Want to Save the Amazon? Try Looking Closer to Home

Nov 12, 2009

The Amazon jungle is metaphorically referred to as the lungs of the world: CO2 in, O2 out, transformed through a dense emerald mass. It's an irreplaceable treasure, in many spots still unmapped, and a biological preserve filled with species that we likely haven't even seen.

So it's quite welcome that author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is paying attention to what happens to the Amazon.

What's not welcome are the misdirections Friedman takes while discussing how to protect the remaining 80 percent of the Amazon that has not yet been clear-cut and transformed into cattle ranches and soy plantations.

Friedman compares the ease with which we could stop tropical deforestation with the difficulty entailed in making global transportation emission-free.

"It is going to be a long time before we transform the world's transportation fleet so it is emission-free. But right now — like tomorrow — we could eliminate 17 percent of all global emissions if we could halt the cutting and burning of tropical forests," he writes.

Friedman suggests that what the Amazon needs is a "new system of economic development." Generally, his framework is that by properly employing and commoditizing the Amazon's natural resources, we can make it more valuable as a source of economic growth than it would be as farmland or ranchland. As he puts it,

"To save an ecosystem of nature, you need an ecosystem of markets and governance."

He goes on to claim that such an ecosystem is already in place in the 43 percent of the Amazon that has been set aside for conservation and its indigenous inhabitants. Nineteen percent has been destroyed. That leaves 38 percent, which could be protected if we "get the Brazilian system to work."

What's this "Brazilian system"? The resident of some of the reserves are "organized into cooperatives that sell eco-tourism ... wood products made from sustainable selective logging and a very attractive line of purses made from 'ecological leather'," Friedman writes. "They also get government subsidies." Apparently, the Amazon is rife with such cooperatives. All they need is "money to expand into more markets, money to maintain police monitoring and enforcement and money to improve the productivity of farming." All we need to do here in the USA is divert some money to rainforest protection mechanisms.

It sounds good and easy. Too good and too easy, in fact.

Friedman's vision is essentially technocratic: provide incentives to ensure that the products and commodities that come out of the rainforest are more valuable than those that result from demolishing it, make sure the rule of law ensures that reserves stay reserves, and voila: Save the Amazon.

This seems a quite indirect way to go about saving the Amazon. Another route would be to simply declare that all of the remaining segments of the Amazon should be reserves and totally off-limits. Compensate the Brazilian economy with the tens of billions of dollars of revenue it annually gets from export-commodities grown on deforested land.

But even that solution is far too pat. It fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the Brazilian state, or the lack thereof in the way we understand the word "state" in the U.S.

Sociologist John Hammond refers to "the lack of a modern, rational state structure in rural Brazil." Rural landlords, let alone huge corporations buying up or illegally occupying tracts of land in sparsely populated states, do not listen to the directives of the federal government, emanating from Brasilia, Brazil's capital. They scarcely listen to local governments, or their hand-selected political representatives who fill the seats — the Brazilian version of what we in America call "special interests."

This could, in theory, be remedied through improvements in "governance," but the notion that this could be done "right now" simply reflects a misunderstanding of Brazilian reality.

The more immediate way to stop deforestation "right now" would be to look at its demand-side drivers. And those, unfortunately, are over here: massive American and European demand for beef, soy, and sugarcane ethanol.

It goes like this:

Sugarcane is heralded as the miracle biofuel because of its fantastic EROIE — energy returned on energy invested. For Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, the number is frequently reported a eight or higher. So it satisfies the clean-energy or renewable fuel standards of Europe and America, and so they buy it, lots of it, and lower their per-capita carbon emissions, at least according to their calculations they do.

That sugarcane displaces former sites of soy cultivation, which is then grown on more peripheral areas.

Often, soy will occupy the land that beef used to occupy. Whereupon beef is displaced, to Amazonian hinterlands.

It's difficult, but not impossible, to factor this into ethanol's carbon-cost. But if we were to do so, ethanol wouldn't seem like such a great choice anymore, and we'd have further incentives to take cars off the road and run railroads on solar energy instead.

That puts the burden of remedying the situation on us, and not on Brazilian "governance" or an "ecosystem of markets."

It would mean changing consumption patterns in the U.S. and Europe, and not merely changing production patterns in Brazil through technical tinkering.

It would mean a big change in our way of life — but by no means our quality of life — and that's a change that Friedman doesn't really seem willing to consider.

Instead, as he writes,

"The more we get the Brazilian system to work, the more of that 38 percent will be preserved and the less carbon reductions the whole world would have to make. But it takes money."

So, we spend money so we don't have to cut our own emissions. This is too bad, because we will mourn the Amazon if or when it is gone. We need solutions, but solutions like Friedman's won't be enough to preserve it.


See also:

Beef: The Prime Cause of Deforestation in the Amazon

Diet Change Can Avert Climate Change, Researchers say

Chevron Pollution Case Empowers Indigenous Groups Beyond the Amazon

Forestry Talks in Barcelona End in Toothless Agreement

Why Is the Media Afraid to Tackle Livestock's Role in Climate Change?


(Photo: warrenh / CC BY 2.0)

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