By Brendan Borrell
Tuesday, November 10, 2009; HE03
We used to hear so much about the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, but lately not a word. So what happened: Did we save it, or not?
We didn't save it, but we haven't stopped trying. Environmentalists fret over the fate of the Amazon for good reason: It contains more than half of the planet's remaining tropical rain forest, one-fifth of our global freshwater and as much as one-third of the world's biodiversity. Saving all this was once a rallying cry for green activists, and a few early triumphs made that goal seem likely. But attention soon shifted away from the rain forest to such issues as climate change and organic agriculture, and now the Amazon is disappearing at about the same rate it was in the 1980s.
Fifty years ago, the Amazon was still largely intact. Then in 1964, Brazil passed a law to encourage landless peasants to leave the slums and develop the interior. Anyone who could demonstrate that land was being put to "effective use" would get title to that land. As a result, the native forest-dwellers began to be displaced, and newcomers started clearing large areas for cattle production and rubber tapping. Without an extensive road network, however, the process was slow. Almost all of Brazil's forest remained untouched through the 1970s.
Starting in the early 1980s, however, the forest began to disappear at a much higher rate. With the help of investment money from the World Bank, farmers and ranchers built enough roads and settlements to destroy an average of 8,158 square miles of forest per year, an area about the size of New Jersey. That's when the environmentalists really got moving. In 1985, the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network began staging protests around the country and helped put an end to Burger King's $35 million "rain forest beef" contract in Central America. The following year, the newly formed Rainforest Alliance held a workshop that was covered in a New York Times article titled "Concern for Rain Forest Has Begun to Blossom." The situation grew more intense in 1988, when an activist (and former rubber tapper) named Chico Mendes was assassinated by angry ranchers at his home in the Amazon. But the flashpoint came when the Brazilian government announced its most ambitious, and potentially its most devastating, proposal: a highway to Lima, Peru, that would bisect the Amazon and connect its nascent industries to the Pacific coast and the economic engine of Japan.
Soon such celebrities as Sting and Phil Collins were rallying against the highway project, and authors Gabriel García Márquez,Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa signed a letter accusing the nation of a "policy of ecocide and ethnocide." The ruckus temporarily stalled the project, and Brazil enacted some modest conservation measures. In 1991, deforestation slowed to one of the lowest rates on record.
By that point, popular interest in the Amazon was on the decline. Using the Nexis news database, the Lantern found 993 articles about the Amazon forest in U.S. newspapers from 1990. In 1995, that number dipped by more than one-third, even as deforestation rates spiked higher than they'd ever been. Today, about one-fifth of Brazil's remaining forests are officially protected, but huge swaths of land in such states as Mato Grosso have been taken over by cattle plantations and soy. Brazilian laws require Amazonian landowners to maintain 80 percent forest cover, but the law is rarely enforced. Even now, Brazil continues to encourage landless peasants to flock to the Amazon, and it has yet to give up on the dream of a transoceanic highway.
The good news is that interest in the Amazon has begun to take off again. That's mainly because of the role that forests play in staving off climate change: Scientists estimate that the Amazon itself has between 85 billion and 100 billion tons of CO 2 stored in its trees and shrubs, or about 11 years' worth of U.S. carbon emissions. The dangers aren't limited to Brazil, of course -- deforestation rates in Asia and parts of Africa now rival those seen in the Americas. In 2009, Guinness World Records named Indonesia the country with the most rapidly disappearing forests -- it's losing about 2 percent per year -- although Brazil remains the leader in acreage lost annually.
Many environmentalists now pin their hopes on a U.N.-sponsored plan to use carbon credits as a means of reducing deforestation in developing nations. The REDD scheme (the name stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing nations) will be on the table at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month. In the lead-up to those talks, Robin Williams, Sting and a host of other celebrities have embarked on a "Rainforest SOS" campaign to stop tropical deforestation and prevent "runaway climate change." Most of the celebs on the roster are more than a little past their prime, but the destruction of the Amazon is just as timely as it ever was.
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