Using Fieldwork and Interdisciplinary Research to Draw Lessons for Deforestation Policy

Impressions of the Amazon
When people think about the Brazilian rainforest, their imaginations tend to drift to romanticized images of lush, verdant tropical foliage filled with towering trees, creeping vines and orchids, colorful species of noisy, lyrical birds and chattering monkeys that are bathed by daily thunderstorms. However, for the faculty and students conducting research in the Ouro Preto do Oeste region of Rondônia, Brazil, their image of the deforested Amazon is much different: cattle pastures reminiscent of west Texas are bisected by dusty, unpaved roads and barbed wire fences extending across newly exposed rolling hills and rocky outcrops that are parched by a strong dry season tropical sun. It is within this context that the interdisciplinary team set out each day in July 2009 to better understand the extensive deforestation that may set the stage for this advancing frontier.

Forest Conversion in Brazil
Tropical deforestation is a striking form of land cover transformation that has attracted the attention of researchers across multiple disciplines seeking to explain and predict the progression of the deforestation frontier. Brazil has the largest, contiguous area of dense tropical forest in the world, and despite numerous policy initiatives to slow deforestation, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) estimates that approximately 16.5 thousand square kilometers has been cleared each year since 1990, out of the 5 million square kilometers in the Brazilian "Legal Amazon". Currently, nearly 20 percent of the original forest found within the Brazilian Amazon is deforested1. Much of the clearing results from small farmers in land reform settlements that have increased in size from 5 million hectares to almost 36 million hectares since 1995.2,3 Thus, the fate of the remaining forest lies at the intersection of agricultural households and current and future land use decisions along the settlement frontier.

These frontiers are visible as an "arc of deforestation" that advances at a rapid pace, leading researchers, politicians and citizens within Brazil and abroad to worry about the loss of biodiversity, the impact on climatic change, as well as the piecemeal removal of one of the world's greatest ecological treasures. Global media continues to expose the public to frequent images of forest fires and anthropogenic alterations of the landscape. But what is really going on and why are people still deforesting their land?

Drs. Jill Caviglia-Harris, Erin Sills, an NCSU forestry economist, and Dar Roberts, a UCSB geographer, were awarded over $550,000 from the National Science Foundation in 2009 to study the local drivers of forest conversion on the Amazonian frontier. While many team members had extensive experience in the Brazilian Amazon, most of the students who joined the team had never been to Brazil. Their common aim: to see first-hand how deforestation in a region with one of the highest deforestation rates in Brazil impacts the socio-economic welfare of its inhabitants and to refine techniques to monitor and measure the dynamics of land cover change.

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