A stake through the heart of the world

Scientists mapping the effects of deforestation in the Amazon are increasingly concerned that we are reaching a tipping point – when the forest will start to die back of its own accord and rain, currently generated by the Amazon forests, will stop falling, not just in neighbouring countries but as far afield as the United States and South Africa.

Last December, a phenomenon never seen before struck the western Amazon, close to the border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. If you live in that part of the world you get used to the massive thunderstorms and torrents of rain that come in from the east, but no one there had ever before experienced the dense, dry, cough-wracking fog that stagnated for days over the region. For more than a week people remained confined to their homes, and, with visibility down to zero, no aircraft could land, no boats could ply the river. It wasn’t long before food and fuel began to run out in the city of Leticia, on the Colombian side of the river, and if anyone required serious medical attention then it was just too bad – no way could they be airlifted to safety.

When I was in Leticia a month or so later, people were still talking about the mysterious fog that had scared the life out of them. Meanwhile, word was coming in that, way to the east, Brazil had carried out another massive burn of the rainforest.

Last year, 2004, was the second biggest burn in Brazil’s history, with more than 26,000 square kilometres of pristine rainforest going up in smoke: that’s just short of the burn in 1995, when an area the size of Belgium was destroyed. In a matter of decades, more than 17 per cent of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has gone, mainly for beef cattle, soya, timber and land-hungry peasants who are told they must chop the forest down to gain title. In the eastern part of the Amazon, massive amounts of timber have been converted to charcoal to fuel furnaces for making pig iron. In terms of emissions per capita, the quantity of greenhouse gases released by the destruction of Brazil’s rainforests puts the country on a par with the US. Today, the production of soya, whether directly or indirectly, is the principal factor behind Amazon deforestation. In 1998 Brazil produced approximately one quarter of the world’s total from a land area a little more than half the size of the UK. In 2004 Brazil exported some 36 million tonnes from 20 million hectares, with an ever increasing proportion coming from Amazonia, in particular the province of Mato Grosso, where the governor, Blairo Maggi, is known as the ‘king of soya’ for his part in promoting and then controlling production.

Maggi is just one of a number of Brazilians responsible for the death of the rainforest. Sugar cane is now following hard on soya’s footsteps, with a 10 per cent increase in the land area used to farm it in Mato Grosso over the past year. With both crops the rapid expansion of the agro-industrial front goes hand in hand with massive investments in transportation to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Opening up waterways and constructing roads fuel colonisation, as well as the extraction of timber. Cattle ranchers are the first to benefit, and Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of beef, now has more head of cattle than any other country. Because of the poor soils in much of Brazil’s Amazonia, the production of beef per hectare must rank with the lowest in the world.

The short-term gains to the Brazilian economy are self-evident. In 2003 Brazil exported more than US $8 billion worth of soya and US $1.5 billion of beef. It also benefited from the export of illegal timber, especially mahogany, most of which went to Japan. Brazil’s national development plan, Avança Brasil, commits it to an investment of more than $40 billion over the next five years. At least half that sum is to be spent on constructing and paving highways, building railways and industrial waterways to export millions of tonnes of soya, laying gas lines and embarking on a bevy of new hydroelectric schemes. In all, 79 major (each with a capacity larger than 100 megawatts) hydroelectric dams are in the planning: 12 million hectares, equivalent to half the UK, of the Amazon forest would be flooded. When covered with water, the forest’s trees will decompose, releasing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases, including methane. From the emissions point of view, a large hydro scheme in the Brazilian Amazon is as bad as a coal-fired power station of the same electrical capacity.

Brazil is intent on opening its frontiers to new mining projects, to timber extraction and to major industrial agricultural schemes. Already, the Amazon River port of Santarém has a massive new dock and soya sorting stations; silos are also being prepared for the trucking in of the crop from the southwest of the Amazon basin via newly paved roads. Around Santarém all the forest has gone for thousands of square kilometres, with little to be seen but plantations of tropically adapted soya. At best, like the strip of hair on the shaven head of a Mohican, a tiny squared-off patch of dying forest may be left.

