What Ever Happened to the Amazon Rain Forest?Did we save it or what?
By Brendan BorrellUpdated Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009, at 7:11 AM ET
Amazon River. The Amazon RiverWe used to hear so much about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, but lately not a word. So what happened—did we save it or not?
We didn't save it, but we haven't stopped trying. Environmentalists fret over the fate of the Amazon for good reason: It contains more than half of the planet's remaining tropical rainforest, one-fifth of our global freshwater, and as much as one-third of the world's biodiversity. Saving all this was once a rallying cry for green activists, and a few early triumphs made that goal seem likely. But attention soon shifted away from the rainforest to issues like climate change and organic agriculture, and now the Amazon is disappearing at about the same rate it was in the 1980s.
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Fifty years ago, the Amazon was still largely intact. Then in 1964, Brazil passed a law to encourage landless peasants to leave the slums and develop the interior. Anyone who could demonstrate that land was being put to "effective use" would get a title to it. As a result, the native forest-dwellers began to be displaced, and newcomers started clearing large areas for cattle production and rubber tapping. Without an extensive road network, however, the process was slow. Almost all of Brazil's forest remained untouched through the 1970s.
Starting in the early 1980s, however, the forest began to disappear at a much higher rate. With the help of investment money from the World Bank, farmers and ranchers built enough roads and settlements to destroy an average of 8,158 square miles of forest per year, an area about the size of New Jersey. That's when the environmentalists really got moving. In 1985, the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network began staging protests around the country and helped put an end to Burger King's $35 million "rainforest beef" contract in Central America. The following year, the newly formed Rainforest Alliance held a workshop in New York City, which was covered in New York Times with an article titled "Concern for Rain Forest Has Begun To Blossom." The situation grew more intense in 1988, when an activist (and former rubber tapper) named Chico Mendes was assassinated by angry ranchers at his home in the Amazon. But the flashpoint came when the Brazilian government announced its most ambitious, and potentially its most devastating, proposal to date: a highway through the state of Acre to Lima, Peru, which would bisect the Amazon and connect its nascent industries to the Pacific coast and the economic engine of Japan.
Soon celebrities like Sting and crooner Phil Collins were rallying against the highway project, along with noted Latin American intellectuals: authors Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa signed a letter calling accusing the nation of a "policy of ecocide and ethnocide." The ruckus temporarily stalled the project, and Brazil enacted some modest conservation measures. In 1991, deforestation slowed to one of the lowest rates on record.
By that point, popular interest in the Amazon was on the decline. Using the Nexis news database, the Lantern found 993 articles about the Amazon forest in U.S. papers from 1990. In 1995, that number dips by more than one-third, even as deforestation rates spiked higher than they'd ever been. Today, about one-fifth of Brazil's remaining forests are officially protected, but huge swaths of land in states like Mato Grosso have been taken over by cattle plantations and soy. Brazilian laws require Amazonian landowners to maintain 80 percent forest cover, but the law is rarely enforced. Even now, Brazil continues to encourage landless peasants to flock to the Amazon, and it has yet to give up on the dream of a transoceanic highway.
The good news is that interest in the Amazon has begun to take off again in recent years. That's mainly because of the role that forests play in staving off climate change: Scientists estimate that the Amazon itself has between 85 billion and 100 billion tons of CO2 stored in its trees and shrubs, or about 11 years' worth of U.S. carbon emissions. The dangers aren't limited to Brazil, of course—deforestation rates in Asia and parts of Africa now rival those seen the Americas. In 2009, the Guinness World Records named Indonesia as the country with the most rapidly disappearing forests—it's losing about 2 percent per year—although Brazil remains the leader in absolute terms.
Many environmentalists now pin their hopes on a U.N.-sponsored plan to use carbon credits as a means of reducing deforestation in developing nations. The so-called REDD Scheme will be on the table at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month. In the lead-up to those talks, Robin Williams, Sting, and a host of other aging celebrities have embarked on a "Rainforest SOS" campaign to stop tropical deforestation and prevent "run-away climate change." Most of the celebs on the roster are more than a little past their prime, but the destruction of the Amazon is just as timely as it ever
Brendan Borrell is correspondent for the Scientist and has written about wildlife for Smithsonian and Natural History. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Photograph of the Amazon River by Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Creative Images.
As long as the world is getting 3% (and growing) of its liquid transportation fuels from agriculture (which requires ~20% (and growing) of the world's food), then there will be more and more demand for agricultural lands... Whether those lands grow food or fuels is immaterial, since both agriculture and food are fungible commodities - therefore if one person grows food, another can sell his food to fuels refineries, or vice-versa.
As long as we continue to need more fuel than is provided through petrofuels, then the problem will worsen.
Until then, there is a strong financial incentive for the Brazillian government to look the other way, and a strong financial incentive for the people to burn down more forestland and plant more farmland... because food is still expensive, and will only become more so as more and more food is converted into fuel.
World Bank estimates that by 2050 the world demand for food will be twice what it is today...
Where will that food come from? One option is to increase the yields of the acres currently being planted: The other option is to plant twice as many acres.
I consider this a blatant challenge to those misguided environmentalists that are obsessed with "organic" foods. Your choice of food requires more land, which means more forests will get cut down, because with a fungible commodity that's how the world works. Of course, those who eat beef and pork instead of chicken and fish (I'm not cruel enough to suggest eating bugs, and I certainly wouldn't suggest eating tofu - ugh) also require more farmland, and most people have figured out that biofuels are VERY VERY bad for the planet... but most environmentalists know about these... yet many actively fight for something that also bad for the planet, in the name of environmentalism...
If you want to save the rainforest then put your money where your mouth is and buy the acreage. Start a foundation. Start a carbon sequestration fund. Start one of those tourist businesses where they affix ropes and platforms to the trees and you can slide to and fro like George of the Jungle. The key here is, you've got to submit your bid because advocacy is pretty meaningless in the face of local economic interests.
The Brazilians are merely doing what has been done universally to unsettled wilderness. Europe was deforested in the 1200s CE. Manhattan used to be covered with trees, but it's a hell of a lot more valuable now as an island covered in cement, glass, and steel. And let's not get started on Africa, Brave Africa.
As much as you may hope for the preservation of whatever the rainforest represents, you're not going to win out over the interests of the people that actually live there. They gotta do what they gotta do unless you're willing to pague o dinheiro.