why are forests burned in Amazon? why not cut down for wood instead?

I recall reading that the particular mechanism of much of deforestation involving the Brazilian agricultural expansion into the rainforest is burning the forest down (e.g. see here http://www.mongabay.com/brazil.html ). This sounds like a waste of the perfectly good wood and other useful resources of the forest. So why don’t those squatters cut it down and sell it? Does Brazil law enforcement manage to prevent the shipping of lumber better than they can prevent the actual destruction of the trees?

WAG: It probably costs more to ship the cut wood out to any type of sawmill that could make use of the wood. The roads in to those parts of the forest are usually made just to get in there, and probably couldn’t handle the weight of logging trucks.

Also, we need more CO[sub]2[/sub] released into the atmosphere to prevent global cooling.

The farmer doesn’t have the capability to cut the trees and ship them. The ash is fertilizer. How much land could you personally clear, process, and haul to a market?

I believe the answer is that the soil in the Amazon is very poor in nutrients. All of the nutrients are tied up in the trees. By burning the trees, they put an influx of nutrients into the soil so crops can be grown. If the trees were simply cut, the soil would not grow anything.
Of course, the nutrients are depleted in a few years, so no crops can grow, so the farmers have to move on to new swaths and burn them down. The net result will be eventual destruction of the forest.

Also, the Brazilian rainforest is very diverse. It’s one thing to sell five hundred trees worth of maple or whatever, but probably rather more difficult to sell two or three specimens each of a couple hundred different species of tree.

if some rainforest minded charity were to give those squatters free or low cost fertilizer, would they stop the continual “slash and burn” movement and just stay put on the land they already have? Or would normal agriculture in that environment require much more capital expenditure and expertise than these people have and/or can be easily given?

The problem is the big cattle ranchers, who burn the forest to create meadows to graze their cattle. These guys defy the local police, and hire assassins to kill people who oppose them.
The Amazonian hardwoods are quite valuable (they are much in demand for flooring). But the ranchers don’t care-and they could get in troubleby selling the wood-so they burn it all.

As long as the trees are standing, it’s a rainforest which makes agriculture almost impossible: sunlight doesn’t reach the ground, because high in the air dozens of plants catch every ray and fight each other for water and place to grow. (That’s why the biologists who study the rainforest species take climbing gear to get up and erect tents in the tree branches 10 or 20 m high).

Secondly, until recently, when slash and burn was practiced in very very low numbers, it was almost sustainable. It was not a good idea, of course, because after the first forest had been burned down, a different type of forest grows back, with different and fewer species. But it was possible to have a wide enough rotation to come back to the original plot and start again.

To try and make the completly poor peasants understand that the method that worked fine for their grandfathers doesn’t work today is difficult. Esp. if the families have no other way of getting food for their families. And esp. if they see that big companies cut down the forest to make place for grazing cattle for McDonalds, or for palm oil/ soya/current cash crop monoculture plantations.

Actually, what the rain forest charities are trying to do is a twofold approach. They teach the natives/ poor people to collect special herbs and nuts that have special qualities for cosmetics medicine and similar. Many of these plants grow only in intact Rainforest, and are rare, so although collecting them takes a lot of time and effort, they then can be sold for a good price (often fair trade or charities).
Secondly, they try to start ecological tourism, where a small number of interested Europeans are led around by trained natives to see the Rainforest with their own eyes, sleep in the huts in the tree tops, etc. Some of the smaller Central American countries, which have very high biodiversity - that is, many different plants and animals, often unique to that area - are seeing the value of high-quality tourism over the cheap mass tourism, esp. because it’s sustainable in the long run.

Sometimes the forests are started by farmers on their land and then burn out of control. In Costa Rica we have a problem where some African grass was introduced for the cattle, but the cattle don’t eat the grass and when it burns, it burns out of control and destroys huge chunks of the forest.

Just obtaining fertilizer is difficult to do and a lot of commercial fertilizers contain substances I would not want to see put in a forest. The land there is horrible anyway, so the cost of spending so much money on fertilizer would be astronomical. Plus, as has been noted, cattle ranchers are a far bigger danger. Each head of cattle takes up far more land than simply farms.

constanze, it’s not true that the trees themselves make the land poor. The land is poor mostly because of the extremely high levels of rainfall. You also have other problems such as very high levels of pumice and no recent glacial periods to leave the soil fertile.

Want to save the rainforests? Stop eating beef and try to get others to do likewise. Also, never buy any teak products or support any company who ‘combat’ global warming by planting teak forests.

That’s it. Slash-and-burn agriculture.