One agro-industrial project, along Brazil’s new 1,000-kilometre BR-174 highway from Manaus to Boa Vista, will lead to the clearing of 6 million hectares of forest and, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso says, ‘double the nation’s agriculture production’. The intention is to pave about 7,500 kilometres of roads, some new and others currently dirt track. Bill Laurance, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says: ‘[This] will greatly affect the ease with which loggers, colonists, ranchers and land speculators can gain year round access to forests, and will lower considerably the costs of transporting timber and other forest products to urban markets.’ The Belém-Brasilia highway, created in the 1960s, is today surrounded by a 300- to 400-kilometre-wide swathe of state and local roads and logging tracks. The fragments of forest that remain quickly degrade, leaving soils impoverished and barely fit for cattle, let alone anything else.

Multinational timber companies, particularly from Malaysia and Indonesia, have entered the Amazon in a big way. In 1996 alone, Asian companies invested more than US$500m in the Brazilian timber industry. According to Brazil’s national environment agency, the Ibama, they now own or control about 4.5 million hectares of the Brazilian Amazon.

In 1997 Greenpeace International investigated the Brazilian trade in mahogany and, through tracking with UV-visible paints, discovered that at least 80 per cent was illegally harvested. Most of that illegal timber finished up in Japan. The Brazilian government accepted Greenpeace’s findings and, in order to combat the poor forestry practices that go with illegal extraction, announced that it would open an additional 14 million hectares in 39 national forests to bonafide timber companies, the rationale being that it would therefore be better able to control and regulate logging practices. Quite obviously, the government has failed and illegal logging continues apace, boosting Brazil’s earnings. Greenpeace estimates that at current rates of logging virtually all the mahogany worth extracting will have been taken in as little as eight years.

The Amazon basin produces some 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen. The idea that the basin is ‘the lungs of the world’ has become a much repeated mantra. But that doesn’t take into account that nearly all that oxygen gets consumed by animals, fungi and the plants themselves that live in the region. In that respect, the Amazon rainforest is not so very different from the plants growing in your back garden. But what about another metaphor, that the Amazon basin is ‘the heart of the world’? Because, like a heart pumping blood to the lungs and then back to the rest of the body, the Amazon basin drives energy in the form of water vapour out of the region while completing the ‘circulation’ with water vapour brought in from across the Atlantic. Trade winds that sweep close to the surface of the tropical ocean, from Africa to Brazil, are crucial to the process. When passing over the warm ocean the winds pick up massive quantities of water vapour, which they then deposit as rain when hitting the Brazilian coast. There, the matter would end if it weren’t for the trees of the forest pumping water back up Aerial view of advancing deforestation in the Amazon Basin from their roots and out through millions upon millions of pores in their leaves. That ‘transpiration’ puts back at least 50 per cent of the rain that has soaked into the soil. About one quarter of the original rainfall never makes it to soil, but gets evaporated as it trickles down over leaves, branches and tree trunks.

The mature rainforest is therefore critical in recharging the air, so that, as air currents move westwards over the basin, the same water vapour falls as rain as much as seven times before the air mass reaches the high Andes. There, the air rises and, dragged by the spin of the earth, heads in the direction of north and south Africa. By the time the air is over Africa, it is dense, cold and dry. It sinks to replace the air being drawn across the Atlantic in the trade winds, and so the cycle is complete.

Every day, over the 7 million square kilometres of the Amazon basin, the sun sends down the energy equivalent of many million atomic bombs. By transpiring water vapour, the forest not only recycles the rain, but causes clouds to form that cool the entire region. Without the forest the temperature rises by at least 10[o] centigrade, baking soils hard and making them impenetrable to rain, which then runs off in eroding streams to the nearest watercourse. Neither soya nor cattle pasture is capable of recharging the air with sufficient water vapour to maintain rainfall. Consequently, as the deforestation continues, there comes a point when the remaining forest no longer gets adequate rainfall. The forest further to the west of the destruction then begins to die and decompose. The forest then releases all the carbon that it has stored during its growth, as much as 200 tonnes burping in the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. All that adds significantly to global warming.

