Tomorrow's Amazonia

There's a brash, risky new Amazonia out there. Pioneer entrepreneurs are making fortunes from activities long considered not feasible in this vast and challenging place, gouging ever deeper into the rainforest in pursuit of wealth. The deeper they slash into the forest and burn it, the more greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere. The destruction of the Amazonian forest has become a leading cause of global warming, with profound climate implications and dangers within the region and far beyond it. Why all this matters so much, and what there is to be done about it, is the subject of this report.

Amazonian soy growers, pushing aggressively into uncultivated lands, ship their very profitable product to customers as far away as China via a $100 million waterway that runs from growing areas in Brazil's Mato Grosso state to a grain port at Itacoatiara on the Amazon. Soy, now Brazil's top export, is "the most important protein in the world," says Brazilian "soybean king" and Mato Grosso Governor Blairo Maggi, in an interview with authors Mark London and Brian Kelly. "We are creating the greatest soy-growing area in the world. This is the next great breadbasket." Maggi, not universally admired by environmentalists, insists that he does not have to cut down a single tree to expand his already formidable agribusiness empire.

Domestic and foreign markets for beef are thriving as well, with new pasture grasses improving yields in Amazonia and with the highly contagious hoof-and-mouth disease more or less under control in Brazil. Immense profits are being made from largely illegal Amazonian logging, which is only lightly regulated by underfunded, and often corruptible, government agencies. With Southeast Asia's hardwoods being logged out, the future world-market prospects for Brazilian mahogany and some other hardwood species are bright. Manufacturers have made a roaring, if contrived, success out of the free-trade zone in Manaus, the capital of Brazil's huge Amazonas state. This booming city of 2 million, a thousand miles up the river, is among Brazil's most prosperous. The free-trade zone alone directly supports some 100,000 jobs. Amazonas Governor Eduardo Braga claims that his state remains more than 90 percent forested and that he intends it to become "the Costa Rica of the Amazon" through eco-sensitive development initiatives. Agriculture-triggered deforestation, meanwhile, races across southern portions of his domain.

And, say some, what's happening now is only the beginning of a grand, new development wave promising unprecedented wealth along a broad belt from the Andes to the Atlantic. Beyond the human imprints already imposed on the Amazonian landscape lie even grander designs being put forth by governments, bankers, corporations, and development agencies. Oil, gas, and mineral exploration continue apace. The Brazilian state oil company is currently building the first of many planned pipelines from Amazonia's heart to urban markets. Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, has a similar idea and plenty of money to make it happen. The World Bank Group, which lacks a clear vision as to what it would like to see the Amazon become overall, currently favors heavy infrastructure projects, such as a soy port and facilities to support cattle ranching, over lighter-handed approaches more fashionable a decade ago.

At the Inter-American Development Bank, planners are progressively realizing the immense 348-project, $38 billion Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) scheme. It envisions roadways from Brazil to the Pacific, bridges, airports, pipelines, hydroelectric power stations, and waterways all designed to support resource exploitation and trade within and beyond the region and bring riches to many. Originally proposed by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 2000, IIRSA boasts a roster of 31 first-stage "top priority" projects scheduled for completion by 2010. New roads reach westward from Brazil's Acre state into Bolivia and across Peru, as if following Peru's visionary 1960s President Fernando Belaunde Terry's plan to link the Andes to the Atlantic and open new trade routes. "He dreamt about it then," says Avecita Chicchon, director of Latin American and Caribbean programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Now it's really happening."

Such schemes give new currency to some old ideas about the basin's potential. After traveling in Brazil early in the 19th century, the Bavarian scientists Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius and Johann Baptist von Spix foresaw a time when Amazonians would triumph over the "rank vegetation" and build an agricultural paradise. The great field biologist Alfred Russel Wallace expressed similar optimism about the prospects for converting the "primeval forest" into "rich pasture and meadow land." Recent successes challenge long-prevalent scientific arguments about the basin's poor soils and resulting fragility as reasons to pursue nondevelopment policies. And they revive long-simmering ideas about riches stored within the basin and up for grabs. Time magazine featured this breathless description in its October 18, 1982, cover story:

The lore of this awesome stream, infested with ferocious piranha and catfish large enough to gulp small children, surrounded by lush rain forests, with trees up to 150 ft. tall, stretching hundreds of miles, is also gilded by a lingering legend that this formidable landscape conceals phenomenal treasures.

