Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Santa Cruz, Bolivia

In the 1960s, San Julian, Bolivia, was nearly inaccessible, located deep in the thick Amazon forest. The few roads that existed were only passable during the dry season. The relatively flat lowlands make the region suited to farming. The land can be easily, and relatively cheaply, cleared with heavy machinery. The area also receives abundant rainfall and can support two growing seasons.

With financial help from international organizations, Bolivia started a program to settle the area, to drive development and improve the economy. This development, however, has resulted in the deforestation of the rain forest. The San Julian settlements are conspicuous in the upper left of these Landsat images as one unique type of deforestation pattern.

Other deforestation patterns emerge in the rest of the time series of images in the Bolivian department called Santa Cruz. The region has transformed from dense forest into a grid-patterned expanse of agricultural lands. Many of the fields are soybeans cultivated for export. Prices have been good for soybeans, and they are relatively easy to grow.

Map of the featured area.

Every year in Bolivia, a swath of forest two-thirds the size of Delaware is cleared of trees. Most of this deforestation has taken place in lowlands along and east of the Rio Grande River.

Compared to most Amazon soils, the alluvial soils in these lowlands are very fertile. The flat landscape is relatively easy to clear. And rain forests have an abundance of one obvious thing important to farming—rain. Besides that, the area is close to a large market and distribution center, the city of Santa Cruz, which lies just outside of these images, about 7 kilometers off to the southwest. One more benefit to the land owners: when farmland becomes too eroded or compacted for crops, farmers change to cattle production.

Until the 1970s, sugarcane was the major crop near Santa Cruz. By the 1980s, the price for soybeans increased. Today, sugarcane is still an important crop, but industrial soybean production has become the most common crop.

Different deforestation geometries reveal different types of agricultural management. Most noticeable might be the groups of long rectangles, which are large-scale agricultural operations. These areas require large capital investments, use heavy machinery to prepare the land, and involve intensive production of annual cash crops, mainly soybean, sugarcane, and rice. Dark strips within these fields are windbreaks, needed because the soils in the area are fine and prone to wind erosion.

Small-scale agriculture is indicated by smaller irregular plots. Small-scale farmers here produce mainly rice, maize, and perennial crops, such as bananas. The forest is cleared perpendicular to a road in long rectangles, forming a “piano key” pattern.

The radial-shaped patterns are planned settlements called nucleos. The individual farms radiate outward from a central hub, which is communal land. Most of these settlements are located in the large area of colonization visible in the northwest part of the main images, the San Julian area. There are a few others; see if you can find them in the later images.

Taking a closer look at the San Julian settlements reveals the pattern of deforestation more clearly.

Most of the settlers were from Bolivia’s western highlands, and the rest were poor farmers from the Santa Cruz department. A prolonged drought in the 1980s followed by an economic crisis led to further migration to the San Julian settlements. Settlement was much slower than expected. So even though the satellite images show rapid expansion, growth was planned to be even more rapid.

The farmland is organized in a distinct pattern of nucleos. A nucleo is a square block of land, about 2,000 hectares in size. Two to four hectares in the center are designated as communal land, where a deep well for water is located. Some centers have school buildings, soccer fields, marketing centers, medical treatment posts, or cooperative stores. Planners recognized the importance of soccer by making the cancha, or soccer field, a part of the nucleo center layout in each settlement.

The individual farm plots radiate outward from the central communal area and each covers just under 50 hectares. The major crops are maize, sunflowers, and soybeans. The nucleo pattern provides an area of concentrated social and economic interaction.

In the 1975 image, the initial clearing for the San Julian settlements is visible along the highway—the pink line heading north-south. Later images show a well-defined 3x3 box pattern with roads connecting them. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) helped fund new roads along with wells and community center clearing.

In the middle of the two groupings of nucleos is a clearing of a different pattern. This is the Zapito private farm, which is not part of the San Julian colonies.


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