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Thoughts on Urbanization and Deforestation in the Amazon

November 25, 2012

The New York Times’ Simon Romero has an excellent piece up on the recent urban growth in the Amazonian region of Brazil.

The Amazon has been viewed for ages as a vast quilt of rain forest interspersed by remote river outposts. But the surging population growth of cities in the jungle is turning that rural vision on its head and alarming scientists, as an array of new industrial projects transforms the Amazon into Brazil’s fastest-growing region.

The torrid expansion of rain forest cities is visible in places like Parauapebas, which has changed in a generation from an obscure frontier settlement with gold miners and gunfights to a sprawling urban area with an air-conditioned shopping mall, gated communities and a dealership selling Chevy pickup trucks.

The growth rates in the region are rather astounding, even if the metropolitan areas are nowhere near as large as those of São Paulo (metro area of 20 million) or Rio de Janeiro (metro area of 12 million). Manaus, the largest region in the city and the seventh largest city in the country, grew 22% between 2000 and 2010, the highest growth rate of Brazil’s ten most populous cities (it now has around 1.7 million people); the region as a whole has seen its population grow to over 25 million people.

What’s the cause of this growth? In part, it’s birth rates, which are the highest in Brazil. But even more, it’s the expanding agricultural and industrial sectors, including hydroelectric dams, mining, and soybean farming. With new employment opportunities in the region, temporary shanty towns are cropping up as people move to the area, seeking employment and better wages.

This taps into a fascinating reversal of a historical trend that characterized much of the 20th century. In 1940, almost 70% of Brazil’s population lived in rural areas; by 2000, not even 19% of the population was located in rural areas. This rapid urbanization had several causes: expanded industrialization in centers like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the decline of the coffee culture that employed many rural workers, the industrialization of agricultural production that left more people in the countryside jobless or landless as their lands were bought up, and environmental causes all led to the rapid migration of people, usually from Brazil’s north and northeast, to urban centers in the Southeast and South. However, the opportunities for employment in cities often could not keep up with the demographic growth, leading to the expansion of favelas and informal economies in the cities, with accompanying social inequalities and problems like homelessness.

The past decade seems to suggest at least some of that process is slowing down. Certainly, urban growth is continuing, but now, people are heading to cities in the North and Northeast, rather than in the Southeast. While the rural-to-urban migration continues, it’s no longer a regional migration from Brazil’s poorer north to its wealthier (in macroeconomic terms) southeast. From an economic standpoint, this matters, as it keeps more people (and their incomes) in the region.

However, not all measurements of quality of life are economic, and this rapid urban growth in the Amazonian basin is not good for the Brazilian environment. In addition to the obvious environmental destruction caused by mining and dams, the concentration of people in urban areas in the Amazon has a broader impact in multiple ways. While some argue that concentrating populations in the city can slow down deforestation, I think that, in the Brazilian case, the counter-argument that abandoning rural areas opens up more land for ranchers to deforest is closer to what will happen, given that cattle ranching is the biggest cause of deforestation in the region. Without small farmers and communities to resist the encroachment of massive ranches, the path to deforestation for ranches is even easier. Additionally, as Vassar College geography professor Brian J. Godfrey points out in the article, the move to cities and the accompanying economic growth leads to an acceleration in the exploitation of limited resources, and resources are already limited in the Amazonian region.

That’s not to say that people should not seek better lives in the cities in the region. But right now, it certainly seems that this growth is taking place without broader economic, social, or political considerations of the impacts this could have on an already-threatened ecosystem.

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  1. November 25, 2012 at 13:53

    Reblogged this on msamba.

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