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The Ecological History of Brazil from 1500

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Cha, Sung Jik
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. An Overview of the Ecological History of Brazil by Period
III. The Ecological Impact of Specific Industrial Sectors
III.1 Woodcutting (Brazilwood
III.2 Sugar Plantations
III.3 Coffee Plantations
III.4 Mining
III.5 Cattle Ranching
III.6 Construction of Infrastructure
IV. Invasive Animal Species
V. Desertification in Northeastern Brazil
VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Brazil is home to the world¡¯s largest number of species of plants, freshwater fish, and mammals, and hosts the world¡¯s third largest number of species of birds and reptiles. Brazil owes its great biodiversity to rainforests like the Amazon, which alone contains more than one third of all the wildlife species in the world, and the Atlantic Forest, in which 171 endangered species reside (1). However, due to deforestation, industrialization, and the importation of foreign species, a large portion of Brazil¡¯s ecology has been undergoing drastic change, with severe negative effects on both Brazil¡¯s and the world¡¯s environment. Already one-fifth of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil is completely destroyed, and 93% of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil has been cleared away for agricultural and industrial purpose (2). With environmental issues like global warming gaining more and more international attention, it is necessary to take a look into how and why the situation of Brazil¡¯s ecology has come to that of today.

II. An Overview of the Ecological History of Brazil by Period
            The ecological history of Brazil begins with Brazil¡¯s colonial period which began in 1500, the year of its discovery by the Portuguese. As in other colonies held by European powers at the time, Colonial Brazil¡¯s, and perhaps even modern Brazil¡¯s, raison d¡¯etre was in its geographical/ecological exploitation. In the 16th century, exploitation was based on the extraction of Brazilwood, which brought about its near extinction in Brazil. The period from 1530 to 1700 is known as the sugar-cane cycle, during which the Brazilian economy depended on the production of sugar. Large patches of land along the coast were subject to soil degradation as farmers indiscriminately transformed the land into plantations, and deforestation also occurred in order to build engenhos. Towards the end of the 17th century, private explorers called bandeirantes undertook expeditions into the inland, and the discovery of gold in 1692 lead to a gold rush and rapid urbanization of major industrial sites. In 1822 the Empire of Brazil was founded which lasted until 1889, and during this period cattle ranching in the Northeastern sertao, the plains (cerrado) of Minas Gerais, and the pampas of Rio Grande do Sul became a major industry. The coffee industry also arose in importance, attracting many foreign investors to construct rail lines throughout the country, which further increased deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest and the Atlantic Forest (3). The following chapters will examine the various industrial sectors mentioned above.

III. The Ecological Impact of Specific Industrial Sectors

III.1 Woodcutting (Brazilwood)
            Originally, Brazilwood, or "pua-brasil," was used to describe a similar but different kind of species that came from Asia. Its duramen was used in dyeing luxury textiles like velvet, and its sturdy wood was used in making furniture and in ship-building. Brazilwood was highly prized in 15th and 16th century Europe for its rarity and its deep-red hue. When Portuguese navigators came to the coasts of South America in the area of present-day Brazil, they discovered that Brazilwood, albeit of a slightly different subspecies from that of Asia, grew in abundance in the Atlantic Forest and in the hinterlands along rivers. With the granting of a monopoly by the Portuguese crown, the felling and shipping of Brazilwood soon became a hectic and profitable business which had to come to a stop in the 18th century when supplies became nearly depleted (4). The species that once characterized Brazil and even gave the country its name is now extinct throughout most its original range, and only a few remain to make it into the list of endangered species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) (5).

III.2 Sugar Plantations
            In the Atlantic Forest, which is located in the southeastern coastal area of Brazil, sugar and coffee plantations were the major causes of deforestation. Sugar production started in the 1530s and 1540s mainly in northeast Brazil, in coastal areas where the soil and climate was suitable for plantation agriculture. It was not until the 18th century that sugar plantations became widespread, however; in the southeast, cachaca(white rum) instead of sugar was the main plantation product. In the 19th and 20th century, with the exploration and settlement of southern Brazil, the increase in demand for sugar in Europe and North America, and improvements in transportation, many plantations arose in the southern interior of Brazil and along the southeast coast (6). By the 20th century, sugar plantations accounted for 2,000 hectares of Brazil land (7).

III.3 Coffee Plantations
            In the last half of the 19th century, though sugar was still a major export product, it was coffee that dominated exports. In the years between 1841 and 1850, coffee constituted 50% of total exportations, and the percentage increased to 59.5 in 1871 to 1880. The expanding coffee industry attracted the British to invest in railroad construction in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1868, the Santos-Sao Paulo Railroad was constructed, breaching the coastal escarpment that had slowed expansion into the Southern plateau. Railroads were also laid in the Northeast, connecting the interior of Brazil to seaports from which goods and slaves could be exported or imported (8). The following chart shows the rapid growth of Brazilian railway length in the years 1870 to 1960.

