The Search for Solutions

Brazil has a prodigious ability to spend billions of dollars on Amazonian projects of little benefit to Amazonian people, flora, and fauna. In 1997 the federal government launched SIVAM (System for the Vigilance of the Amazon), a $1.4 billion program to deploy a fleet of 33 airplanes, specially equipped with sensitive monitoring gear, along the nation's northern frontier. The principal purpose of this shield is to enhance national security by offering protection in an area almost entirely bereft of roads or people of any sort, let alone forked-tongued foreign devils.

Growing numbers of huge hydroelectric plants supply heavily subsidized power to aluminum smelters along Amazonia's rivers and to large cities in Brazil's southern region. Meanwhile, locals who need far less energy than is being supplied must cope with the environmental consequences of damming and flooding the once-pure rivers. Decomposing forests flooded to create the dams, some of which generate scant power in return for the damage they cause, emit vast amounts of methane, a far deadlier greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The cleanest airport terminal buildings this side of Switzerland, in Belém and in Manaus, (p'ra Inglés ver, as they say -- for the English to see) lie in discouraging proximity to some of Brazil's most fetid slums. Poorly planned road projects open up new areas to deforestation and cattle ranching while doing little to improve the flow of goods to markets.

It would be an exaggeration to call such efforts part of a "grand design" for the region. The projects mentioned above, and others like them, were hatched and bred separately, not as part of an overall policy. At the outset of the presidency of Brazil's current leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has expressed disdain for environmental issues, the environmentalist and anthropologist Mary Allegretti designed, wrote, and circulated for the Environment Ministry a well-reasoned sustainable development plan for the region. With its ink still wet, it disappeared. Says the author: "There simply was not enough power in the Environment Ministry to convince the other branches of government to take sustainable development seriously."

In the absence of agreed-upon alternatives to conventional development models, it seems likely that Amazonian nations will in large measure continue to go in for conventional development. Road-building projects will open up new lands to logging, ranching, and oil, gas, and mineral exploration. Some projects are already in high gear. The advance of agricultural frontiers, with forest cutting and burning as inevitable accompaniments, will render the region ever more vulnerable to drought and to further devastation from fires. Airports will continue to close each burning season because of the thick smoke from the fires, and the smoke itself will contribute to global warming.

As long as good returns can be made from soy, logs, and cattle, there is little reason to doubt that the so-called Arc of Deforestation will continue its expansion into previously little-touched areas. Five percent of all soy produced anywhere now comes from Amazonia, and this number is bound to climb, assuming the market continues to grow. It seems unlikely that Amazonian nations would miraculously shift gears and do what few societies anywhere in the world have ever done: control the human impulse to make way for farmland by cutting down trees.

Despite all the above, as we said at the outset of this report, there are reasons to think that, out of the jumble of conflicting forces now shaping the region's future, there will emerge a middle ground of adequate development and adequate protection. Several of this report's authors see advances, as well as the predictable retreats, toward the elusive nirvana of "sustainability." "There's plenty to report other than gloom and doom," says primatologist Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and a three-decade veteran of Amazonian involvements. "I'm gung ho about the Amazon."

At the broadest level, the measured view is related to discerning Amazonia not as a huge, steamy, unbroken stretch of wet forest and endless rivers, but as a diverse mosaic. Its landscape is defined not only by the advancing agricultural frontier, but also by natural ecological divisions between rich and poor soils, mountains and flatlands, areas of moist and dry woodland, dense "jungle" and fertile cerrado. It has become popular among some academics, notably the archaeologist Anna Curtenius Roosevelt and the geographer William Denevan, to remind audiences that before Amazonians succumbed to European guns and diseases during the conquest, they lived quite comfortably in substantial and sophisticated settlements and at quite high population densities. "Amazonia never was a virgin," author Mark London reminds us.

One reason for measured hope is that Brazil's government, while maintaining its strong ongoing interest in environmentally destructive forms of development, has also taken some positive steps. The recently declared Amazon Region Protected Areas Program (ARPA) is off to an impressive start. Already some 88,800 square miles of land have been secured for strict protection or "sustainable resource use," and the program is well along on the pathway toward achieving 10-year targets. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports a long string of positive results since on-the-ground implementation began in 2003. ARPA, it says, is "exceeding expectations and delivering extraordinary conservation results." For WWF, says Matt Perl, director for Amazon protected areas, ARPA is "definitely a flagship program."

