A group of scientists at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the environmental research group IPAM, and the Woods Hole Research Center have built a satellite-data-driven model of future deforestation scenarios for the Amazon, based on how much has already been cleared and the well-documented historical relationship between building and paving roads and forest clearance. Their conservative, business-as-usual estimate: 40 percent of the existing forest cover of the Amazon (the whole basin, not just the Brazilian part) will be gone by 2050. Worse, no one knows if there is a tipping point, beyond which the ecosystem unravels irreversibly—or where it might be if there is one.
There are other possibilities. When the model is run assuming an expanded network of protected areas and better environmental-law enforcement (the "governance" scenario) it predicts 60 percent less deforestation than under "business-as-usual." But is there any reason to think that a "governance" scenario for the future of the Amazon is more than an algorithm in the model?
Well, yes, there is. Consider the Indian lands in the Brazilian Amazon. Forty years ago, when the frontier was first opening, indigenous peoples had constitutional rights to the lands they traditionally occupied, which was virtually no land. Today they have over 20 percent of the Amazon officially recognized as theirs (two Californias, for about 250,000 people), and they mostly keep people out who they think are going to settle and clear forest. Indian lands are rife with logging and mining invasions, some are seriously threatened by projected hydroelectric power ventures large and small, but you only have to look at the satellite images to see that where the Indian land starts is where deforestation stops. In fact, all kinds of reserves—indigenous, sustainable use, parks—stop deforestation even in the middle of active frontier areas. Creating an indigenous reserve or a park means people illegally deforesting and occupying land will not be able to get title to and sell it. Only incompetent land speculators would pay hired guns to occupy public land that's not no-man's land anymore.
All told, the government has created some 93,000 square miles of newly protected areas in the Amazon over the last four years, as well as unleashed a series of high-profile law-enforcement actions that put hundreds of illegal loggers and corrupt government functionaries in jail, issued millions of dollars in fines, seized mountains of timber and equipment, and shut down sawmills all over the frontier. This, in part, is responsible for about a 60-percent decline in deforestation from 2004 to 2006, along with a strengthened real (Brazil's currency) and falling commodity prices. Repression of illegal activities has worked, but people are out of work, businesses are closing, and resentment is running high and growing along the Trans-Amazon and the BR-163 highways. In the absence of sustained commitment to implementation and enforcement of the newly protected areas, and above all, real economic alternatives for local people, mere law enforcement won't work for much longer.
The private sector is, however, beginning to wake up to eco-consciousness. The Earth Alliance, a cattle ranchers' and soy farmers' NGO, has adopted best-practices standards and satellite-based monitoring methods so that their members can show buyers that they're following the law and will keep on producing without clearing any more forest. There are several efforts to create industry-wide standards for soy, which may ultimately limit its impact. And Brazil's government has created a forestry-concessions law that, through better monitoring and enforcement and by making sustained-yield forestry more competitive, may end illegal logging altogether.