When I was a kid, my best friend was given an acre of rainforest for her birthday. As exotic as it seemed, the gift really consisted of a piece of paper; a card with a picture of a tree frog and some lushly verdant virgin tropical rainforest in the background. The words “Thank you for saving the rainforest” and my friend’s name were written on the back.
Rainforest preservation was the cause du jour of the late ’90s and indeed led to an increase in awareness and conservation efforts. But it didn’t stop the destruction.
Spanning nine countries, the enormous 1.2 billion acre tract of land that is the Amazon basin is home to over 70 per cent of all plant and animal species and is unequaled in its biodiversity.
It contains thousands of mammal, bird and reptile species, tens of thousands of plant species, and 1.5 million species of insect. The Amazon is also an important storehouse for large amounts of carbon contained on the planet.
Of the nine countries that have Amazon rainforest – Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana – Brazil is home to the biggest portion, about 60 per cent.
The current pace of globalization and an insatiable hunger for exotic hardwoods, cattle, soy beans and other cash crops continue to deplete the forest to the tune of 20,000 acres per day. Much of this destruction comes in the form of slash and burn.
Consequently, Brazil is one of the largest exporters of beef worldwide and the second largest producer of soy beans after the United States.
In fact, many well known multinationals like John Deere and Cargill, Bunge and ADM have a considerable stake in the unsustainable exploitation of the Brazilian Amazon by providing part of the machinery and infrastructure necessary to make the country the agricultural powerhouse that it is.
Unfortunately, the growth of Brazilian agriculture ventures is owed in large part to rampant corruption and inadequate government controls. This has resulted in much of the profits from agriculture going to very few. To add insult to injury, the thin soil that forms the floor of the fertile rainforest is not well suited to large-scale farming.
Once the trees are removed, it quickly suffers from erosion and is less and less productive as time goes by.
In response to these many problems the government of Brazil has recently taken an important step toward privatizing the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
Under the new policy, the government will auction off logging rights to large tracts of the forest. The companies that win the rights to log will not have title to the land, nor will they have the right to utilize any resource other than timber.
These companies will in turn pay a royalty to the government and be closely monitored.
By doing this, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government is attempting to create Brazil’s first encompassing and efficient rainforest policy.
It is being called a “new partnership with society.” Unfortunately, many critics are saying that a lack of resources to administer and enforce regulations on the land will result in further corruption and continued rampant unsustainable deforestation.
This alarming state of affairs is everybody’s problem, for several reasons.
Brazil is one of the highest greenhouse gas producers in the world, spewing about 300 million metric tones of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. About two thirds of these emissions come from logging and burning in the rainforest.
Perhaps more importantly though, deforestation produces an unprecedented environmental one-two punch of releasing the carbon stored within the vegetation and producing further carbon through the burning of forest, thereby accelerating the rate of climate change.
If deforestation were to continue at its current rate, the Amazon Rainforest would shrink to almost half of its original size by the year 2030.
Combined with climate change, if this process continued unabated it would, according to many scientists, result in drought in the rainforest and the eventual destruction of the remaining territory. A compound and irreversible catastrophe for the entire planet, as the Amazon contains much of its wildlife, and is responsible for cleaning great swaths of the air that we all breathe.
This means that what the Brazilian government and people do now will affect us all in the future.
If we care, we need to start looking hard at the provenance of our beef, soy and wood products and pay attention to what’s going on in the Amazon.
More importantly, we need to make sure that our own government realizes the importance of the Amazon Basin and cares about its fate.
If we don’t, the only thing we’ll have to show of the Amazon to future generations are billions of acres of withered barren fields and picture cards of what was once the beautiful beating heart of our planet.