Although a continent away, the Amazon Rainforest has sparked the interest of multiple Knoxville intellectuals.
The Amazon Rainforest, one of the planet’s largest supplies of oxygen, has been consistently ablaze since January of this year.
Jennifer Franklin, a professor of forestry at the University of Tennessee, weighed in on the issue.
Franklin asserted that rainforest coverage has significantly dropped since 2007 and that most of these fires were started for agricultural purposes.
“Overall forest cover is decreasing. The forest is down to 88.5% [of South America]. It was at 90% in 2007,” Franklin said, “That’s mostly because it’s being converted to pasture.”
The manmade nature of the fires adds complexity to an already difficult subject.
“The question is how much is too much? It’s a tradeoff. We’ve got to produce crops, and they do too. If you do it locally, then you save on transport costs,” Franklin said.
Brazilian agricultural workers caused a majority of the fires, seeking to increase their agricultural produce by creating new farmlands, but many question whether this sacrifice is worth it.
According to Charles Sims, an associate professor with the University of Tennessee and an expert in environmental, behavioral and experimental economics, the answer is no.
Sims held a hard line on the topic, saying that the farmers merely wish to acquire more property.
“There is this perception that [farmers] are clearing these forests so they can increase agricultural production, but that doesn’t show up in the data. This is more about trying to claim land,” Sims claimed.
Recent populist policies in Brazil make it easy to burn sections of the rainforest and claim ownership over the scorched earth. This effectively turns the destruction of one of Earth’s largest oxygen sources into a land-grab between Brazilian farmers.
According to Sims, there is little need for new agricultural lands in the Amazon region.
“There’s incentive to clear these forests, not necessarily because there’s a shortage of land for agriculture, but because once they clear that land, they can basically claim it,” Sims said. “Whether they necessarily needed to increase agriculture is kind of irrelevant. It’s a low-cost way to increase the size of your farm, even though that may not mean you’re going to increase the amount of production that you have.”
Sims also said that these policies come from a mindset that environmental regulations do more harm than good for the economy.
“The government in charge [of Brazil] is of the same mindset as we are here in the U.S, that environmental regulation is always costly, and that there’s no benefit,” Sims said.
The controlled burn policy is built on the logic that larger farming yields follow an increase in available farm lands, but the data suggests the opposite.
According to Sims, 2008 through 2014 saw a 70% to 90% reduction in deforestation rates; this reduction carried with it an increase in soy bean and beef production, even though no new farmland was being uncovered.
Sims concluded that deforestation for agricultural is a shaky policy in the long run.
“In the short run [and] for the few handfuls that are doing the clearing, it seems as though [deforestation] is an economic benefit. But in the long-run, I don’t see how there would be much agricultural gain from doing this,” Sims said. “The prices for agricultural commodities are still determined by the world market, so there’s only so much that brining in more land production is going to do.”
Franklin concurred with Sims, saying that Brazilian agriculture experts agree that stricter environmental policy would lead to a healthier rainforest.
“[Brazil] has taken a close look at the situation, and they’re finding that environmental policy that favors more intensive agriculture and stronger environmental laws favor the maintenance of forest cover,” Franklin said.
Though actions have been taken to curb the damage, such G7 nations sending a $22 million aid package to the Brazilian government, the forest fires are fundamentally a South American issue that South American governments will need to solve.
For those interested in affecting the situation, both Sims and Franklin recommend seeking out Rainforest Funds and fundraising groups.