13 June 2009

The Amazon: The Future of the Forest / The Economist

The Amazon

The future of the forest

Jun 11th 2009 | MANAUS
From The Economist print edition


Brazil’s government hopes that land reform in the Amazon will slow deforestation. Greens doubt it

Still Pictures

THE tiny village, where naked Ticuna Indians live in wooden houses
raised on stilts, looks out over one of the rivers that becomes the
Amazon. No place seems farther removed from the ups and downs of the
world economy. But this is misleading. The Ticuna, who now have a large
reservation at Novo Paraíso near Brazil’s borders with Colombia and
Peru, took their first steps towards globalisation when they had the
misfortune to encounter Portuguese raiders several centuries ago.
Later, rubber drew the Amazon into the list of hinterlands that could
be tapped if supplies were tight elsewhere, allowing growth to
accelerate in much of the world from the 19th century onwards. And
today new demands on the Amazon’s riches will determine the future of
the forest.

About 900 miles (1,500km) downriver to the east, in Amazonas state,
stands Manaus. Rubber barons built the city from the 1860s onwards. Its
early residents made up for their distance from the European centres of
fashion by trying to outdo Paris during the belle époque in
drinking and debauchery. Now Manaus’s Zona Franca is the workshop for
most of the televisions, washing machines and other white goods sold in
Brazil. Special arrangements allow firms such as Sony and LG to import
parts tax-free from elsewhere in the world and assemble them there.
Despite being surrounded on all sides by thick forest, Manaus hums with

Some 350 miles to the south-east, in Pará state, the high gold price has encouraged a few hundred garimpeiros,
or wildcat miners, to follow rumours of a strike and trek for days
through the forest to a place, not far from Itaituba, which they have
optimistically named “Bom Jesus”. They live in shacks with tarpaulins
to keep off the rain, digging square holes and sifting through the red
soil in the hope of finding a seam of gold. Malaria lurks there, and
the men say there is cyanide in the water. Apart from a visiting
government minister and some other dignitaries and journalists who have
come for the day by helicopter, there is nothing to indicate that the
Brazilian state exists. Its place has been taken by a local boss who
claims to own the land (though it actually belongs to the federal
government) and takes a percentage of any gold found, while charging
the workers exorbitant prices for supplies that are dropped off by
small planes.

South by 400 miles, in Mato Grosso state, the Amazon meets the
agricultural frontier. Much of the world’s growing demand for protein
is satisfied here. The state, which was once thought to have poor
farmland, has been transformed over the past few decades and is now the
country’s biggest producer of soyabeans for vegetable oils and
cattle-feed. Mato Grosso is also home to an unproductive kind of
agriculture, which involves ranching small numbers of cattle on newly
deforested land. The forest in the state shrank by 105 square miles in
the three months from November to January, according to the Brazilian
Space Research Institute, which uses satellites to monitor

All these places are part of the Amazon rainforest, an area
one-and-a-half times the size of India, or nearly eight times the size
of Texas. Most of it lies within Brazil. It is home to 20m Brazilians,
or 10% of the country’s population. Many of them live a hardscrabble
existence in places that are hot, wet, often disease-ridden and
sometimes dangerous. These people have gone from being heroes who
answered the government’s call to populate and subdue an empty region,
to environmental criminals who are wrecking the planet, all the while
standing on the same spot and doing what they have done for decades.

No government would think of condemning so many voters to persistent
poverty in the name of saving trees. Moving them is impractical and
would be unjust, since the state moved them in the first place, under a
policy that began in the 1960s and lasted for 20 years. (Other
institutions helped too; the World Bank provided a loan that financed a
large migration from the south of the country to Rondônia state in the
days before it cared about greenery.) A vast migration was accomplished
with promises of free land, subsidies and a slightly menacing marketing
campaign that exhorted people to ocupar para não entregar
(“occupy it or lose it”). Parts of Brazil’s government still fret that
covetous foreign powers may try to annexe the Amazon forest unless the
country can find something useful to do with it.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government has often seemed to
sympathise more with these voters than with environmentalists, who are
anyway politically weak in Brazil. His first environment minister,
Marina Silva, resigned in frustration last year. This pleased the bancada ruralista,
an informal block of representatives who defend agricultural interests.
They were glad to see the back of Ms Silva, the daughter of
rubber-tappers who grew up in the forest and became the most eloquent
spokesman for the need to preserve it. This agricultural lobby makes up
20-25% of Congress, according to João Augusto de Castro Neves, a
political consultant.

