Saving the Amazon
Brazil has become an economic powerhouse. What does that mean for the Amazon, a precious resource for the entire world?
By the thousands, then the tens of thousands, they came. Starting in the early 1970s, a flood of miners and settlers rushed into the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, hungry for gold and land. They polluted the rivers and burned down countless acres of forest to grow crops. The settlers also brought diseases like malaria, alien to the rainforest, which killed thousands of the Amazon’s indigenous (native) people.
Large-scale agriculture followed, creating massive soybean farms and cattle ranches. Loggers cleared trees for more than 100,000 miles of roads through the jungle. By 2007, about 20 percent of the rainforest was gone—more than had been lost since the Portuguese began to colonize Brazil in 1532.
Much of this development occurred with the aid of Brazil’s military dictators of the 1970s and 1980s, says Doug Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Those rulers had little regard for the rainforest—much less the Indians who lived there.
“They were openly saying, ‘We’ve got to get these people off the land so that it can be developed,’” Boucher tells JS.
Today Brazil is a democracy and an economic power. It’s now getting ready to step onto the world stage by hosting soccer’s 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
But to many Brazilians, the cost of success has been high. As Leo Gold, an advocate for the Amazon, puts it, “Contact and globalization have set human and wild nature on an ugly collision course.”
As Brazil charts its path into the future, it will have to strike a balance between two often competing goals: economic growth and saving the Amazon from deforestation.
Sometimes called Amazonia, the rainforest of the Amazon River basin is the largest in the world. It stretches across more than half of Brazil and parts of seven other South American countries (and French Guiana). With a land area of 2.7 million square miles, the Amazon rainforest is almost two thirds the size of the U.S.
Rainforests are crucial to the health of the entire planet. “What happens to the rainforest affects the rest of the world,” David Pearson, a professor at Arizona State University, tells JS. Often called “the lungs of the planet,” the Amazon rainforest, with its rich plant life, stores carbon dioxide while releasing the oxygen we need to survive.
At one time, rainforests covered 14 percent of Earth’s surface. Deforestation has reduced that figure to 6 percent today. It’s now estimated that one acre of rainforest is cut down every second. At that rate, another 9 percent of what’s left could be gone by 2030.
Much of the loss has been in the Amazon. From 1988 to 2005, an average of 7,000 square miles— an area almost the size of New Jersey—were lost each year.
THE FOREST CODE
Turning jungle into farmland has helped make Brazil the world’s second-largest producer of beef and soy. Yet over the years, Brazil has also become a world leader in rainforest preservation.
A law called the Forest Code, originally passed in 1965, requires the Amazon’s farmers to protect 80 percent of their land from cultivation. Although the law was “by and large totally ignored” at the time by Brazil’s military rulers, Boucher says, democratic governments beginning in the early 1990s began to enforce it seriously.
Efforts to save the Amazon increased under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2002–2011). Brazil set aside about 150 million acres of the rainforest, an area about the size of France, for protection. Deforestation fell by 74 percent between 2004 and 2009.
Advocates for the Amazon hope for more positive developments as the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games focus the world’s attention on Brazil. This June, the country will also host Rio+20, the United Nations (U.N.) Conference on Sustainable Development.
“Brazilian leaders are more conscious than many countries of how they look to the international community,” says Thomas Rudel of Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Other countries of the Amazon have also done their part. This year, Peru created a forest reserve about the size of California’s Yosemite National Park.
But as one of the world’s fastest-developing countries, Brazil is under continual pressure to ease its rainforest regulations. Skyrocketing prices of gold and oil have increased the demand for mining and drilling.
“Now [Brazil’s government is] facing political pushback to allow landowners to clear a larger area of their land for cattle pastures,” says Rudel. Lula’s successor as President, Dilma Rousseff, may soon sign a new law that many say will weaken the Forest Code.
A booming economy has also increased the need for more infrastructure. Brazil’s most controversial project is the proposed Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. It would be the third-largest hydro-electric project in the world—and would displace more than 20,000 indigenous people.
“What is happening in Brazil is the biggest backsliding that we could ever imagine,” Marina Silva, a former environment minister, told The New York Times.
Despite all of Brazil’s changes, many of the Amazon’s indigenous people remain isolated from the world (see box). They distrust outsiders, who have brought violence and disease to the forest.
In 1988, Brazil’s government began to map out a series of protected zones for the tribes. The largest of these, established in 1992, was for the Yanomami (yah-noh-MAH-mee). About 2,000 Yanomami, some 20 percent of the tribe, died of disease or in conflicts with miners between 1986 and 1993.
Some Yanomami fear that history is repeating itself. Their territory, they say, is again under siege from thousands of miners. Because of the area’s remoteness, authorities have had trouble keeping out intruders.
Last month, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a spokesperson for his people, appeared before a U.N. council in Geneva, Switzerland. He showed photographs of illegal mining operations and asked the U.N. to enforce existing national and international laws designed to protect the Yanomami.
This example of activism is being followed by other Amerindians. They are protesting against the Belo Monte Dam and similar incursions into the Amazon.
“For us Indians, this land belongs to us so that we can plant, hunt, [and] be healthy,” Yanomami says. “Our land is our heritage, a heritage which protects us.”
THINK ABOUT IT: How has Brazil used the rainforest to prosper? What more could the country do to protect it?