Spatial Patterns of Frontier Settlement: Balancing Conservation and Development

Cynthia Simmons, Robert Walker, Stephen Perz, Eugenio Arima, Stephen Aldrich, & Marcellus Caldas


Amazonian deforestation has declined recently, but Brazil’s infrastructure plans continue to target the region. In the interest of sustainable development, this article engages the spatial discourses in conservation planning and landscape ecology. It does so by addressing fishbone fragmentation, commonly observed in development frontiers in Brazil. The article demonstrates the importance of road-building by private citizens as key to explaining this particular development geometry. It also suggests that fishbone fragmentation may promote human welfare, and at the same time provide a porous disturbance “filter” with vegetative corridors linking areas of low disturbance across areas of human occupation, thereby enhancing connectivity to support biodiversity conservation.


Brazil has emerged as a global economic force owing, in part, to its long-term spatially explicit economic strategy of integrating Amazonia into its national life as a resource frontier (Kleinpenning 1977; Becker 1982). Mineral exploitation has produced wealth for Brazil and a myriad of national and international investors, as well as a modicum of development in areas proximate to mining activity (Palheta Da Silva 2007; Godfrey and Thypin-Bermeo 2012). The expansion of Amazonian agriculture, specifically soybean farming and cattle ranching, has also spurred rising incomes in parts of Mato Grosso and Pará states (Castro et al. 2001; Walker et al. 2009; Richards et al. 2012; VanWey et al. 2013; Weinhold 2013). Such economic gains have translated into a dramatic build-up in human population, at least in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon basin. In 1960, when the Belém-Brasilia highway was finished, the population in the Legal Brazilian Amazon was estimated at 4 million, but since that time it has grown nearly tenfold to more than 24 million by 2010 (IBGE 2010).

Spatial considerations have never been far from Brazil’s development playbook for Amazonia, both at the national scale with the building of highways to connect the region to the ...

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