Boom Towns Busted

 Rainforest clearing is not profitable for locals

A basic assumption behind a lot of tropical deforestation may be wrong, a study in Science shows.

Amazon communities that convert their forests to ranches or farms are usually seeking to earn money and better their lives. But a study of 286 municipalities in the poorest regions of Brazil shows that, overall, residents who cleared their local forests were no better off than those who refrained from doing so.

In fact, a “boom and bust” cycle follows forest clearing. Communities that cut down their trees initially become more prosperous, as measured by the U.N.’s Human Development Index—an average of life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living.  The boom times on the clearing frontiers were fueled by sale of harvested resources and the access brought by new roads.

But the improvements were usually only transient, the study found. Before long, the timber was gone and the towns were often left to support a flood of poor migrants who had come during wealthier times.  In the end, the “pre-” and “post-” frontier states were pretty much the same.  Such results suggest that a more-sustainable development framework would be best, not just for the forest but for locals as well, the team writes. ❧

—Jessica Leber

Rodrigues, A.L. et al. 2009. Boom-and-bust development patterns across the Amazon deforestation frontier. Science 324:1435–1437.