Complementing ARPA and other efforts to protect forest lands is a new Brazilian forest law, passed in 2005, that aims at curbing illegal land occupation, contracting out publicly owned lands to private loggers for sustainable management, and creating jobs. Though some are skeptical, others praise the move. Says the International Tropical Timber Organization: "Legalizing the economic use of federal forest lands for the production of timber and non-timber products will facilitate the development of forest industry, increase employment and revenues, and generally improve conditions for local communities." Another positive factor is the rise in concern for forest protection at the state level. Commendable state-level initiatives are under way, from Acre, in Brazil's far west, to Amapá at the basin's eastern edge. What started out as an innovative land certification and zoning program in Mato Grosso state in the early 2000s later fell victim to corruption by officials managing it and the arrest and dismissal on corruption charges of the state's environment secretary. But this setback is said to have been overcome, with state governor and soybean king Blairo Maggi expressing ever greater desire for the region to prosper sustainably.

What these sorts of programs reflect is not just a change of heart at the level of state governor -- no candidate has recently posed for the TV cameras brandishing a chainsaw, as one did some years ago -- but also the increase in the number, quality, and professional skills of less senior state government officials who have little use for forest destruction. These people are often found working hand in hand with members of a fast-growing network of Brazilian nonprofit organizations that are concerned with "socio-environmental" issues. In the 1970s Peru's conservation movement essentially consisted of one dedicated aristocrat, Felipe Benavides, who ran an embryonic chapter of the WWF. Now hundreds of Peruvian environmental groups such as the well-established Peruvian Association for the Conservation of Nature closely monitor everything from marine turtle habitats to remote development schemes such as the potentially destructive Lower Camisea natural gas project in the remote Lower Urubamba Basin.

In Brazil, organizations of that sort began to take hold in the 1970s when pioneer conservationists successfully agitated for the creation of national parks in Amazonia and elsewhere. The movement first became prominent during the late 1980s, when the violent death of rubber tapper Chico Mendes aroused worldwide concern, and achieved further visibility and prominence during the course of the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian NGOs have gone on to become fundamental in all aspects of Amazonian development. A number of them, including the environmental research organizations IMAZON and IPAM in Belém, have become important if only for the matchless quality of the information in their reports.

International nongovernmental organizations such as the Amazon Conservation Team, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the WWF have also become deeply rooted in Amazonia. Earlier on, those representing these sorts of groups were widely accused of being high-handed in their dealings with the local people they claimed to be trying to help, and of favoring the wellbeing of wildlife over human needs. Foreign scientists suspected of being spies had trouble getting visas allowing them to do their research. Xenophobic attacks persist, but now the international NGOs work in far smoother partnerships with local groups, and they have done much to generate funds from abroad to sustain their activities.

With national treasuries providing scant funds for Amazonian protection, and most of these allocated to policing functions, the international NGOs have played a prominent role in generating fast-mounting sums of international public and private financial support for more progressive activities. Where funding for Amazonian conservation was once the province of a few large U.S. foundations, now there are many bilateral and multilateral donors, including the World Bank-managed Global Environment Facility (GEF).

An impressive example of what the nongovernmental sector can accomplish even with little direct support from any official agency is to be found in and near two mid-Amazonian regions called Mamirauá and Amana, now officially declared Sustainable Development Reserves. Here, starting in the early 1980s with inspired leadership from the late José Márcio Ayres, a pioneer Brazilian primatologist, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has achieved notable success in helping local fishing communities create sustainable and profitable stocks for many species that could easily become overharvested. "Thanks to science-based fishing quotas," reads one WCS report, "populations of the commercially valuable pirarucu have dramatically increased since the early 1990s and the reserves' fishermen are earning greater profits than ever before."

