Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Can the Amazon Thrive in the 21st Century?"

The title is not mine. It belongs to Andrew Revkin's post at the NY Times blog DotEarth. The post was built around a rather rosy presentation that he facilitated at the Aspen Institute with Peter Seligman, the founder and head of Conservation International, and Fabio Scarano, a Brazilian ecologist and executive director of the organization’s Brazilian branch.

When I read Revkin's sanguine comments they seemed terribly uninformed and I was furious.

"I’m convinced that the system of rivers and forests is durable enough — not to mention expansive enough — to persist, and even thrive, as Brazil and its neighbors develop their economies. ... But there are enormous unresolved issues still that could lead to an acceleration of the slow-drip style of degradation that can cause great biological riches to vanish in plain sight."

I fired back a headline about a recent World Bank (hardly a hotbed of environmentalism) study:

"World Bank Amazon Dieback Study Predicts Greater Probability and Severity of Biome Collapse: Zero deforestation is an emergency requirement, although insufficient to avoid catastrophe."

[UPDATE: 25 July 2010 -- The latest science on the Amazonian rain forests and drought has been published online in a special report from the New Phytologist which concludes that, although mass die-off is not inevitable, "... when expected feedbacks between vegetation and climate are combined with fire incidence and land-use change scenarios, we conclude that Amazon rain forests are highly vulnerable to loss during the coming decades."]

But, as I read to the end of the DotEarth post, I saw that he had invited me to comment. So I calmed down and began writing. Here is an expanded, elaborated and linked version of what I wrote first as a DotEarth comment.

Andy, you ask that I chime in from my perch in Acre, Brazil. I'm not a scientist or an expert. I'm just a guy who loves forests and tries to speak for the trees. Here's how I used to perform my mission in the States. 

Here's what I see now:

The drama of the future of the Amazon basin is indeed playing out here in western Amazônia, in the tri-national region called by the acronym MAP -- Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil and Pando in Bolivia -- where the biodiversity of nature's garden is connecting with human aspirations for economic development and a better life. This region used to be considered as the "end of the road" because it literally was. But with modernization and infrastructure development -- bridges, roads, rural electrification, Internet and more -- contact and globalization have set human and wild nature on an ugly collision course. While Acre has been able to make many initiatives toward sustainable development, across the border in much poorer Madre de Dios (Mother of God) it's an often violent confrontation over illegal logging of mahogany and/or "informal mining" in an out-of-control race to grab valuable resources that I covered in my post focusing on the gold rush in Peru.

The post doesn't mention the new road to the Pacific or the ethanol plant and sugarcane plantations; or the planned road from Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil to Pulcallpa, Peru and the multiple big hydro-energy dam constructions it will support; or the new Peruvian oil leases in indigenous reserves; or the BR$35 million worth of oil exploration in the Juruá watershed in Acre; or the Madeira River complex of big hydroelectric projects in Rondonia near Bolivia. Basically, wherever I look I see that development -- including both its promises and problems -- is in the driver seat.

Apparently, much the same is happening across the Amazon basin in a rushed effort to provide an energy and transportation infrastructure that can keep pace with Brazil's spectacular economic growth. In brief, just as in other places such as China, economic growth is triggering an energy crisis. In Brazil, the immediate remedies for this very real need are seen in the massive number of unharnessed rivers of the Amazon basin and in oil deposits in the jungles of Western Amazônia (not to mention the vast deposits of deep-drilled oil located off-shore along the coast of Rio de Janeiro which is another story).

In the Aspen presentation Fabio Scarano appropriately mentioned the horribly misdirected intention of the Lula Administration to rush the much resisted Belo Monte Dam online. But he didn't mention that Brazil is also accelerating an investment of several hundred billions in the interior development plan PAC2 that includes the intention to complete 50 new hydroelectric projects in the next 4 years and, of course, more and better roads. Yes, there is the emerging Amazon Fund to stall deforestation AND there also are ten times that investment in infrastructure development.

