The Brazilian Dilemma

A nation struggles not to exploit its own greatest resource.

By Marcelo Leite

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Photo: Associated Press

Seen from the height of 36,000 feet aboard a Brazilian Air Force jet, the Amazon rainforest looks tranquil as we approach our destination, the town of Tabatinga, a jungle outpost in the state of Amazonas where Brazil meets Colombia and Peru. A dark green velvet blankets the land as far as we can see through the fluffy clouds below us. The monotone is free of vehicle tracks, broken only by muddy threads of rivers flowing into the Upper Solimões, as the main branch of the mighty Amazon River is called where it enters the country on its 4,000-mile descent from the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic.

But if this five-hour flight from São Paulo offers a glimpse of a vast and untouched Amazon, it also highlights the checkerboarding created by recent development. To reach the wilderness from the south, we first fly over countless towns, coffee and sugar cane plantations, and processing plants covering the state of São Paulo. Then the flight continues northward over immense cattle areas that lay siege to the unique, biologically diverse floodplain called the Pantanal, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Passing over Rondônia state, an hour or so before we land, we see how soybean plantations—prominent newer stars in the country’s growing array of exports—have replaced whole swaths of Amazon rainforest.

In sum, the flight gives the passenger a quick snapshot of a massive ecological dilemma. Of the original 1.5 million square miles of Brazilian Amazon forest, far and away the world’s largest, some 82 percent remains intact. This entire area, roughly the size of India, is home to only twenty-four million people and is endowed with incredible biodiversity of global significance. But it continues to give way to logging, cattle, and soy plantations.

The big question is whether this southern giant will follow the development path favored by many Brazilians, once again plundering Amazonia’s natural capital and suffering the severe consequences of deforestation. Or will it learn from unsustainable prior experience along its Atlantic coast, and resist dragging the Amazon rainforest into the same trap?

The recent news has been good. According to satellite photos taken by Brazil’s highly regarded National Institute for Space Research, deforestation rates have been dropping steadily since 2004. That was the year that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, responding to increasing pressure from the international community and a growing contingent of ecologically minded Brazilian voters, revealed the Amazon Deforestation Action Plan. The plan involves tighter controls over loggers and ranchers, including fines and even imprisonment, and the refusal of credit by official banks to farmers who are not able to document that they abide by environmental regulations. Chief among these is the Forestry Code, which requires the preservation of at least 80 percent of forest cover on Amazonian properties.

Another piece of good news is Brazil’s Amazon Fund, an innovative idea first announced by former Environment Minister Marina Silva at the United Nations climate conference in Bali in 2007. The fund, newly operational this year, collects voluntary contributions from other nations, companies, and even individuals: the government of Norway has pledged $1 billion to it, of which a first installment of $110 million was deposited at the end of March. Another $18 million is expected to come from Germany soon. Fund officials working at the National Economic and Social Development Bank, a federal agency, then channel these funds to conservation groups and projects—but only after a country-wide reduction in deforestation has been achieved and documented.

The emergence of this government-run fund, a spinoff from international discussions about Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), constitutes an advance in several important ways. First, by retaining Brazilian control over how the money is spent, the fund’s structure counters nationalist objections to receiving foreign funds in exchange for forest conservation and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Control over the national patrimony has been a strongly valued concept in Brazil ever since the bad old days of the mid-twentieth century, when foreign interests owned local electric power and oil companies. Dreams of Amazonian prosperity arouse similar feelings. Second, for the first time after decades of resistance, the fund commits Brazil to deforestation targets. The goal is to achieve an 80 percent reduction in Amazon deforestation by 2020. Third, the willingness of Norway and other countries to hand over substantial monies to Brazil, for projects chosen by Brazil only, reflects growing international confidence in the country’s ability to measure deforestation rates and select anti-
deforestation controls.

But even as Brazil pursues policies to slow deforestation, it advances others that could speed it up. In particular is the government’s $328 billion Accelerated Development Plan, an ambitious long-term national effort to strengthen Brazilian infrastructure and ties with neighboring countries by means of new highways, bridges, airfields, and electric power installations. Support for such initiatives comes from powerful farming and mining interests. Each new mile of road in the Amazon creates new opportunities to exploit the forests. Meanwhile, agribusiness leaders and sympathetic members of Congress have launched an offensive against the Forestry Code and some of its more restrictive provisions. They are, for example, trying to restore the 80 percent reserve rule in the Amazon to the 50 percent level previously required.

The bottom line: the battle is far from over when it comes to balancing Amazonian economic growth and conservation, and in Brasilia the tug of war continues. The severe effects of Amazonian deforestation on regional weather and the global climate are becoming ever better understood. The forest’s biodiversity remains impressive, and there are still countless plant and animal species yet to be analyzed for their possible benefits to all of us. Still, the reality is that if Brazilians were forced to choose today between forest and development, many would favor the latter, matching the amount of forest that has already been lost and abandoning another 18 percent or more to development, exports, and short-term prosperity for some. Most would gladly retrace the path the nation followed along the coast while eradicating the no less diverse Atlantic forest—thus replicating the fate of most of the temperate forests in the developed world.

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Marcelo Leite, 1998 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, is a freelance science writer, blogger, and book author based in São Paulo, Brazil.  
 
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