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TWO DECADES AGO, the tiny town of Sorriso, deep in the heart of Brazil’s tropical savanna, wasn’t much to look at: three or four streets and a cluster of cheap multiunit buildings. “There were no cultural activities, there was nothing to do,” recalls Boston University economist and geographer Rachael Garrett. “Just agribusiness and soy.” It took 12 hours to get there by bus from the nearest airport.

Last year she flew in to the local airport—no more 12-hour bus rides—and saw a Sorriso transformed. There was a yoga studio, a Crossfit, shoe shops, and luxury hotels with aquamarine swimming pools. The dusty outpost at the end of the world now looks like Tucson. Says Garrett: “It just sprawls and it sprawls and it sprawls.”

The growth of Sorriso, though an extreme case, epitomizes the changes in Brazil over the last few decades, as farms, ranches, and cities have consumed vast areas of wetland, savanna, and rainforest. Those changes have helped expand the economy—Brazil’s is eighth in the world—but at a cost: Since 1990, Brazil has lost about 150,000 square miles of rainforest, an area almost three times the size of New England.

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