Using Fieldwork and Interdisciplinary Research to Draw Lessons for Deforestation Policy

Personal Experiences in Brazil
Located in Brazil’s arc of deforestation, the study region represents an entirely different sort of Amazon than that depicted in children’s magazines, bumper stickers and zoos. In the 1960s, government programs enticed farmers in southern Brazil to migrate to Rondônia with promises of free land and a better life. Responding to these incentives, and supported by the construction of two federally funded highways, immigrants came to the Amazon and brought with them agricultural methods typical to more temperate climates. From 1964-2005, the national land reform agency (i.e., INCRA) settled 84,434 families in Rondônia, mostly in new settlements, to the detriment of the existing tropical forest 7. Since then, the region’s forest cover has been reduced by almost 40%, among the highest deforestation rates in Brazil. Land unsuitable for agriculture and government incentives to convert land into pasture has resulted in a countryside resembling the pastures and scrub of the Texas Panhandle.

Simon Hall, an SU research assistant, had never been to any part of Brazil before going with the team in 2009. He expected the picture-perfect imagery of dense forest and untouched landscape. Instead, he was met with bright red roads, billows of dust and dirt, and a vast pastoral countryside. “It’s kind of startling to see how much of the land has actually been transformed into pasture. It seems like the more places I go, the bigger the farms are and the more pasture they have,” explained Hall.

Not all of the team was new to the South American tropical forest landscape. Michael Toomey (Ph.D. Candidate at UCSB) had previously worked in Ecuador and had conducted research on parts of northeastern and southwestern Brazil. He described a similar reaction to the Ouro Preto do Oeste landscape. “I’ve been, actually, a bit surprised by just how much contrast there is in terms of some of the huge expanses of pasture we have here. You can really feel like you’re driving across Wyoming or Nebraska.” Given his experience with other regions and areas, the Rondônian landscape was oddly familiar to him. “In comparison to other regions that are younger or not as severely deforested – this region definitely seems like much more of a transformed tropical environment as the pasture you find here. You could almost believe that it has always been this way.”

For principal investigator Caviglia-Harris, the land in 2009 had changed drastically since her first study of the region in 1996. Over the past three household survey waves, she found that the forested land per lot has decreased from 17 hectares in 1996, to 12 hectares in 2000, to 7 hectares in 2005, to less than 5 hectares by 2009. What could spur the rapid change? During her 15 years in the study region, Caviglia-Harris has learned: “The Rondônians feel that development is what they should do. They think ‘the south of Brazil did it, all of United States and Europe did it, why shouldn’t we?” And with deforestation, the inhabitants have experienced benefits regarding their quality of life.

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