11 February 2009

In Country: Plan B

This morning dawned hot, humid and booming with thunder showers. As a result we dropped our plans for a jungle excursion this morning, which gave Hope and I time to identify verbs from Steinbeck's Mice and Men. Hence today's activities represent Plan B, which later in the afternoon consisted of Fernando and I walking around Santarem while David and Hope took a nap.

Since we arrived in the Amazon last week, I have been trying to comprehend the enormity of this place and what it means to Brasil and the world. Obviously people spend their lives here and don't have a complete picture of its importance, so how could I possibly grasp it in just a handful of days? That said, in the brief time I have been here I have come up with a short list of what I think are the fundamental issues in the Amazon. In no particular order they are deforestation, oil extraction, the loss of traditional cultures, and environmental degradation.

Deforestation takes two forms in the Amazon. According to Robert Walker, deforestation occurs first at the individual level. A farmer cuts down the forest in order to plant crops for subsistence production that ensures his family's food security. This is the most basic level and has been occuring for thousands of years (Walker 377). William Balee, a Tulane University anthropologist suggests that "about 12% of the non-flooded Amazon forest was of anthropogenic origin - directly or indirectly created by human beings" (Mann 52). In other words, humans have been cultivating the forest for a very long time as a means of survival. Thus the individual farmer's cultivation of forest land is a very old and well established practice.

However, as market forces (commonly known as globalization) have penetrated Brasil that forest survival takes on new meaning and leads to the second level of deforestation. In this instance, multinational corporations (such as Cargill here in Santarem) encourage farmers to shift their cultivation practices from subsistence to commercial production. Typically this requires the farmer who once cultivated multiple crops to focus on a single plant species, a practice usually known as monoculture. In Santarem this explains the heavy reliance on soy and the shift away from jute, rubber and other agricultural products in the past 10 years.

According to Walker, however, the individual farmers and the multinational corporations are not the only players in this deforestation game. There are also loggers, gold miners and government bureaucrats who have a hand in the environmental changes taking place in the Amazon today. Farmers practice "invasive forest mobility" whereby they "follow loggers into newly opened forests" in an effort to put more newly deforested land into monoculture cultivation (Walker 378). More crops mean more money for the individual farmer. Furthermore, "80% of timber production from Amazonia comes from illegal logging" which suggests the blind eye bureaucrats must turn in exchange for cash to allow the practice to continue (Almanaque Brasil Socioambiental 2008).

There is another important aspect to the deforestation problem. As multinational corporations with all of their financial muscle acquire more land holdings in a region they force individual farmers off their land. These newly landless individual farmers become migrants who move into unclaimed -- and typically old growth -- portions of the forest in search of new lands to cultivate (Walker 378). The end result: more deforestation of the rainforest in an apparently endless cycle of cutting and cultivation, cutting and cultivation in the quest for the ever allusive dollar.

The second important issue on the list has to do with oil extraction. This is not a phenomena taking place in the lower Amazon. Rather it is occuring in the borderland region between Brasil and Ecuador. While I have not done too much research on it yet, I do know there is a legal battle being waged between the indigenous people and Texaco (Shell) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94751411. A significant portion of the complaint the people have against Texaco is due to the impact oil extraction is having on traditional cultures and the consequent environmental degradation to the people and the land.

With regard to environmental degradation, there appear to be two types taking place on the river in the lower Amazon region. On the one hand, people along the Amazon realize that this river is special and worth preserving. On the other, the boats that serve as buses transporting thousands of people each week up and down the river dump their untreated toilet waste directly into the river. Yes. I saw it with my own two eyes. In addition, as we were underway on the river, individuals would casually toss their soda and beer cans into the river. Indeed the banks and beaches of the river are strewn with cans, bottles and plastic bags, along with the occasional sleeping pigs.

Furthermore, the sewer system is not very well developed here in Santarem or much of the Amazon region. Open sewer channels, known as open tubulation, run parallel to most sidewalks in town. Unfortunately their contents also flow directly into the river.

Lest one think that this photo depicts an isolated incident here is evidence to the contrary. According to an official government website,
"the North region of Brazil, principally the Amazon, presents the worst level of services of sanitation and infrastructure in the country, where only 2.4% of the houses have a sewer service and 13% access to water treatment. The infrastructure of Santarém is precarious for many neighborhoods, especially on the peripheral, outskirts of the city. Roughly 50% of the city’s residents have water treatment access and only 8% sewer service" (Santarém Municipality Website, 2007, page 3). Rather than being a rare event, this type of sewer drainage into the Amazon River is the norm. Hence the two part pollution problem: individuals and government both contribute to the environmental degradation of this amazing natural resource.

As I suggested earlier, the enormity of this place is almost incomprehensible. Yet, there are some know-able aspects to life in the Amazon. It is beautiful here, yet human agency seems to be engaged in a daily act of environmental destruction. It is valuable here, yet market forces seem to be pushing individuals to sell out rather than preserve its value.


LOCALE CASE STUDIES: Santarém, Brazil. http://transact.marketumbrella.org/uploads/Brazil%20Research%20Files/trans%E2%80%A2act%20Final%20G-b%20Locale%20Case%20Study%20-%20Brazil.pdf

Mann, Charles C. “1491.” The Atlantic Monthly. Digital Edition. March 2002.

Walker, Robert. “Mapping Process to Pattern in the Landscape Change of the Amazonian Frontier.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol 93, No 2 (June 2003), pp 376-398.

Almanaque Brasil Socioambiental 2008. http://www.socioambiental.org/amazon/?q=amazon/history

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