Fabio also mentioned the effort to dilute Brazil's Forestry Code which unfortunately passed the committee stage by an overwhelming vote while you guys were in Aspen. It is headed toward almost certain passage in the full plenary session. Unfortunately, an NGO-inspired ad campaign targeting US farm support for REDD payments in the energy ("climate change") bill claimed that an end to tropical deforestation would mean more profits in the US. The ad stupidly said, "Farms Here, Forests There" and this was used in Brazil to mobilize support for WEAKENING the Forest code. Avoided Deforestation Partners scurried to produce a second report claiming that halting deforestation would also benefit Brazilian farmers but the damage was done.

Contradictions are everywhere, even in the statistics. Thus, figuring out a 21st Century prognosis for the Amazon forest is quite a challenge. The actual factual situation is quite confusing. The most hopeful statistics portray a recent large drop in deforestation which is prompting thoughts of carbon credit money transfers from the developed to the developing based on demonstrated emissions reductions, newly afforested carbon sequestration plus a promise from the Federal Government of Brazil that it will preserve or conserve most of the forest and its ecosystem services. Some large NGOs are even proposing that concessions for "sustainable logging" might be supported by carbon credits. But, it's a can of worms.

The problem is that no one really knows if the drop in deforestation was the result of the global economic downturn or the consequence of new enlightened policies of monitoring and law enforcement or an artifact of different satellite monitoring techniques or how much of what. Some early signs are now emerging, and some don't look promising. Satellite monitoring is showing mixed results -- new deforestation is advancing at a lower rate but fires are increasing to their old levels (fire is a traditional tool of deforestation). This suggests a possibility that the illegal loggers, land-grabbers and ranchers have found a workaround of selective logging and understory burning that leaves the canopy largely intact from a satellite view. Right now, no one knows for sure. The June data tend not to be reliable. We will know better in September. But, since the global economy has been recovering and Brazil's economy has been roaring, there is a reasonable chance that we will soon see deforestation data closer to the old levels.

[UPDATE: The London-based think tank Chatham House reports a significant worldwide drop in illegal logging but Fred Pearce explains that we're not out of the woods.]

While it is true that there has been much progress with the large producers of soy and beef products against being complicit with illegal deforestation, it is much more difficult to police the activities of the smaller landholder. For example, one study shows that in Rondonia State, the amount of forest remaining on farm land is already approaching 50% instead of the legally required 80% and the main driver of new deforestation there was the small land-holder.

The problem in large part is that the market for beef is stable and the value is high. Therefore, putting more cows on your land is like putting money in the bank. Cows generate a stable flow of income and, in an emergency, some can be sold to pay a medical bill or buy a new truck or send a kid to college. These are the legitimate aspirations of people living in a developing economy. One can write ambitious laws in Brasilia but it is not so easy to enforce them on the ground (especially if you are expecting local officials and politicians to impose unpopular regulations.)

Few Amazonia states are as progressive as Acre (Chico Mendes country) where there is a serious and well-funded effort to develop a culture, economy and a living practice of sustainability. Acre is hardly perfect but it is certainly on the global leading edge of the search for a sustainable balance between people and nature.

However, in other Brazilian Amazon regions the picture is truly dismal. State and local officials are often complicit with large-scale illegal deforestation. For example, there were recently massive arrests of high level Mato Grosso officials who were facilitating illegal logging. These arrests make great press but, if Brazilian politics run true to form, there's little chance that these characters will actually serve jail time or endure serious penalties. Changing the "wild west frontier take-the-law-in-your-hands" mentality is not an easy task. Bottom line: the issue of governance, of the reach of the Feds into the hinterland, has not been solved.

And there are two GREAT ironies. First, is that more effective governance can generate a backlash in the Brazilian Congress to weaken the Forestry Code and grant amnesty to those who have committed illegal logging. Second, is that as successful management increases the market value of commodities and land, the greater valuation also increases the incentives for illegal scams or for leakage into areas of weaker regulation and enforcement. Thus, shutting off the flow of illegal commerce in one place can cause it to erupt somewhere else.