Figure 1 : Total Railway Length in Brazil (9)

III.4 Mining
            Construction of mines was another contributing factor in changing the Brazilian ecology. Towards the end of the 17th century, private sponsored paulista adventurers from Sao Paulo discovered gold in Minas Gerais, a hilly region in central Brazil. These adventurers were called bandeirantes, and their objectives were to capture native slaves and search for gold. In the 18th century Portuguese colonizers and African slaves flooded into the Minas Gerais region, resulting in a gold rush (10). This also led to the discovery of diamonds in Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Mato Grosso(11). The booming mining industry soon cooled down when gold inventories ran out, but the basic infrastructure and the high population density laid the foundations for further industrialization. Today, 110 steel and iron mills are located in Minas Gerais, and are leading causes of deforestation of the Atlantic Forest. Due to the oil shocks of 1974 and 1979, the steel and iron industrial sectors signed protocols to increase utilization of forest wood and charcoal, which is still the major source for industrial fuel today (12)A/A>.

III.5 Cattle Ranching
            In the early 1960s, the major cause of deforestation in the interior of the Amazon Rainforest was the shifting crop cultivation system. As rainforest soil is fertile for only a short period of time, farmers constantly had to move and clear more rainforest areas in order to continue farming. Then with the importation of the molasses grass in the mid 1960s, which could grow even in infertile rainforest soil, cattle-ranching quickly replaced the ineffective slash and burn method, and caused extensive damage in many ecological regions of Brazil including the Amazon Rainforest, the Cerrado Savannah, and the Northeastern sertao (13).
            In 1964, the Brazilian government passed a law that granted land ownership to developers that successfully demonstrated crop cultivation in the Amazon Rainforest for a year and a day. This encouraged large-scale landowners to extend pasture land into the interior of the rainforest, and small-scale farmers who couldn¡¯t afford the high costs of cattle and grass raising resorted to the slash and burn method. In the years between 1966 and 1975, large-scale cattle ranching was responsible for 38 percent of total deforested land, and 30 percent was attributed to small scale farming (14).

III.6 Construction of Infrastructure
            The Brazilian government, before deforestation became a serious global issue, was more or less in favor of exploitation and the construction of infrastructure in the interior of the Amazon Rainforest for financial profit. In the 1940s, President Get?lio Vargas stated :

            "The Amazon, under the impact of our will and labor, shall cease to be a simple chapter in the history of the world, and made equivalent to other great rivers, shall become a chapter in the history of human civilization. Everything which has up to now been done in Amazonas, whether in agriculture or extractive industry... must be transformed into rational exploitation." (15)

            Not only railways, but also roads and highways were essential for transporting agricultural products from the interior of the Amazon Rainforest to shipping sites. The first two highways to be constructed in the Amazon Rainforest were the Rodovia Bel?m-Bras?lia (1958) and the Cuiaba-Porto Velho (1968). Said to be the "at the heart of the arc of deforestation," the two highways became the focal points of deforestation in the Amazon. In the first twenty years after the Rodovia Bel?m-Bras?lia was constructed, nearly two million settlers rushed into the Amazon Rainforest. In 1972, the 5,200 km long Trans-Amazonian Highway, which ran through the Brazilian states of Piaui, Maranhao, Tocantins, Para and Amazonas, was inaugurated. These highways marked the beginning of a large influx in the number of settlers entering the interior of the Amazon Rainforest. Areas near the highway were eight times more likely than areas not affected by the road network to be exploited by settlers for pastoral production and logging. Between 1995 and 1998, the Brazilian government endorsed and authorized such exploitation by granting land to approximately 150,000 families in the Amazon region. Government programs like the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform in Brazil (INCRA) gave ownership to small-scale farmers who claimed and exploited rainforest land for five years (16).
            The construction of the five hydroelectric dams (namely the Balbina, Camar?, Tucuri, Campos Novas, and Itaipu Dam) was also responsible for damaging the Brazilian environment by flooding rainforest areas and generating air pollutants. On its completion in 1989, the Balbina Dam flooded approximately 2,400 square km (920 square miles) of Amazonian rainforest, emitted 23,750,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane in its first three years of operation, and forced the displacement of the native Amerindian tribes (17).

IV. Invasive Species
            More than 300 non-native species currently live in Brazil, with 64% being widespread and causing negative impacts on the ecosystem and biodiversity of Brazil. Some of these include the giant African snail (Achatina fulica), golden mussel (Limnoperma fortunei), European hare (Lepus europaeus), sabia (Mimosa caesalpiniifolia), molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora), brachiaria grass (Brachiaria spp.), and Japanese raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis), most of which were imported during Brazil¡¯s colonial stage (18). Such species severely disrupted the delicate balance in Brazil¡¯s native environment; for example, the molasses grass was imported for cattle-ranching, which turned out to be a major cause of deforestation.

