of the Rainforest

The 1964 military regime focused on economy-oriented development policies, totally disregarding all environmental concerns. Among the “Great National Objectives” could be found major mining and agricultural colonization programs in the Amazon. In the 1970s, the military junta launched the construction of several infrastructures such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway or the Belém-Brasília Highway, which facilitated the colonization of the rainforest.

At the time, land tenure was based on physical occupation to define ownership of a property. Deforestation was actually a rational decision of the settlers, since it allowed them to appropriate the land. In addition, there was an ineffective control of agrarian authorities, a widespread corruption in the land market, tax incentives for large estates, not to mention the myth of the fazendeiro, which equates cattle farmers as elites. As a result, until the 2000s, deforestation was instilled by federal state directives. Deforestation spread mainly along roads and on agricultural pioneer fronts following the “arc of deforestation”.

Even if these processes were somewhat halted in the 1990s to give the country a good image at the Rio Conference, extensive cattle farming and soybean production continued to destroy the landscape of the Amazon rainforest. Indeed, within 20 years (from 1993 to 2003), the number of cattle increased fivefold to reach 160 million heads. In 2003, Brazil became the world’s largest exporter of beef with a production of around 1.5 million tons, whose vast majority was destined for export. Cattle breeding alone is estimated to account for 75 to 80% of deforested land converted to agricultural land; the scale of the phenomenon has even led some specialists to speak of a colonization “by the leg of ox” (par la patte du boeuf).

At the same time, soybean monoculture also began to play a tremendously important role in the agricultural colonization of the Amazon. With 42 million tons produced in the 2000s, soybean has become Brazil’s main crop.

Brazil has therefore always worked as a mosaic of export-oriented cells marked by various economic cycles: sugar, gold, coffee, rubber, wood, soybean, beef. While international authorities are now focusing on ecological issues, Brazilian public policies consider the Amazon a territory that needs to be opened up and developed. Like oil, the Amazon is a resource to be used not only for economic gain but also social development. For example, the integration of this territory into the rest of the country was a response to demographic pressures. Brazil is caught between two directives: on the one hand, economic development based on the “American dream”, and on the other hand, protection of natural resources. It should also be pointed out that some governments, such as Lula’s (2003–2011), have tried to reconcile economic and social development with environmental concerns. Programs promoting family farming in Southeast Pará, for instance, have shown that it was possible.

European Countries’ Responsibility in Deforestation

Nevertheless, we should not forget that European countries have their share of the blame. Indeed, like all products, beef and soybeans are subject to the fluctuation of economic markets. Since 2016, the increase in deforestation seems to be correlated to the increase in the prices of beef and soybeans, 40% of which are exported to Europe. For example, according to Comtrade that records world trade flows, in 2017 France imported the equivalent of 3,500,000 tons of soybean meal, 61% of which came from Brazil.

Deforestation raises the question of sustainable development. In short, how can we exploit forest resources to stimulate economic development, while satisfying the current welfare needs, and without compromising the sustainability of said resources, as well as the prosperity of future generations? The Amazon is undergoing major changes whose ecological and social consequences affect both local and global populations.

In the end, President Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power and the coverage of the fires in the Amazon have only updated an issue that has existed since the colonial era.


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