In growing, the forest of the Amazon basin soaks up carbon dioxide to the tune of 8 per cent of the total emitted by the rest of the world. But the sheer pace of destruction is leading to carbon emissions that exceed the absorption by the intact forest. Nine football pitches worth are destroyed every minute in the Brazilian Amazon alone.

The area without forest is expanding. The land is increasingly desertified and the rains, when they do come, are more ferocious, washing away essential nutrients and destroying soil structure. On average, the forest canopy intercepts about 20 per cent of the rainfall; without the canopy as much as 4,000 tonnes of water per hectare per year hits the ground, causing the erosion of finer clay particles and leaving behind increasingly coarse sand. Soil under intact forest absorbs 10 times more water compared with pasture. With the forest gone, erosion rates are a thousand times greater.

Were all the Amazonian rainforest to go, as much as 77 billion tonnes of carbon, or more than 10 times current annual rates of emissions from all over the world, could find its way into the atmosphere. If the Kyoto Protocol were strictly observed, that quantity is more than the amount that all countries, including the US, would have achieved in curbing their greenhouse gas emissions over the coming century. If we wanted to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we would be hard-pushed to find a better way than by destroying the Amazonian rainforest.

Countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina, as well as the nations of Central America, and even the US, depend more than they know on the integrity of the Amazon rainforest. And still they do nothing to prevent president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva of Brazil from effectively signing the death warrant of the forest by overseeing the production in the region of soya for export to China. Nor do they seek to stop president Alejandro Toledo of Peru from granting timber concessions to the Japanese.

Through their inaction, all those countries are therefore signing up to their own destruction; and, without the Amazon forest to bring rain, agriculture throughout the Americas will be severely compromised. The Brazilian state of São Paulo gets 75 per cent of its rainfall courtesy of the rainforest; Argentina gets half of its rainfall from that source; Colombia at least half; and the rain that falls in the corn-belt of the US just at the beginning of the growing season also depends significantly on the Amazon basin.

Colombia needs the clouds formed by Amazonian rainforest to water its high plateaus, the ‘Páramos’, which provide the country with vital fresh water. And the country’s Nevadas, the snowy, glacial peaks of its 20,000-feet mountains, have been vanishing faster and faster, with a decline from 348 square kilometres kilometres today. The glib explanation is that global warming has led to the loss of glaciers. But, the real reason is deforestation and a decline in regional atmospheric water vapour. The ice simply evaporates, without melting, and there is no longer sufficient snow to make up the shortfall.

Global warming does however pose a further threat to the rainforest, by altering ocean currents and causing the trade winds to falter. With weaker trade winds, the moisture off the Atlantic Ocean is no longer adequate to maintain the rainfall cycle over the Amazon basin, and again there is that domino effect of dieback and death. That will indeed be bad news.

Conservation groups, like the WWF and Conservation International, had hoped that by creating national parks and reserves across the basin, Brazil would somehow get the best of all worlds: the chance to develop Amazonia for agroindustry and timber enterprises, and to have sufficient rainforest left to maintain a high proportion of biodiversity. Neither the Brazilian government, nor those conservation agencies have taken the dynamics of climate into account.

If the forest should go, if we should fail to restrain the likes of Blairo Maggi, if we should fail to stop the plundering of timber, if we should fail to convince the Brazilian government to abandon its scheming with China to open up the Amazon, then we are all, everywhere, in deep trouble. Ironically, on account of more heat remaining in the American tropics and less being carried in the airmass circulation that results in the trade winds, we in Britain could find ourselves getting colder and drier. Combine that cooling with a faltering Gulf Stream, and it will freeze the pants off us.

Even if we were able to cut back our greenhouse gas emissions to just 20 per cent of what they are today, we would still be in dire trouble if we allow the destruction of the Amazon rainforest to go on. And, with our demands for cheap meat and dairy products, we in Europe are as responsible as anyone for that destruction. We may talk glibly of weathering the storm of climate change. The fact is, that is unlikely to happen.

