The Fate of the Amazon
Brazil is the world's fifth largest country, it's 8.5 million sq
km occupy almost half the continent of South America. Much of Brazil
is scarcely populated and inaccessible to humans, 36% of the nations
territory is in the Amazon where there is less than 1 person per
The River Amazon at 6275km is the worlds largest river, it's tributaries
carry an estimated 20% of the world's fresh water. There are an
estimated 1100 tributaries flowing into the Amazonas, 10 of which
carry more water than the Mississippi. New mountains, rivers and
Indian tribes as well as new species of flora and fauna are still
being discovered. The richness and diversity of Brazilian flora
and fauna are astounding and the country ranks first in the world
for it's variety of primate, amphibian and plant species, third
for plant species alone; and fourth for butterfly and reptile species.
Despite this the Amazon is being settled, lumbered and depleted
at a disastrous rate.
The complex and fragile ecosystem of the Amazon comprises one tenth
of the world's entire plant and animal species, roughly 30% of the
worlds remaining forest, producing one fifth of the world's oxygen
and is irrevocably endangered. The rain forests are still being
stripped for cattle ranches, industrial sites and mines and the
rivers being damned for electricity.
Jaguars, Caimans, Dolphins and Monkeys are among the host of fauna
and flora that are threatened with extinction. As in the past the
native Indians will die out with their forests and the invaluable
irreplaceable Amazon will be lost forever. In 1995 alone an area
the size of Belgium was destroyed.
Despite the many pressures from environmental organisations it seems
there is no easing in the destruction rate. Much of the 'green-speak'
that has been promised overseas and in Brazil does not happen. The
Brazilian 'Environmental Crimes' pact that stated only 20% of land
could be logged is not enforced.
Gilberto Mestrinho, now the ex-govenor of the Amazon state, is responsible
for destroying over 1.5 million sq km of the Brazilian rainforest
during his term in office. He once said 'I like trees and plants
though they are not indispensable. After all men have lived in space
for almost a year without trees'!!!
During the 80's the Brazilian government acted as if the forests
were an asset to exploit to pay back the foreign debt caused during
the 20 years of military dictatorship. Encouraged by the 'IMF',
'The International Monetary Fund' and the World Bank, the Brazilian
government provided large incentives to coax multinational timber
and mining firms to subjugate the Amazon. These gigantic projects
were designed to yield short term profits and pay off the foreign
debt regardless of environmental and social consequences. Many of
the loans for these projects worsened Brazil's foreign debt. The
Mata Atlantica, an area of forest that covered 1.5 million sq km
has been reduced to a mere 10,000 sq km, and some Brazilian sources
say the area will be finished in ten years along with the 300 species
of wildlife that are now on the brink of extinction.
Much of the Amazon can not support large scale agriculture, the
jungle topsoil is thin and acidic containing insufficient essential
calcium phosphorous and potassium for crops. The traditional small
scale slash and burn techniques of the nomadic Indians, that put
ash into the soil and would herald crops for a small community for
a few seasons worked. The Indians would move on and the forest would
regenerate. In contrast the modern agricultural techniques are enormous
in scale and fail to give the forest a chance to recover.
Vast tracts of land are bought for speculation below the earths
surface, not growing on it. Brazilian law requires that one-third
of the land be put to use, the owners set fire to the land killing
the wildlife indiscriminately, plant grasses and raise cattle. The
government approves the land rights and the mineral rights are secured.
It's ironic that most of the countries criticising Brazil's development
of the Amazon were encouraging such development only a few years
ago. 'Debt-for-nature' policies from the 'World Bank's global environmental
facility pumping millions of dollars into conservation initiatives
have had an underwhelming success. Funds have a strange habit of
missing their destination and finding their way into private accounts;
whilst the countries environmental protection units suffer from
lack of funds, staff and equipment and as a consequence, an inability
Most environmentalists agree that local communities are in the best
position to protect and manage natural resources in the Amazon by
control of the type of timber cut, being selective rather than clearing
huge tracts of land for only a few commercially valuable trees.
Brazil and foreign governments must empower these communities to
be the custodians of the Amazon and train and educate these people
to manage their resources.
Environmentalists have demonstrated to industry the effects of not
polluting and industry is beginning to respond. Environmental studies
accompany all major industrial projects, though this doesn't mean
that the companies concerned will feel compelled to act on recommendations
made. If Brazil's environment and the important role it plays in
the stability of the global environment are to succeed it will be
through the efforts of environmental pressure from groups like 'Friends
of the Earth' to pressure domestic and international banks to stop
financing destructive development projects and to persuade the Brazilian
government to adopt more rational uses for the Amazon.
For more information on how you can make a difference please contact
of the Earth at www.foei.org
Niel and Sarah