A Future Amazonia
The Amazonian forest is being cut to sell timber and to produce soybeans and meat because it’s economically sensible within the current global political-economic environment. Ironically, the forest’s ecological services have no value in this process even though they’re necessary to sustain it. The heart of this system is economic growth – the more, the better – along with the inseparable factor of population growth. This is truly an “inconvenient truth” that only the Chinese have had the resolve to tackle. No democratically elected leader has ever had the courage to tell people that not everyone can attain the “American dream” and that no one should have more than one child. When Jimmy Carter attempted it, he immediately lost his reelection bid. However, without changing fundamentals, the carbon market and other trading deals will have no chance of significantly reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation.
Why? They fail to offer reasonable alternative opportunities for the people who currently wield the chainsaws. Offering “reasonable opportunities” is the key as expectations are already high and rising due to lack of political will to discuss devastating repercussions. If we don’t address these fundamentals, deforestation will continue to produce more soybeans and meat to feed the system’s unsustainable growth until climate change completely eliminates agriculture from Amazonia by 2080. What can we do to change direction? Any transition from the current political-economic system to a steadystate political economy with negative population growth will require using the Amazon forest to help pay the bills. However, this utilization must be professional and profitable, something that can be achieved only with enormous investments in science, technology, innovation, market creation and economic infrastructure. The latter has generally been blamed for accelerating deforestation and degradation; but the true drivers of deforestation are development decisions guided by laissez-faire market decisions. The market wants timber, soybeans and meat but doesn’t want to pay for the ecological services. A reversal is needed in the worldwide governmental trend of allowing market agents the freedom to decide the future.
Amazonia will soon be the dominant source of tropical timber worldwide because Asian countries have cut their timber and because most African countries are currently too disorganized. However, most Amazonian timber entrepreneurs are pirates who cut high-grade timber from public lands or properties with vague land titles and then sell it cheaply on national markets. Little trickles into international markets. As a result, restructuring the timber sector will require enormous political will along with public and private investment. Entrepreneurs and forest staff must be trained in elementary practices such as respect for the law, silviculture and forest management education, public relations and marketing to open northern markets to certified high-quality timber. Wood technology investments are also necessary to identify and to assess the forest’s hundreds of currently unknown species. Silviculture and forest management are critical because the traditional Amazonian management alternatives are not economically sustainable.
And, as elsewhere, an appropriate legal structure with results-oriented law enforcement will be required to eliminate pirating while providing honest entrepreneurs a level playing field.
Thanks to climate change, carbon sequestration and other forest-based ecological services are now receiving attention. The first carbon trading schemes developed in the 1990s have not yet shown any measurable impact, likely due to the fundamentals of the global political-economic system not being addressed. Nonetheless, a new scheme is coming online: Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). It’s too early to say whether this will have a measurable impact, especially locally, where offering “reasonable opportunities” is the key to success. If REDD funds are used to invest in restructuring the timber sector, positive impacts may be felt even without immediate fundamental changes in the political-economic system. However, this issue has not yet been raised in Brazil. Rather, current discussion focuses on utilizing REDD funds for conservation, which is worthy and necessary, but insufficient without addressing system fundamentals.
Ecotourism is generally viewed as a win-win. In the developing world, it’s good for the owners but offers only minimum wage for all others. Additionally, it’s seldom understood that ecotourism requires enormous conservation investments because ecotourists aren’t interested in seeing deforested landscapes. Infrastructure expansion, plus staff training in English and other global languages, also is necessary. If REDD funds are used for conservation, there is hope for some national parks and other conservation areas; but these will be increasingly isolated in a landscape matrix dominated by agriculture unless the timber sector is restructured as well. Non-timber forest products (NTFP) are also worth consideration as they have been the darling of the private and public conservation world since the 1990s. As an Amazonian development strategy, they have been debunked. But they continue to have an important role in traditional and indigenous communities throughout the region. Enormous research and development investments, market creation (as NTFP are niche items), community education and organization, and infrastructure development are necessary for the timber sector to consider NTFPs important and complementary. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them will be necessary for this to occur.
The gold mine of Amazonia is often considered to be bioactive substances and other biological models. Only hints or minor information is available to develop marketable products from most while some are often totally unknown. However, there’s no doubt that potential substances exist in the myriad of plants, animals and microorganisms that have developed singular ways to interact within this unique environment. A few substances that are already available have changed our lives dramatically. For example, curare, a venom used by Amazonian Indians, is employed in hospitals today as an anesthetic. Quinine, extracted from Cinchona, is used to control malaria. We learned about these substances from native Amazonians, and their traditional knowledge still has much to offer. Again, to find new substances and to develop new biological models based on Amazonian diversity, enormous investments are necessary in research, development and training.
As Jared Diamond points out in Collapse – How Societies Chose To Fail or Succeed, forests are essential to success, and government policies are the starting point for responsibly utilizing them. Although the global community now recognizes that success depends upon maintaining tropical forests, these areas are in developing countries where growing populations require decent living conditions. And this equation has not yet been addressed satisfactorily. A short review of development options suggests there are alternatives to deforestation, but it also highlights that none will keep the forest standing without major changes in national and international policies. Without fundamental changes in the laissez-faire global system, it’s unlikely that our grandchildren will see the Amazonian forest. At national levels within Amazonia and globally, political decisions as well as enormous investments are needed to transform ideas into viable development options. None are possible without international markets to support them and international scientific and technological collaboration to aid in developing them. As the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has stated, “. . . now is the time for action.” Today’s economic crisis offers opportunities to redirect development that needs to be used. Our politicians must agree and act now