Last night on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” there was a short news coverage of Brazil’s progress in slowing the pace of deforestation, specifically in the areas of illegal logging, in the Amazon. In this very first ever of my blog posts, I will discuss deforestation across Brazil in the context of my learning and experiences. Future posts may cover topics ranging from ethnobotany and environmental conservation to psychology and popular media and culture, amongst others.
When I was a child, I played a game called “Amazon Trail” and it’s sequel, made by the same people who made the famous “Oregon Trail” games. I lived on and breathed acquiring new knowledge about the Amazon Rainforest, and I guess I have to say that the game had a profound impact on my life, though spending my summers on the coasts of Downeast Maine and going to summer ecology camp in a park in New York State also gave me a love for natural places and beauty in the wilderness, and lead me to study ecology and specifically how humans fit into the big picture of a world ecosystem.
I remember back then, learning in my third grade class unit on rainforests, that an area the size of Connecticut was lost every year to deforestation. But I also knew even back in primary school that it was more complicated than just loggers: clearing of land for cattle ranching was also a major issue in the Brazilian Amazon, amongst the myriad of other issues surrounding native tribal rights, paper mills, plantations, and hydroelectric damming projects, to name a few. To this day, many of these issues are still central threats to the survival of the Amazon. But Brazil is a country roughly the same size as the 48 lower States, encompassing many, many biomes and subbiomes between the Upland Rainforests of the Guiana Shield in the State of Rio Branco and the Southern Grasslands or Pampas of the State of Rio Grande do Sul. The country is not just tropical beach paradises near giant cities like Rio de Janerio and São Paulo and then Amazonian Rainforest.
I have to admit: ask me sixth months ago, and I wouldn’t know a thing about Brazil outside the Amazon Rainforest, despite being able to map the major rivers Amazon Basin by memory. But two months ago, I returned from a personal dream journey: an odyssey criss-crossing and travelling around nearly the entire country of Brazil over the course of three and a half months. I’ve always wanted to travel up the Amazon River by boat, starting in Belém at the mouth of the river, and following it all the way to the source in the Andes Mountains. That was not my journey. Instead, I took the more educational path: I learned about the complex issues of the nation of Brazil and it’s many ecosystems, as I travelled by plane, bus, and van across the country. During this time, I engaged in a several research projects in the various different biomes across Brazil, including a practice study of the bacabinha palm, Oenocarpus minor, across the terra firme rainforest of the Adolpho Ducke Reserve near the city of Manaus, Amazonas, at the very heart of the Amazon Basin. But my primary study was a month in the forests of Paraná State, near the Southeast Coast, in what is called the Atlantic Coastal Rainforest.
In the Atlantic Coastal Rainforest, a very different image of Brazil and the country’s relationship with deforestation comes into view. When I was a child, the Amazon lost roughly an area the size of Connecticut every year. Last year, it lost an area the size of Delaware – less than half the amount; a very fine action against deforestation. But the Atlantic Coastal Rainforest went unnoticed in last night’s NPR account. Yes, Brazil is doing well in the battle against deforestation. In the Amazon. Brazil also has some of the strictest laws in the world against deforestation: even private land must set aside part of that land as a legal reserve – in the Brazil’s politically-bordered “Legal Amazon,” you’re only legally able to use 20% of the land you own, while 80% must be protected! But the Amazon is not very hospitable to large-scale monocultures and to the establishment of modern “Western” cities, and in the heavily urbanised Brazilian coastline, much of which falls into what could have once been called Atlantic Coastal Rainforest or Atlantic Montane Rainforest, the law is reversed: you are only legally required to preserve 20% of your land. This becomes more complicated when you realise that farmers and urban planners don’t have to put that reserved land all in one place, but can split it up, and neighbours don’t necessarily plan together, causing severe fragmentation of what is left of the Atlantic Rainforest.
Why don’t we talk hear a lot about the Atlantic Rainforest? Because only 5% of the what rainforest there was when the Portuguese landed in Brazil remains. It’s not a carbon sinkhole like the Amazon is, because the Amazon is far more forested. Ironically, it’s very likely that the Amazon is more forested today than it was in the 1400s: recently uncovered ruins in deforested parts of the Amazon show a vast system of cities and multicrop agriculture thrived in the Amazon Basin. As much of a 1/3 of the Amazon’s topsoil is highly nutrient rich black soil, which is specifically human-made for the purpose of “gardening.” The Amazon Basin likely supported millions of people in a civilization with better urban planning than Medieval Europe. So what happened? Turns out that disease killed most of the people of these as it spread quickly along trading routes from early contacts with Columbus and his ilk at the end of the 15th Century. By the time Spanish and Portuguese explorers penetrated the Amazon in the 1500s, all that was left of a vast civilisation were scattered tribes, fragments that they couldn’t conceive of building a civilisation comparable to that of the Incas in the Andes, let alone that of Europe and Asia. And by then, the old gardens had already run wild and begun to transform through secondary succession into wild forests in the half century since disease destroyed their civilisation.
The Atlantic Coastal Forest, on the otherhand, is known from the accounts of the Portuguese to have been of great expanse, filled with the great Brazilwood tree that now is a member of the endangered species list – endangered because of the extent to which Europeans harvested it from discovery of the new continent through the 18th Century for the Brazilwood’s red dye so critically loved in European textiles like velvet. But cattle ranching and farming and urban development are also major causes of exploitation in this expanse of the country. And monoculture farming of soybeans and cattle ranching are major causes of deforestation throughout the country, as I soon learned travelling to various parts of the Cerrado, the vast savanna-like grasslands and dry deciduous forests that expand through much of the central region of the country. And imported African grasses for cattle feed compound the issue: in both my work in the Atlantic Rainforest in Paraná and a visit to the tourist destination town of Bonito on a Cerrado-biome highland near the western border with Paraguay, I found the removal of African grasses to be a major problem for the return of native forests.
Fragmentation is a major issue, one highlighted from a view from the air. If you ever have a chance to fly on a clear day over the countryside, I hope you take the chance to look out your airplane window and watch the landscape beneath you: it’s one of the most amazing experiences, to see the world in miniature from above, and yet I almost took it for granted before I flew over Brazil. Between tears of happiness when I caught my first glimpse of the Amazon from the air, to watching patchworks of farms and tiny bits of woods between sign the deathknell for biodiversity and survival of species in those forests, I have had some fantastic aerial experiences.
I could write forever about the Amazon and about my experiences in Brazil, and I’m sure they’ll come up again as I continue this blog, but I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this one here or else it’ll become more like a lecture than a blog-post. But before I go, I’d like to briefly bring up the other element of this post’s title: Drawing Enneagrams. The Enneagram is a very powerful and useful psychology system, and it’s something that I discovered during my journey across Brazil. I am almost certain that the Enneagram will come up as a topic in future posts, but here I’m simply using it as an example of the sort of route I took across the country – the Enneagram itself is represented by a Nine-Pointed Star of sorts, set in a circle.
That’s it for now. I hope you stay on to follow my future posts, which may cover topics ranging from ethnobotany and environmental conservation to psychology and popular media and culture, amongst others.