Thousands of years ago, a tribe of indians settled near modern day Santarem, nestled on the banks of where the Tapajós River joins Amazon in the state Pará, Brazil, living harmoniously in the region's lush rainforest. Time, however, have not been kind to this corner of the world as its landscape has been transformed by cattle ranches, plantations, and roads which cut into the forest like scars, making it one of the most deforested places in the Amazon. On a recent trip to Santarem, I had a chance to see the region's deforestation firsthand and to discover what it means to live sustainably in the world's largest rainforest.
Traveling through Santarem, with its rugged streets and unremarkable little shops and houses, it's easy to forget that the city was once home to a vibrant rainforest ecosystem, long since clear-cut to make room for development. But just a short drive out of town, towards the small local airport, gradually the gridded streets give way to jungle, intermittently interrupted by large patches of empty space where grazing cattle or rows of soy beans have nipped at the edges of the rainforest.
From the ground, an individual patch of deforested land seems deceptively benign and unassuming, which is perhaps what made clearing the land such an endemic practice. Being literally unable to see the forest for the trees, it's easy to imagine rural farmers thinking little in terms of environmental impact as they developed their properties for livestock or agricultural use, marching deeper into the seemingly unlimited frontier.
At that rate, there might be no forest left in this part of the Amazon if weren't for Tapajós National Forest just beyond the Santarem's city limits. Joined by an official from the Brazilian government devoted to studying deforestation, I was able to get a bird's-eye-view of this 1.3 million acre swath of protected forest and the development which once threatened its very existence. The official explained to me how Tapajós is just one of a multitude of forests which has been selected for preservation. In fact, 21 percent of the Amazon rainforest is similarly protected.
From the sky, there's no mistaking the boundary between where the national forest and developable areas; it seems very few trees remain where cutting them down has been permitted. Even within the park, several plantations cut into the forest in large rectangles - remnants of what was in store for the Tapajós National Forest before it became protected in 1974.
While countless plants and animals within Tapajós National Forests have benefited from its designation as a protected land, the forest is home to thousands of people of indigenous decent too, who endeavor to live harmoniously with nature just as their ancestors had so many generations before them.
Back on the ground, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives of a community-led forest management project, composed of 24 indigenous groups within Tapajós, called Ambé. The project focuses on providing sustainable livelihoods for people in the forest through eco-friendly means, by teaching handicrafts, producing vegetable leather, and harvesting timber from non-seeding trees. Last year, the projected netted over $2 million, providing its members with an income which far exceeds that which would be made through less sustainable means.
Unfortunately, however, people striving for to live sustainably are the exception in Pará, a state that has been amongst the hardest hit in the Amazon from deforestation. Cattle ranching and soy bean plantations are the biggest culprits, continuing to encroach deeper and deeper into the rainforest throughout Santarem and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Pará remains one of the poorest states in Brazil, with a per capita income at around $3,500.
As other parts of Brazil have seen their economies improving dramatically in recent decades, folks in Pará may be feeling a bit left behind. To improve access and the transport of goods, recently there have been calls for new roads throughout the state, which has environmentalists concerned. The reason why? Roads help facilitate deforestation.
In fact, even a casual perusing of forest maps clearly shows that deforestation tends to follow the Amazon highways, a fact confirmed all the clear-cut plots of land seen all along the roadside. Just as with any industry, illegal lumber, cattle, and soy operations need to move their products too, though not building roads could be disastrous to the growth of legal enterprises as well.
Despite the success of conservation efforts in Tapajós National Forest and the reduction of deforestation figures throughout the Amazon, it is difficult to be wholly optimistic about the future of the region - particularly as the priorities of people living in this part of the Amazon are not necessarily those of environmentalists. For this reason, it seems somewhat misguided to talk about combating deforestation without, in the same breath, offering sustainable economic opportunities to the folks in Santarem and across Pará.
On my way back from meeting with the Ambé project, I stopped to take a photo of a giant patch of deforested land where a crop of soy had recently been harvested; it was to be my last afternoon in the Amazon and I thought it might be my last chance to get a good picture. As a I focused the lens and readied the shot of that ugly clear-cut field, I noticed a young boy, shirtless with tattered shoes, walking along the roadside in the sadness of poverty - just out of frame.
Note: I was recently invited by a strategic planning body of the Brazilian government to tour facilities and reserves in the Amazon rainforest, meet folks from community-led forest management projects, and interview government officials including Brazil's Environmental and Energy Ministers, Ambassador for Climate Change, and the director of IBAMA.