Peter Bunyard is science editor of The Ecologist


Greenpeace UK
Eighty per cent of timber from the Brazilian Amazon is logged illegally. Join Greenpeace’s Save or Delete campaign to stop the destruction.
Greenpeace funds a permanent base in Manaus, Brazil, from which the links between illegal loggers, timber companies and governments are exposed. In the UK, it takes direct action to prevent ships carrying illegal timber entering ports, and tags timber to trace its journey to the construction site or high street.
Canonbury Villas, London N1 2PN
Tel: 020 7865 8100 Fax: 020 7865 8200
Email: info@uk.greenpeace.org
Web: www.saveordelete.com
To find out more about illegal logging in the Amazon read Greenpeace’s report State of Conflict: an investigation into the landgrabbers, loggers and lawless frontiers in Para State, Amazon. Download it from www.greenpeace.org.uk, or phone 020 7865 8100 for a hard copy.

Rainforest Action Network (RAN)
RAN’s ‘Don’t Buy Old Growth’ campaign aims to preserve ancient forests, including the Amazon, by driving old-wood products out of the marketplace and promoting sustainable alternatives. Join the campaign to force Weyerhaeuser, one of the world’s largest and most destructive logging companies, to stop sourcing illegal Amazon timber.
221 Pine Street, Suite 500, San Francisco,
California 94104, the US
Tel: 415 398 4404
Fax: 415 398 2732
Email: rainforest@ran.org
Web: www.ran.org

Survival International

Protecting the rights of indigenous people whose livelihoods depend on the Amazon is one of the best ways of protecting the region.
Areas of forest surviving the mining, logging and roads in the Amazon are those that have been legally demarcated as Indian territories. Survival International is campaigning for the land rights of many more Amazon indigenous tribes to be recognised and for violence and genocide against tribal people to stop.
6 Charterhouse Buildings, London EC1M 7ET
Tel: 020 7687 8700
Fax: 020 7687 8701
Email: info@survival-international.org
Web: www.survival-international.org

International Rivers Network (IRN)
Join the IRN’s Latin American campaign to halt destructive river development projects. Funded by the World Bank and other multilateral organisations, dams inundate large tracts of rainforest, kill local wildlife, destroy aquatic habitats and contribute to global warming. Of particular concern is the dam proposed by the Brazilian state dam company Electronorte for the Xingu river. It would affect indigenous reserves containing 14,000 people.
1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, California
9470, the US
Tel: 510 848 1155
Fax: 510 848 1008
Email: info@irn.org
Web: www.irn.org

Volunteers and Researchers from all over the world come to Iracambi to help fulfil its mission to make conservation of the rainforest more attractive to the community than its destruction. Based on a working farm in the Atlantic Rainforest, where workers daily face the same issues as their neighbours: how can we make a living from the land, whilst also preserving the biodiversity of the area?
Fazenda Iracambi
Caixa Postal No. 1
Rosário da Limeira
36878-000 Minas Gerais
Phone number:
+55 32 3721 1436
Fax: +55 32 3721 0545
Skype ID: iracambi

The organisations below protect the Amazon by helping local communities to secure legal rights over their land. You can sponsor an acre.

Rainforest Concern
Rainforest Concern purchases, leases and manages threatened native forest in partnership with local communities and NGOs. The campaign
focuses on the creation of protected corridors between existing reserves to avoid the creation of isolated fragments of forests with diminishing gene pools and the development of sustainable income generation.

27 Lansdowne Crescent, London W11 2NS
Tel: 020 7229 2093
Fax: 020 7221 4094
Email: info@rainforestconcern.org
Web: www.rainforestconcern.org

The Rainforest Foundation UK
The Rainforest Foundation fi ghts to preserve the rights and land of indigenous people through working with local partnerships and running legal and policy campaigns.
The Rainforest Foundation UK, Suite A5,
City Cloisters,196 Old Street, London
Tel: 020 7251 6345
Fax: 020 7251 4969
Email: rebeccah@rainforestuk.com
Web: www.rainforestfoundationuk.org

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005

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