Fires, grass, cattle

To improve the lives of Brazilians living in the Amazon, the
government has devised a set of policies known as Plano Amazônia. They
envisage an expansion of road-building in the forest, as well as some
big hydroelectric projects. Both are loathed by people who want to
preserve the trees. Plano Amazônia also contains measures to slow
deforestation, but these will be hard to enforce. Money is short, the
area to be policed is vast, and the folk who make money when the trees
are cut down are endlessly ingenious.

Many people derive their income from deforestation. In Tailândia, a
town in Pará surrounded by sawmills, some 70% of the population depends
on logging in some way, according to local officials in the state’s
finance ministry. The loggers work in tandem with cattle farmers: once
the loggers take the best trees from an area, the rest is cleared and
burnt. The farmers then sow grass and raise cattle. The land is quickly
exhausted as pasture, but it then passes to another type of farming,
while the loggers and cattle move farther into the forest and begin all
over again.

This pattern helps to explain why the rate of deforestation tends to
move with prices for beef and soya, with a lag of about a year. Yet it
is a wasteful way of using land. A recent study of some 300
municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition
of Science, shows that deforested areas enjoy a short
economic boom, then quickly fall back to previous levels of development
and productivity as the frontier moves on. Deforestation also, of
course, reduces the rainfall on which Brazil’s agriculture depends.

Consumers in America and western Europe who mind about deforestation
may think they have some influence over all this. A recent study by
Greenpeace encouraged them, by trying to show that bits of Amazonian
cow were finding their way on to supermarket shelves in the rich world.
They are wrong, however. The five leading markets for Brazil’s enormous
beef exports (the country ships more of it than the total of the three
next-largest exporters, Australia, Argentina and Uruguay) are Russia,
Iran, China, Venezuela and Egypt, according to Roberto Giannetti da
Fonseca of the Association of Brazilian Meat Exporters. And in any case
the beef produced in the Amazon is mostly eaten by Brazilians in
neighbouring states.

Even so, Mr da Fonseca says his association would like to see
cattle-ranching removed from the Amazon, because of the damage it does
to the reputation of exporters. The big soyabean exporters have already
pledged not to buy from growers in the Amazon. Greenpeace, which helped
to design the agreement, counts it as a success. This just leaves an
internal market for cheap soyabeans and beef, which supports 30m head
of cattle in the Amazon out of a total of 200m in the country.

Given the hardships that farmers in the Amazon face, it may seem
surprising that they do not just give up. One reason is that clearance
and cattle bring in extra money from other sources. The farmers are
also property developers of a kind. Jungle land can be grabbed for
nothing, avoiding what is normally a huge outlay in farming. And
ranchers often sell the land they have deforested to another user, even
though they do not legally own it. Most people who study deforestation
reckon this creates an incentive for farmers to push farther into the
forest, rather than staying where they are, spending money on improving
their land and raising productivity.

Ending this cycle is one aim of a land-reform bill that was recently
approved in Congress, though not without controversy. This law is now
with the president, who has the power to veto some of it. The
government claims that the legislation will at last enable it to
discover which farmers are operating on illegal land and in the
informal economy, and in the future will make it possible to work out
who is committing environmental crimes. Many environmentalists,
however, think the law merely rewards criminal behaviour. Ms Silva has
appealed to Lula to use his veto.

Get off my land

Holdings in America’s Great Plains, impressively neat and
rectilinear from the air, were laid out in various early land laws and
then parcelled out among pioneers. Brazil’s frontier has never
benefited from such an elegant application of geometry. A study from
Imazon, a non-profit research outfit, suggests that just 14% of
privately owned land in the Amazon is backed by a secure title deed.
The rest is covered by fake documents (usually lovingly antiqued) or
simply by right of settlement.

In the most contested parts of the forest, in Pará state, conflicts
over who owns what are sometimes settled with a gun. In 2005 the murder
of Dorothy Mae Stang, an American nun and environmental campaigner who
lived in Pará, brought this to the attention of a wider public. In his
trial, the man who pulled the trigger said he had been paid 50 reais
($20) for the job.

Eyevine Tranquillity on the river

There are still gunmen for hire in Pará, according to the police in
Tailândia, a town of 25,000 people. Rosenildo Modesta Lima, the local
police commander, says that when he arrived there a couple of years ago
there were seven murders over one weekend; now there are two or three a
week. The police are on edge. Just the other day a heavily armed gang
attacked a police station in a neighbouring town in an attempt to get
more weapons. Two gang members were killed and a third injured.