V. Desertification in Northeastern Brazil
            Desertification, along with desertification, has also become a serious environmental issue in Brazil, especially in the northeastern regions and in the northern parts of the Minas Gerais. Heavy woodcutting for building mines and for fuel, land degradation in watershed areas, intense livestock grazing, water and wind erosion, and cultivation of unsuitable land are factors that accelerated desertification in the already semiarid areas. These areas are the so called ¡°Dry Polygon¡± because droughts occur every five years. The native caatinga vegetation is xerophytic and can survive these droughts with little water. Ranching and farming replace or remove these plants, making the area more susceptible to desertification. Furthermore, livestock like cattle, sheep, and goat greatly reduce the amount of palatable vegetation in the area, which means only a fraction of the original food source for native animal species is available.(19) The map below shows the level of aridity in South America and the level of susceptibility of desertification in Brazil.

VI. Conclusion
            The Amazon Rainforest represents over half of the world¡¯s remaining rainforests, and plays a crucial role in reducing carbon dioxide levels and supplying oxygen in the world. In May, 2008, the New York Times wrote an article titled "Whose Rainforest is This, Anyway ?" and argued that Amazonian deforestation is not simply a domestic issue, but an international one. In retaliation, the Brazilian president stated, "North Americans have no moral authority to complain about Amazonia; they point fingers dirty with oil." (21) The controversy is apparent, and though deforestation rates have decreased in recent years, it is still a serious environmental issue. By examining the ecological history of Brazil from the beginning of Brazil¡¯s ecological exploitation in the colonial era to the problems of industrialization and deforestation, it is possible to propose the following solutions that address the fundamental causes of Brazil's ecological problems: the development of farming techniques, so as to address the problem of slash-and-burn farming and thus prevent shifting crop cultivation; aid from foreign governments and communities to help Brazil¡¯s industrial sectors utilize fuels other than natural woods and energy from hydroelectric dams, such as alternative energy sources; crop diversification, so as to reduce Brazil's economical dependency on sugar and coffee plantations; reforestation and elimination of invasive species; encouraging tourism and the creation of national parks; protection of existing forests and other ecoregions; limiting the creation of new pasture lands by preventing soil degradation; and livelihood diversification by providing small-scale farmers with economical opportunities other than agricultural ones. At an immediate level, these solutions may not seem realizable; however, they are the basic guild lines that must be followed in the long run.

(1)      Article : Wildlife of Brazil, from Wikipedia
(2)      Article : Deforestation in Brazil, from Wikipedia
(3)      ibid.
(4)      Fausto 1999 p.9
(5)      Article : Brazilwood, from Wikipedia
(6)      Fausto 1999 p.34
(7)      Bolling 2001
(8)      Article : Empire of Brazil, from Wikipedia
(9)      table created by the author of this paper; based on data from IHS pp.545-548
(10)      Fausto 1999 p.47
(11)      Article : Minas Gerais, from Wikipedia
(12)      Achinelli 2003 p.29
(13)      Article : Deforestation in Brazil, from Wikipedia
(14)      ibid.
(15)      ibid.
(16)      ibid.
(17)      Article : Balbina Dam, from Wikipedia
(18)      Nature Conservancy 2008
(19)      Dregne 1986
(20)      Collado 2001 p.17
(21)      Article : Amazon Rainforest, from Wikipedia


Note : websites quoted below were visited in November 2008.
Achinelli 2003      Achinelli, Moira "Poverty, coffee cultivation and deforestation in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest : Achieving a sustainable livelihood through education and public participation" 2002-2003, Lunds Universitet master thesis
Bolling 2001      Bolling, Christine and Suarez, Nydia R., The Brazilian Sugar Industry: Recent Developments", 2001
Collado 2001      Collado, Alfredo Derlys "Consultation on Desertification in South America", 2001
Dregne 1986      Dregne, H.E. "Desertification of Arid Lands", 1986
ELC 2002.      Atlantic Forest, from The Environmental Literacy Council, 2002
Fausto 1999      Fausto, Boris ¡°A Concise History of Brazil¡±, Cambridge University Press, 1999
IHS      Mitchell, B.R., International Historical Statistics : The Americas 1750-2000, London : Palgrave 2003
Margulis 2004      Margulis, Sergio "Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon" World Bank Working Paper no. 22, 2004
Nature Conservancy 2008      More than 300 Invasive Alien Species Documented in Brazil, from The Nature Conservancy, 2008
Wikipedia Amazon Rainforest.      Article : "Amazon Rainforest," from Wikipedia, 2008
Wikipedia Balbina Dam.      Balbina Dam, from Wikipedia,
Wikipedia Brazilwood.      Brazilwood, from Wikipedia,
Wikipedia Deforestation in Brazil.      Colonial Brazil, from Wikipedia,
Wikipedia Empire of Brazil.      Empire of Brazil, from Wikipedia,
Wikipedia Minas Gerais.      Minas Gerais, from Wikipedia,
Wikipedia Wildlife of Brazil.      Wildlife of Brazil, from Wikipedia,

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