Amazon Tree-Cutting Continues Apace

Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva prides himself on his green credentials. From Brasília to Brazzaville he stumps for "clean energy," touting his country's prowess in hydroelectric power and renewable biofuels. He appointed a "special ambassador for climate change" and then challenged world leaders last month at the United Nations General Assembly to gather in Brazil to renew their commitment to lowering greenhouse gases in 2012, when the Kyoto agreement expires. Recently he's even turned up the heat on developing nations, arguing that "developing countries must also help fight climate change." What's allowed him to stand on this green soapbox is his record on the Amazon rain forest: deforestation has plunged on his watch.

But Brazil's own scientists now say that the rate of deforestation has spiked again. After poring over hundreds of precision images beamed from satellites orbiting high over the Amazon, on October 17 scientists at the country's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported an eight percent rise in deforestation from June to October 2007 compared with the same period a year ago. The felling reached fever pitch last month, more than doubling the rate for Sept. 2006 for the entire region, and rising a startling 602 percent in the booming cattle and farming state of Rondônia. Most embarrassing, some of the hardest-hit swaths were precisely those the government had set aside as preservation zones to buffer the impact of dams, plantations, ranches and highways. "This is a warning sign," says Dalton Valeriano, head of satellite monitoring for INPE. "If the authorities don't crack down now, we are going to see Amazon deforestation take off."

The worry is not just Brazil's. Every acre of the Amazon forest contains an estimated 74 tons of carbon, which, when the trees fall and burn, goes straight into the atmosphere, fouling the skies with ever greater amounts of the gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, that are overheating the planet. Brazil is already far and away the world's leading source of greenhouse gases due to deforestation, and, by most counts, among the top five overall contributors to global warming. Stemming the destruction would not only help clear the air but also show international skeptics that Brazil can both preserve its God-given wilderness and push its ambitious plans to make over its treasure-laden backcountry. Now the doubts are as thick as the pall of burning season.

In a matter of months, construction is scheduled to begin on a portfolio of giant development projects, including dams, a 340-mile natural-gas pipeline, and a petrochemical plant, that promise to draw and quarter the basin. Brasília hopes these major public works will firm up the fickle economy of the western Amazon, where boom and bust has been the rule for decades. Leading the ticket are the Santo Antônio and Jirau hydroelectric plants on the Madeira river, in Rondônia, a rough-and-tumble state where settlers, ranchers, mining conglomerates and assorted adventurers have been chewing their way through the forest for four decades.

Bidding for the dam contracts is still weeks away, but already the $11 billion project, which will directly generate some 27,000 jobs, has whipped expectations to fever pitch. Local officials are keen to tap into the economic bonanza that is sure to follow the earthmoving machines. The French chain Carrefour is reportedly weighing a supermarket franchise. High-rises and hotels are springing up, and two shopping centers are already under construction. But authorities also fear being overwhelmed by a flood of migrants inevitably drawn to such major public works. And while most of the newcomers will land in cities and towns, the fallout is sure to spread, as roads, farms, and businesses push into the forest.

That's what the buffer zones are for. Brasília has created nature preserves and conservation areas to contain the pioneer onslaught. Yet enforcing the law protecting these "paper parks" has never been the country's forte. A study released on Oct. 17 by Imazon (the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment), an independent think tank, found that some of the most intense forest-cutting this year took place on nature preserves.

One of the hardest-hit regions was the forested land along BR-163, a highway designed to connect the fertile farm belt in central Brazil to world markets by way of the Amazon's rivers and ports. Brasília has held up BR-163 as a showpiece of its Plan to Accelerate Development, a bullish development project that promises to marry prosperity and preservation. Yet the highway is not even paved and already it has touched off a frenzy of forest clearing and land grabbing, cutting deep into the 47 million acres designated as off limits to developers. "Brazil has vastly increased the amount of protected land in the Amazon, which is great news," says Adalberto Veríssimo, an Imazon scientist. "The problem is that they haven't been able to control it. The Brazilian government still can't seem to make its presence felt in the Amazon basin."

Yet even the best policing in the world might not help. "If you look at the environmental safeguards for each of these projects, they seem impressive," says Tim Killeen, a biologist and tropical forest scholar with Conservation International. "But you can't consider them in isolation. The dams generate cheap energy for industry, which draws job seekers, who need to be housed and fed, which means building and farms. It's a perfect environmental storm."
No one expects Brazil or any of the other seven Amazon nations to wall off the rain forest, and sacrificing part of the forest to plumb its cache of minerals and timber, and the energy wealth stored under the 10-story canopy, seems inevitable. But too often neither development nor conservation has been the result of the grandest development drives in the Amazon. Three decades into Brazil's aggressive push into the Western Hemisphere's last frontier, per capita income in the Amazon region is still 40 percent below the national average, and four of five people are relegated to makeshift jobs in the informal economy, according to Imazon.

What has changed in the Amazon is that thanks to the latest satellite technology the government can now see in the minutest detail what goes on in one of the world's unruliest wildernesses. But so can the rest of the world. Unless the authorities can stem the destruction, not even the greenest diplomacy is likely to help.