The new law will interpose the Brazilian state into this mess,
judging between competing claims, handing smaller plots of land to
their apparent owners and reclaiming very large ones (in excess of
1,500 hectares or 3,700 acres) for the state. This will undoubtedly
entrench some old injustices. “It’s very hard to know who killed
someone 20 years ago to get a piece of land and who just arrived
recently,” says Denis Minev, the planning secretary for Amazonas state
(which has a good record on deforestation). Even so, in the long run
the measure may prove useful. “Land regularisation is of fundamental
importance for halting deforestation,” says Carlos Minc, Brazil’s
environment minister.

Enforcing the new regime will be as difficult as ever. IBAMA, the
federal agency charged with this task, collects less than 1% of the
fines it imposes during operations in the Amazon. “This is not
something that is feared as a serious threat by people who break the
law,” says Roberto Smeraldi of Amigos da Terra, an NGO. The sporadic
weakness of the Brazilian state is partly to blame for this. But any
government would struggle to police the frontier between forest and
farmland, which is far longer than America’s border with Mexico.

This is why many environmentalists now argue that the only way to
fix the problem is to give people who live at the frontier something
more profitable to do. The government has begun to change the region’s
economies. Since July last year farmers without titles to their land
are supposed to be denied access to subsidised credit, though this too
is hard to enforce.

Efforts to commercialise forest products, from Amazon river fish to
oils for use in cosmetics, are also under way. Amigos da Terra, in a
study of these businesses, finds them to be profitable when they form
clusters and turn out finished products. “I am convinced that in 20
years we will have a viable forest economy,” says Mr Smeraldi. “Only by
then we will have lost a lot of forest.”

Speeding up this process is one of the motives behind the $1
billion donation for the Amazon announced in September by Norway’s
government. The Brazilian government has set up an Amazon Fund for this
money and any future donations. Norway will have no say in how it is
used, but the amount of money it releases from the fund will be linked
to Brazil’s success in slowing deforestation. Germany will give
something to the fund too. Turid Rodrigues Eusébio, Norway’s ambassador
to Brasília, says lots of other countries are watching Norway to see
how the experiment goes, and will chip in if it is a success.

Google Earth Depredation from space

Amazon states hope to acquire another stream of money, in the form
of payments for not cutting down trees, from the UN initiative known as
REDD, which will be discussed in Copenhagen in December (see article).
Payments of this kind are already being made in Amazonas state: $8.1m
from private companies such as Marriott hotels and Bradesco, a big
bank, is being handed over by the state government to 6,000 families in
exchange for not cutting down any more trees. The challenge is to
extend such schemes to the trees on the edge of the farmland, which are
most at risk.

Still, argues Ms Rodrigues Eusébio, it will take more than changing
cattle-ranchers into nut-gatherers to put a stop to deforestation. To
bring a more elevated form of economic development to the region,
Brazil’s government is convinced that it needs to build more roads in
the forest. This too is controversial. Some 80% of deforestation
happens within 30 miles of a road. Seen from Google Earth, the southern
part of Pará state looks as if someone has dropped large fish skeletons
on the jungle, as spines of deforestation push into the trees from
either side of the roads. Deforestation is more severe where a road is
good, which is why the proposed asphalting of the BR-163, from Cuiabá
in Mato Grosso to Santarém in Pará, is held up by a legal wrangle.

However unpalatable road-building is, it may be needed if the people
who live in the Amazon are to lead a better life. “The Everglades are
very beautiful, but America did rule out building roads through them to
connect Miami with other parts of Florida,” says Mr Minev of Amazonas
state. The government now knows how to build roads without unleashing
the loggers, he argues. Amazonas has recently signed an agreement
creating nature reserves on either side of the BR-319, which runs from
Manaus to Porto Velho. The road will help to integrate Manaus into the
rest of the country’s economy. When the Zona Franca was established in
1967, it took 15-20 days to get goods to consumers in São Paulo, in the
country’s south-east. It takes the same amount of time today.

In this vision of the Amazon, the forest will be preserved as a
large national park with sprinklings of industry added to enrich its
inhabitants. The agriculture at its edge will be more productive than
it is today, making use of abandoned land and raising yields to meet
domestic and foreign demand without encroaching farther into the
jungle. This is aim is plausible, as well as commendable, but it will
take decades to accomplish. In the meantime, the forest will continue
to shrink. The fight today is over how fast that happens.



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