With perhaps 15 percent of the total Amazon forest already gone, up from something like 3 percent only 30 years ago, and deforestation continuing at alarmingly high rates, these new visions of Amazonian development scare the daylights out of many scientists, environmentalists, and other careful observers of the region. They see the near-chaotic wave of human occupation and forest destruction, especially along the well-defined Arc of Deforestation on the basin's southern and eastern flanks, as a steepening graveyard spiral that, unrelieved, can ultimately have no positive outcome. Forest cutting and burning cause the release of ever greater amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, triggers drought, and turns the once-damp forest into a tinderbox. Sayonara in short order, fear many of the world's best-qualified Amazon watchers, for the magnificent Amazonian rain-forest and its precious biodiversity—fully a quarter of all the world's plant and animal species. The biome, writes Brazilian climate scientist Antonio Donato Nobre, has "survived glaciation but not the chainsaw and the torch."

Conservationists' efforts to work out economic alternatives to Amazonian deforestation go back many years. Ethnobotanists have searched hard to find medicines in the wild from plants that cannot be farmed. Entrepreneurs have long sought to establish commercial markets for Amazonia's rich array of tasty fruits, the species du jour being a palm called the assai that yields a crushed pulp said to have health-giving properties. Brazil nuts, rubber, and some of the basin's myriad species of fish are other Amazonian products that traditional people can sustainably harvest, often from within government-designated protected areas called "extractive reserves." Ecotourism is seen as a limited but viable form of income-generating forest use. But of all the ways suggested to alleviate forest destruction, many experts now agree, the most promising involve new efforts to protect portions of the forested landscape.

"Climate change to the rescue," says Adriana Goncalves Moreira, a World Bank environmental specialist with a Harvard doctorate and an insatiable will to bring better order to the basin's future development. First, she and others argue, the maximum possible amount of Amazonian land must be sheltered from random development. In partnership with the Brazilian government, the World Wildlife Fund, and several other international donors, the World Bank is currently supporting the Amazon Region Protected Areas Program (ARPA). This huge, new system of national parks and protected areas in the largely unspoiled northern Amazon is 50 percent larger than the entire U.S. national park system. One way or another, about half of all Brazil's Amazonian forest is now legally protected, and by popular demand more and more of it is being salted away all the time. Protected status is also being applied to extensive parts of Peruvian and Ecuadoran Amazonia that are especially well endowed with indigenous communities and biological riches.

With substantial portions of the forest secured, Amazon specialists argue, the world can more effectively focus on the next step—refining new initiatives to pay Amazonian people and nations handsomely for storing the carbon the forest contains rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. The world's progress toward the creation of a formal market for tropical-forest carbon, via the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is agonizingly slow. Nonetheless UNFCCC parties are actively discussing new means of avoiding tropical deforestation via international compensation, possibly a carbon-trading mechanism. It is no longer a question of whether some mechanism for compensating tropical countries for forest carbon will emerge, says climate-change expert Stephan Schwartzman; it has become only a question of when—and what it will look like. And already (see "The Economics of Storing Carbon" sidebar, page A26) there is mounting interest among corporations in making informal purchases of forest-carbon offsets.

Those who would save the Amazon from disastrous helter-skelter deforestation are also working out the details of schemes to certify soy, cattle, and other Amazonian products as having been sustainably produced; already there is in place in Brazil a two-year moratorium on forest destruction to plant soy. The Forest Stewardship Council's log-certification program, now in existence for several years with some success, is only a small first step in this direction, it is argued; many other similar initiatives will come along. For all the opposition to these sorts of projects in Washington and a few other environmentally backward places, there is widespread hope that the day for them will finally come as public concern about the effects of global warming spreads ever more widely across the planet.

With such a rich assortment of big ideas in prominent circulation, it is a timely moment for this American Prospect special report. In it we offer a comprehensive analysis of the causes and consequences of Amazonian deforestation and the reasons why climate considerations have thrust these issues onto center stage for the entire world. Then we turn to the development efforts now being attempted, commenting both on the technological breakthroughs that have made some of them newly possible and on old and new obstacles to success that public initiatives face: inadequate funds for management, vast distances, corruption, politics.

Weighing all the factors, we reach a conclusion that is gloomy—but less than apocalyptic. Even without climate change as a compelling new kicker, there have been many improvements in research, understanding, and policy within the nine nations that occupy the region and control the basin's destiny. And global warming and its ominous effects offer powerful new reasons to convert thought into action to arrest forest losses and keep carbon stored in the trees. On balance we see Amazonia as likely, as Brazilians would put it, to piorar cada vez menos—get worse at an increasingly slower rate. Finally we suggest some ways in which the international community can help—and offer reasons why it is urgently important to make the effort.