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Amazon still standing, but not out of the woods

Brazil's rain forests haven't disappeared, despite predictions, but development projects will have an effect.

December 16, 2007|Michael Astor | Associated Press

MANAUS, BRAZIL — In the 1980s, scientists sounded the alarm: The Amazon was burning and would be gone by the end of the century.

Two decades later, the dire predictions have not come to pass. About 80% of the world's largest remaining tropical wilderness is still standing -- a vast carpet of green crisscrossed by the Amazon River and its 1,100 tributaries.

But scientists warn that although the destruction has slowed, a Connecticut-sized chunk disappears every year for ranching, farming and logging.

The reasons for the rain forest's survival have more to do with economics and a political change of fortune than with the worldwide environmental campaign to save the Amazon.

In the 1980s, Brazil was under a military dictatorship with ambitious plans to develop the country's portion of the rain forest -- 1.6 million square miles. Had the nation not suffered in a massive debt crisis in the late '80s, "everything would be gone by now," says Philip Fearnside, a U.S. scientist at the Brazilian government's National Institute for Amazon Research.

But that's no reason for complacency, he warns. Although the rate of deforestation has dropped dramatically over the last few years, it remains alarmingly high. And new threats loom, among them corporate farms armed with the latest agricultural technology to grow soybeans, raise cattle and plant crops for biofuels.

"Total investment in the region over the last 500 years is equal to what is projected for the next 10," said Joao Meirelles, director of the Peabiru Institute, who estimates that private and public-sector investments over the next decade will top $50 billion.

The plight of the Amazon, highlighted by celebrities such as pop star Sting, is closely linked to climate change. Every year, burning rain forests release millions of tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming.

In addition, the Amazon is an important absorber of carbon dioxide, the World Wide Fund for Nature warned in a report released at the United Nations conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia.

"The importance of the Amazon forest for the globe's climate cannot be underplayed," said Daniel Nepstad, the Amazon-based scientist who wrote the report.

The warnings come as Brazilians are dusting off plans to pave long-neglected jungle roads, threatening to open vast swaths of pristine rain forest to development of commodities such as soybeans, sugar cane and iron ore that underpin the Brazilian economy. Scientists say each paved road typically brings with it 30 miles of destruction on each side, and draws influxes of poor settlers in a region where 45% of the population lives on $2 a day.

Money versus ecology represents a huge challenge for Marina Silva, Brazil's environment minister. The country is heading into an election year for congress, some governors and mayors, and the world's appetite for commodities is growing, after a slump that had led to a reduction in rain forest destruction.

"Right now is our trial by fire," Silva said. To defend the Amazon, "we are mobilizing all our resources."

To balance development and environmental concerns, Brazil since 2000 has required landowners to leave 80% of their forested areas standing. Enforcement has been stepped up, and 40% of the forest now lies in protected areas, up from 11% in 1991.

But protecting the rain forest means influencing the behavior of 20 million people, in groups that are difficult to regulate, in an area larger than Western Europe.

The battle often turns violent. In 1988, a rubber tapper and foe of logging named Chico Mendes was shot to death and became an international icon of the environmental movement. In 2005, Dorothy Stang, an American nun and rain forest defender, was killed in a land dispute.

About 90% of all logging in the region is carried out illegally.

As commodity prices recover, recent figures show rates of deforestation in some Brazilian Amazon states more than doubled between June and September compared with the same period a year earlier

Many environmentalists say that the government isn't trying hard enough to enforce protective laws. Silva vigorously denies this, pointing out that over the last three years Ibama, the federal environment agency, has levied $1.7 billion in fines and arrested 665 people for environmental crimes, including about 120 of its own agents suspected of corruption.

Critics say, however, that the government lacks a broader plan for the region. It needs to find a way for Brazil to profit from the rain forest without destroying it, says Charles Roland Clement, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Amazon Research.

"We have the biggest forest in the world and it's supposed to be the green gold of the future," he said, "but its biodiversity contributes less than 1% to the gross domestic product."

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