I must caution readers not to think that loss of the primary Brazilian forest is somehow a result of unenlightened attitudes of Brazilians in comparison with North Americans. Here are the facts: Brazil has about 80% standing forest in the Amazon with about 30% with some level of fragmentation and 50% as relatively pristine. On the other hand, the U.S. has less than 10% of its historical primary forest standing and it still has not been able to pass a law ending the logging of old-growth trees. Actually, the comparable situation in Brazil is in the Atlantic Rainforest (near the economically developed population centers) which is also reduced to near 10%. In other words, development seems to have destroyed forests equally in BOTH places.

BUT -- get this! -- the current annual level of forest cover loss in both Canada and the U.S. is higher than in Brazil. My forestry friend Greg Nagle points out that losses in North America's industrial "forests" should not be compared losses of old-growth primary forest in Brazil but the important point is that development in the US has already destroyed 90% of its original primary forestland. This is an important reason why Brazilians do not receive kindly criticism from gringos which can easily be perceived as a conspiracy to deny Brazilians the benefits achieved among the already developed.

Americans don't want to give up what they've got and Brazilians don't want to give up the opportunity to get something like it. The result is what Andy refers to as "stasis" -- a fancy word that simply says that all people and institutions struggle first to maintain and enhance their existing behaviors. I'm growing skeptical that an ecologically meaningful political solution will emerge in Brazil, in the US, in China or globally. The internal contradictions of earth capital accumulation are simply too great to be maintained harmonized. The sociologist geographer David Harvey has a great analysis of why we are stuck. Economic development through endless growth without limit is an illusion, but it is one that is too powerful to break with mere politics or clever policy. I'm afraid that we will simply move from bubble to bubble until nature's justice kicks in.

So, while I understand the appeal of the new carbon-and-conservation market strategies, I distrust the consumption-and-profit consciousness that will undoubtedly motivate the players and politicians. There are a lot of nefarious characters in the banks and board rooms and in the backwoods waiting to capture the new wealth of a carbon economy worth trillions. We really must dig into and evaluate the faith that suggests that turning ecosystem services into marketable commodities can lead us away from the destructive consequences of the development and depletion of natural resources.

As is so often the case, the great naturalist and father of the American land ethic, Aldo Leopold, offers a deep insight:

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

Can we really keep marketing the land, its products and services? Can the market really be the final arbiter? What are its limits? Perhaps only catastrophe can show them to us? Perhaps Nature's justice will be the teacher? Perhaps we must face losses for the cheap energy binge and the adolescent consciousness of the Industrial Age to yield to the limited growth perception associated with maturity and mutuality?

Perhaps we must fall in order to learn?

It is said that if a fall is our destiny, we WILL fall, but we can choose a fate of falling on a pillow or a rock. The softer way is better but easier desired than done. Here's the prayer I shared on Solstice calling for guidance for traveling the more respectful and loving way. It's not going to be easy but perhaps we can do it.


Bakary Jatta said...

Thanks for your insights. Seeing ethics are thrown out of the windows by our "leaders" we must do all we can to fashion the pillow to fall on.

The Creator is on our side.

Bakary Jatta

Leezy said...

Dear Lou,
This is a fantastic geographic and political analysis. And just because we geographers have an inferiority complex, I must point out that David Harvey is a geographer (perhaps our most famous), the RSA folks got confused. :-)
Leigh (former resident of Pousada Tucuma)

Lou Gold said...

Thanks for the correction Leezy. It's fixed now.

Steve Bloom said...

Lou, here's Andy being just as helpful on the climate "scandals." My favorite is the bit where he asserts that Pat Michaels' climate policy views should be given equal weight to those of Jim Hansen. Meh.

C. Cornell said...

Came across your site today. You: "what will I be when I grow up?" Sounds familiar :-)

C. Cornell