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How a Farming Project in Brazil Turned Into a Social and Ecological Tragedy

This week’s Generation Anthropocene podcast looks at Rondônia, a textbook tale of how not to set up sustainable land use

The remains of slash-and-burn land clearing in Rondônia in 1985. (Stephanie Maze/CORBIS)
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It's a tale of displaced workers, disease epidemics and gruesome deaths that will haunt ecologists and sociologists for decades to come. This is what went wrong in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, where farmers and indigenous peoples are still paying the price for a combination of poor government planning and limited knowledge about rainforest ecology.

In this week's episode of Generation Anthropocene, produce Mike Osborne gets the incredible story of Rondônia from Bill Durham, an anthropologist and human ecologist at Stanford. He studies the ways human populations have adapted to their environments, and the reasons those same populations often seem to wreak havoc on the natural world around them.

According to Durham, the story of Rondônia kicks into gear in the late 1970s, when tens of thousands of agricultural workers found themselves out of jobs due to technology advances on farms. To address the issue, the Brazilian government looked to the untapped resources of the Amazon.

"Here you have this area that’s the largest piece of unbroken tropical rainforest left in the Americas and it’s the center of your country. It’s not incorporated in the national economy. It’s not being very productive, and Brazil saw this as a potential solution," Durham says.

With funding support from the World Bank, the government set up a program to settle people in the rainforest, clearing land and building roads in a specific pattern that, in theory, would allow them to farm commercial crops such as coffee while keeping some of the rainforest untouched and preserving the welfare of indigenous people nearby. 

The hitch? No one had tested the soil to see if it could support the crops being grown. When a million people tried to take part in the resettlement program, they quickly found out that their farms were not as productive as hoped. From there, the vast social and ecological experiment turned into a nightmare.

More land was cleared and in some places cattle ranchers moved in, creating conflict between settlers and the tribes of the region, some of whom practice headhunting for survival and social status. The fringes of the cleared areas also created the perfect breeding ground for the mosquito that transmits malaria, which quickly infected up to 40 percent of the migrants. At the same time, indigenous groups were being exposed for the first time to diseases such as measles and chicken pox.

To find out what happened next in Rondônia, listen to the full interview with Durham in the audio clip above.

Images of the Brazilian state show how farms spread into the rainforest between 1975 and 2011. (Video courtesy USGS)
About Victoria Jaggard

Victoria Jaggard is the science editor for Smithsonian.com. Her writing has appeared in Chemical & Engineering News, National Geographic, New Scientist and elsewhere.

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