Making the Amazon Work

(Janduari Simoes - AP)
By Reviewed by Candice Millard
Sunday, February 25, 2007


The Amazon in the Age of Globalization

By Mark London and Brian Kelly

Random House. 312 pp. $25.95

When two young journalists, Mark London and Brian Kelly, traveled to Brazil in 1980 to write their first book about the Amazon, 3 percent of the rain forest had already been lost. When they returned 25 years later -- London now an attorney and Kelly the executive editor of U.S. News and World Report -- 20 percent was gone. The question that remains, and that lies at the heart of London and Kelly's thought-provoking new book, The Last Forest, is: Can the Amazon be saved? The authors' answer is one of confident optimism: "It is not too late." The solutions to deforestation, however, are nearly as complex as the rain forest itself.

"The rain forest, even to those who live in its shadow," London and Kelly note, "is an alien place." Millions of different species inhabit the Amazon, and each has evolved a unique and fascinating way to survive. There are caterpillars that scare off predators by making themselves look like vipers; four-eyed fish with two sets of corneas and retinas, one to search for danger above and the other to scan the river below; and plants that can change from a vine to a tree, depending on the sunlight. Trees of the same species are also widely separated in the Amazon, preventing a single disease from wiping out an entire species.

The same evolutionary adaptation that has protected trees from blight, however, has exposed them to overwhelming devastation at the hands of man. Because some types of wood are more valuable than others, it is not unusual for a logger to carve a road into the rain forest just to reach a single tree. "The scars left behind," London and Kelly write, "do not heal. These tiny trails are often visible from the air, their pattern resembling a river watershed in reverse. The end of the line is the tiny white vein that stops at the base of what was once a mahogany tree." This initial incursion into the rain forest sets off a seemingly irresistible surge of development. Smaller paths soon split off the central road, ending in farms or clearings for cattle. According to The Last Forest, 85 percent of deforestation occurs within 50 kilometers of a road. By some estimates, the Amazon will have lost a quarter of its original size by the year 2020.

Perhaps drastic circumstances call for drastic measures. Although the prevailing belief has long been that the only way to save the Amazon is to leave it wholly untouched, London and Kelly argue that that kind of absolutist thinking is not only outdated, it's dangerous. "Saving the Amazon," they write, "now requires saving the people who live in the Amazon." Their answer is a collaborative approach that joins preservation with its old nemesis: development. The government of Brazil, which encompasses more than half of the Amazon, has already taken a similar stance. "It's no good people saying the Amazon has to be the sanctuary of humanity and forget that there are 20 million people living there," said Brazil's president, Luiz Lula da Silva. Arguing that legal, monitored logging is preferable to the current chaos, his government recently announced a plan to auction off timber rights to vast stretches of the rain forest.

The Amazon, London and Kelly contend, is a land where "opportunities abound" and one that will allow for development -- if it's done well. We must recognize this region "not as an exotic wilderness but as one of the few frontiers left on earth," they write. To support their argument, they point to new anthropological evidence that may suggest that large societies -- with canals, bridges, curbed roads and thousands of people -- once existed in the Amazon Basin without destroying it. While the authors caution that "this discovery does not provide much hope, despite ongoing research, that twenty-first-century occupation will replicate this harmony," it does form part of the foundation for their optimism. The rest comes from their own research into the Amazon, which uncovered creative, if limited, solutions to deforestation. A chapter promisingly titled "A Way to Save the Amazon," discusses several of these initiatives: large-scale incentive programs that provide well-paying jobs for people who might otherwise turn to illegal logging; "certified" forests, in which trees are cut in rotation to protect species; and alternative uses of the land, from jute production to exotic fish farms.

By the authors' own admission, these solutions are imperfect, and none is a panacea. They are, however, examples of honest attempts to protect the Amazon by people who are determined to use it. In the end, striking that balance may offer the measure of hope that The Last Forest seeks to find. ยท

Candice Millard is the author of "The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey."

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