Ground has also been gained, some feel, through a major demographic shift -- the concentration of the once largely scattered Amazonian peoples into towns and cities, where some 70 percent of them now reside. While Amazonian urbanism has created new problems of poverty, health, and sanitation in mushrooming shantytowns, the shift has also lessened the pressure of advancing swidden agriculture into pristine forest areas. How much this shift has helped remains uncertain, for many of the formerly "rural" people now live in towns of 50,000 to 100,000, of whom many continue to carve illegal roads out into the forest and practice slash-and-burn farming. Notably, though, much of the population that is truly "rural" consists of still-isolated groups of indigenous people who are well known as the region's best forest stewards. Some of these groups are severely harassed by environmentally irresponsible oil and gas exploration as well as by intrusive ranchers, miners, and loggers. But encouraging progress has been made, in Brazil at any rate, in demarcating the large amounts of land to which these groups have constitutional rights. And they themselves have learned much about using modern technologies to monitor and protect their lands.

As well, scientists continue to make progress in inventorying and cataloguing the basin's biological wealth, documenting the effects of deforestation on the biota, and giving planners and policymakers an ever more solid scientific basis for their actions. The proliferation of scientific knowledge, from a very low baseline not many years back, is truly impressive.

Ultimately, what must be understood is that the region's future lies irrevocably in the hands of the nations that own it. No amount of arguing that its precious biodiversity and major role in the global climate cycle make the basin "ours" will prevail over local claims of sovereignty, even though Amazon-provoked climate change may affect farmers as far away as Africa and the U.S. midwest. So what can we in the United States do about it? A lot. Rather than practice swaggering unilateralism or threatening retribution in reaction to "bad" choices by Amazonian nations, we would be better advised to work sensitively through established channels of communications in hopes that the result will be policies and practices that work for us all, protecting much of the forest while also addressing regional economic goals.

The international community of concerned citizens, governments, foundations, and aid donors can encourage these sound approaches to future Amazonian development:

  • Work hard to create viable forest carbon finance mechanisms that will function effectively at the state and local level as well as nationally and globally, and pay Amazonian people and nations well to store carbon for everyone's benefit.
  • Improve efforts in developed countries to control drug use, treat addiction more as a medical than a criminal matter, and promote economically viable alternative farming opportunities rather than spraying coca fields with deadly toxins. Improve the environmental and social quality of anti-narcotic initiatives.
  • Increase support for truly sustainable development initiatives in the basin, particularly those that strengthen the hands of indigenous communities with vested interests in protecting the standing forest and those that improve the livelihoods of other Amazonians with traditional artisanal skills.
  • Systematically alert media to examples of egregious environmental performance by oil companies and other polluters extracting natural resources from the region. Encourage application of the "polluter pays" principle.
  • Alert U.S. and other executive directors at the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to environmental and civil-society pitfalls from major development projects in the pipeline for board approval.
  • Do everything possible to limit public and private purchases of Amazonian hardwoods to those that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or other well-qualified international agencies to have been sustainably harvested.
  • Through scholarships and direct support for capacity-building university programs in environmental science, management, and technology, help Amazon nations build on the considerable strength already achieved in training much-needed professionals in these fields.
  • Work closely with Amazonian nations to design, support, and expand scientific research efforts in the region, especially those directed at analyzing the consequences of biodiversity losses and of regional and global impacts from global warming.
  • Help generate expanding financial resources and management tools to enable Amazonian governments to demarcate, declare, and manage enlarged networks of protected areas within the basin's borders.
  • Seek opportunities to encourage large industrial corporations that are increasingly practicing "green" production methods at home to apply to their Amazonian operations the rigorous standards they claim to uphold internationally.

These are some of the positive forces and ideas at work in the basin, aspects too often ignored or underemphasized in reports that focus sharply on disaster areas where lawless chaos prevails and forest destruction is rampant. Perhaps, even when you add up all the constructive ideas and projects of quality, you still have no match for the power of easy and too-often crooked money. "It's a territory in dispute," says Marcio Santilli of the influential Instituto Socioambiental. "And it's a very difficult situation now because, in spite of its gravity, there is no common or general interest in positive solutions."

But at the very least, there are fewer places to hide. Global warming has put Amazonia back on Page One.