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A paradise to lose

by Janna Schönfeld

In brief

Slash and burn in Brazil: more than 15 % of the Amazon rain forest has already been  destroyed, and the rest is in danger

Slash and burn in Brazil: more than 15 % of the Amazon rain forest has already been destroyed, and the rest is in danger

The Amazon jungle is the largest rain forest in the world, invaluable as the planet’s green lung. It will play a crucial role at the UN Biodiversity Conference this May in Bonn. At the climate talks in Bali last year, resolutions were adopted to protect the rain forest.

The Amazon region is home to more than one million species of animals and plants – some 60 % of the planet’s species. The rainforest is therefore an irreplaceable archive of biodiversity. But it also performs valuable services for plants and the soil, by binding considerable amounts of carbon dioxide, for instance. Nonetheless, the latest satellite images show that the rainforest is still under threat. Clear-cutting continues, to make space for cattle ranches and soybean plantations. Climate change, moreover, is also beginning to threaten the wilderness.

In the past 40 years, a rainforest area twice the sizes of France was destroyed in the Amazon basin. Most of this devastation occurred in Brazil, which is home to more than half of the rainforest. Destructive practices continue even today, although the government of Brazil, with international support, is doing quite a bit to put an end to them. However, global demand for agrofuels is increasing, and Brazil’s model of economic development is based on commodity exports. Both the national government and most state governments focus on mass exports of raw agricultural products, such as meat, soybeans and sugarcane.

Blairo Borges Maggi is the world’s most important soybean producer and the governor of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. He says that forest romanticism has no future. He and other agro-millionaires speak of defending the “constitutional right to deforestation” for the sake of Brazil's development. But Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister and a former rubber-plantation worker, disagrees. She supports a different development model. As she puts it, if trends are not sustainable, they are not about development, but only about repeating catastrophes.

Nowadays, a number of sustainable approaches are being tried out to find a balance between protecting and exploiting the woodlands. Some of them are successful. For instance, it makes sense to pay the local people for environmental services like protection of and care for the forests, and to combine such efforts with ecotourism and the manufacture of fair-trade and certified products. In future, German development agencies will focus on expanding such successful programmes. Moreover, the rainforest should be divided into various zones, and zone usage plans should be drawn up.

In all these efforts, the local population must be involved – and that is no easy task. Some 20 million people live in the Amazon region – Indian tribes, small local farmers and rubber tappers, for instance, whose interests repeatedly conflict with those of industrial soybean farmers, cattle ranchers and the growing urban populations. In particular, non-governmental organisations are therefore emphasising the rights of indigenous peoples.
At a conference organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation on “Climate and change in Amazon”, Ingrid Hoven of the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development said that an important challenge is to include “enemy actors” in future development strategies. Professor Edna Castro of the University Pará agreed, stressing that the urban people deserved attention in addition to soybean barons and cattle ranchers. After all, they make up as much as 70 % of the Amazonian population, and many of them suffer from poor sanitary and hygienic conditions.

The discussion about funds is heated. Jörg Haas, spokesperson of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, says humankind must not trade in Greenland’s ice for the Amazon’s rainforest. He fears that industrialised countries will not reduce their emissions at home if they are allowed to buy certificates for rainforest preservation. As a result, the global temperature would increase by more than 3°C, probably putting an end to Greenland’s glaciers.

Janna Schönfeld