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California Signals From Amazon Smoke

Burning, oil extraction feed a global appetite so strong that no nation will apply the brakes.

September 04, 1997|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn, who writes for the Nation and other publications, is the coauthor, with Susanna Hecht, of a 1987 book about the Amazon, "The Fate of the Forest."

PETROLIA, Calif. — Up here along the North Coast, off Eureka, a man out catching albacore tells me he'd just seen a sailfish. They're pulling in mahi-mahi off the coast of Oregon. I've never dared bathe off Cape Mendocino, five miles north of where I live, but this year they've been measuring temperatures of 70 degrees in certain patches off the coast. It's too early to know where the jet streams will set themselves and hence where the worst of the tropical storms will hit California, but everyone from Malibu to Crescent City knows it could be a very wet winter indeed.

Concerns about temperature changes have become a fixture of late summer news bulletins. There's always some place across the continent that's cooking up and prompting another bout of speculation about global warming and its causes.

This year, as part of the follow-through from the global accords agreed upon at the Rio de Janeiro conference of 1992, countries are meeting in Bonn in a collective effort to surrender as little as possible, in terms of the right to pollute. In August, negotiations on a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the next century foundered on the reluctance of the United States and Japan to make useful proposals.

Back in the late 1980s, when global warming first became an issue of concern, the burning of the Amazon forests became a prime symbol of human irresponsibility.

A decade later, the Amazon is about to return to the front pages, and the situation is much worse.

It's no longer just a matter of millions of acres of trees going up in smoke, releasing carbon dioxide. The Amazon basin is now reckoned to hold oil reserves of vast proportions. Venezuela alone has almost triple the reserves of the United States. Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Brazil are now active sites for oil exploration, with joint ventures by international oil companies. Besides the obvious enhancement of First World fuel guzzling, the effects are of several kinds. In the first place, the exploitation of these new fields is occurring in remote areas with no protections. In the Ecuadorean Amazon there have been oil spills as bad as that of the Exxon Valdez. In the oil fields in Venezuela's Orinoco basin there's the problem of Orimulsion, a patented mixture of extra-heavy crude oil, water and chemicals that competes with coal as a cheap fuel and is particularly deadly to ecosystems. Venezuela has reserves of 1.2 billion barrels of the stuff and is increasingly exporting it to Japan, Europe and the U.S. Orimulsion is 30% water and so, unlike crude oil, doesn't separate but dilutes. It's highly toxic, not particularly biodegradable and mimics estrogen in its action on animals. An Orimulsion spill is certainly in our future, though as yet there's no technology available for cleanup.

Flaring off natural gas from wells is a common practice, and thus throughout the oil fields of the western Amazon it's not peasants clearing their subsistence plots who are creating the fire and smoke, but the oil and gas companies.

The oil companies are not the only culprits in Amazonian burning. In the last decade there's been a vast boom in soybean cultivation, with an explosion in the rates of clearance in the drier, deciduous tropical forests outside the humid swatch flanking the major rivers of the Amazon.

Thousands of square miles of what was once dry forest, stretching from eastern Bolivia almost to the Atlantic coast, the whole southern tier of Amazonia, is being burned off, mostly for soy production by large-scale agribusiness. More than 100 million acres of trees have gone. Environmental groups concentrating on the humid rain forests have raised scant uproar about the human and environmental consequences of this destruction.

If we are to believe the models of climate change, the oil fields of Peru and Ecuador, the burned savannas of southern Amazonia, all feeding First World appetites, in the end contribute to those warmer waters off Cape Mendocino, heavier winter rains, bigger floods, larger disasters. Can nations do much about this, in such venues as the upcoming conference on climate change to be held in Kyoto in December? Probably not. The big soy farms, the oil fields answer a global appetite that is expanding rather than diminishing. A world of loosened and faster trade means national regulation takes a back seat. For all the boilerplate about global responsibility, no one, no government, will apply the brakes.

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