Thursday, December 01, 2011

Amazon Perspectives

This entry is intended to supplement a short presentation on Amazon deforestation that Diana Ramos -- president of BSU's Students for Sustainability -- and I made as part of the Brazil Magic Event. The event, organized by another student group, La Sociedad Latina, is a chance to celebrate and learn about a country of great and growing importance to Southeastern Massachusetts. The celebration takes place just days before BSU's president accompanies Governor Deval Patrick on a trade mission to Latin America's largest country.

"The Amazon" means several different things. It is the name of the world's greatest river -- perhaps even longer than the Nile and by far the river with the greatest discharge, at 20 percent of the world's total. The Amazon also refers to the watershed of that river -- a massive drainage basin containing a thousand named tributaries, a dozen of them more than a thousand miles long. Finally, the Amazon is the world's largest rain forest, home to the greatest concentration of terrestrial biodiversity, the greatest source of oxygen, and the greatest biological sink for carbon dioxide on the planet -- the "lungs of the world" as it is sometimes called.

The Amazon -- particularly the rain forest -- is the place that made me decide to become a geographer. More specifically, the destruction of the rain forest had that effect, leading me to switch disciplines (from linguistics), learn a new language, and dedicate years to learning about the complex interplay of river and forest, settler and rubber tapper, rancher and logger. Much of what I learned is presented in Rondonia Web, a part of my web site that remains one of the few English-language resources about the Arizona-sized state in the southwestern part of Brazil's portion of the basin. (Most of the other South American countries control some part of the Amazon basin and rain forest, leaving Brazil with half of the total.)

For the presentation, Diana and I are showing one video, with a promise to provide a link to it and to a couple others. Each video presents a part of the current and continuing story of deforestation in the Amazon: logging, violence, and cattle ranching. In my view, no single story of the Amazon is the complete story, just as no fundamental shift in the geography of a place can be explained by a single factor. The three videos collectively provide, however, a good point of departure for understanding the region.

Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest describes a transect across the Amazon basin by a geographer who studies the impact of logging and who suggests that a herringbone pattern of clearing would be less destructive than the random pattern he encounters. He offers no support for this assertion, which in fact tends to be contradicted by the experience of Rondonia, where a herringbone pattern of land give-aways led over a million people to settle in a program that was expected to attract ten thousand. Broken Promises for the Amazon is a Greenpeace video focused on cattle ranching as a driver of deforestation. Environmentalist Slain for Protecting Amazon is a reminder that the ecological destruction is accompanied by violence against those who might object. In this case, a victim of that violence predicted his own demise, just as Chico Mendes had done a generation earlier.

The videos are a reminder that this region is not only vast, dramatic, beautiful, and imperiled; it is also complex, experiencing both a variety of threats and an equally varied array of opportunities. In fact, one of the most rewarding EarthView experiences in recent months was our visit to a school where students had been assigned to about a half-dozen different roles -- logger, settler, indigenous person, rubber-tapper -- each of which has a particular cluster of interests. Brazilian colleagues and I actually published a small book in 2003, documenting not only varied interests in the region but also varied perceptions of what the place represents and what it is experiencing.

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