What ever happened to the Amazon rain forest? Did we save it?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Nov. 3 2009 7:11 AM

What Ever Happened to the Amazon Rain Forest?

Did we save it or what?

Amazon River.
The Amazon River

We used to hear so much about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, 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 rainforest, 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 rainforest to issues like 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 a title to it. 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 "rainforest beef" contract in Central America. The following year, the newly formed Rainforest Alliance held a workshop in New York City, which was covered in New York Timeswith an 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 to date: a highway through the state of Acre to Lima, Peru, which would bisect the Amazon and connect its nascent industries to the Pacific coast and the economic engine of Japan.

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Soon celebrities like Sting and crooner Phil Collins were rallying against the highway project, along with noted Latin American intellectuals: authors Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa signed a letter calling 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. papers from 1990. In 1995, that number dips 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 states like 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 in recent years. 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 carbon stored in its trees and shrubs, or about 11 years' worth of global emissions. * The dangers aren't limited to Brazil, of course—deforestation rates in Asia and parts of Africa now rival those seen the Americas. In 2009, the Guinness World Records named Indonesia as the country with the most rapidly disappearing forests—it's losing about 2 percent per year—although Brazil remains the leader in absolute terms.

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 so-called REDD Scheme 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 aging celebrities have embarked on a "Rainforest SOS" campaign to stop tropical deforestation and prevent "run-away 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.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Correction, Nov. 6, 2009: The original version described the Amazon as storing up to 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The trees and shrubs store carbon, not CO2. Also, this figure was described as amounting to 11 years' worth of U.S., instead of global, emissions. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brendan Borrell is correspondent for the Scientist and has written about wildlife for Smithsonian and Natural History. His e-mail address is bborrell@hotmail.com.

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