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close this bookAmazonia: Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and Its People (UNU, 1995, 253 pages)
close this folder1. Amazonia under siege
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentMajor objectives and regional coverage
View the documentThe substance of sustainability
View the documentThe question of criticality
View the documentThe urgency of improved resource management

The question of criticality

Criticality as employed here denotes a state of both environmental degradation and associated socio-economic deterioration. Criticality can be divided roughly into three main states, each denoting various stages of environmental and socio-economic unravelling (Kasperson et al. 1995):

- Environmental criticality refers to situations in which the extent and/or rate of environmental degradation precludes the continuation of current human use systems or levels of human well-being, given feasible adaptations and societal capabilities to respond.
- Environmental endangerment refers to situations in which the trajectory of environmental degradation threatens to preclude the continuation of current human use systems or levels of human well-being, given feasible adaptations and societal capabilities to respond.
- Environmental impoverishment refers to situations in which the trajectory of environmental degradation threatens to preclude the continuation of current human use systems or levels of well-being in the medium to longer term, and to narrow significantly the range of possibilities for different uses in the future.

Indicators used to assess whether an area can be regarded as critical, endangered, or impoverished include environmental degradation, wealth, well-being, and economic and technological substitutability. Dimensions to environmental degradation include loss of soil fertility and structure, deteriorating air and water quality, and the draw-down of other natural resources.

Wealth is generally measured by gross national product and per capita income. Well-being includes a broad category of barometers, such as mortality rates, nutritional levels, and the incidence of disease. Economic and technological substitutability is the ability to mobilize technological and financial resources to confront challenges to current levels of productivity. Indicators will be addressed throughout the book, but are summarized in the final chapter.

Little evidence has emerged to suggest that Amazonia as a whole has entered the environmental criticality stage. Press and television coverage of Amazonia depicting a massive pall of smoke might give the impression that the region is being rapidly transformed into a bleak landscape, devoid of resources. But even in areas undergoing the most intensive environmental changes, such as along many parts of the Amazon flood plain and active colonization zones in southeastern and south-western Amazonia, it would be difficult to argue that environmental degradation has reached the point that current land-use systems are collapsing. Some individual farms or ranches may have reached that point, but it is doubtful that areas on the scale of one or two square kilometres fall within that dire category.

Rather, areas occupied by people in Amazon fit better the environmental endangerment and especially the environmental impoverishment categories. Much of the Amazon still remains in forest, thus dampening many of the environmental effects of human interventions on a regional scale. Further, the majority of cleared areas or natural areas experiencing significant extractive activities are more representative of environmental impoverishment. Broad definitions and aggregate assessments do not mean that Amazonia is safe from irreversible ecological change or social marginalization. Environmental impoverishment of many settled areas means that options for future generations are being significantly narrowed by current management of land and aquatic resources (Turner et al. 1995). As will be emphasized in a later chapter, the flood-plain forests of the Amazon are among the most endangered ecosystems in Latin America.

Despite environmental impoverishment, however, many individuals are achieving higher living standards. Such overall improvement in economic wellbeing, in spite of a global recession, is heartening. Yet such an encouraging trend masks two worrisome realities. Some segments of society are benefiting little if at all from economic development. Second, substantial biodiversity is being lost. Whereas the plight of the poor is obvious, the disappearance of species and subspecies, many still unknown to science, is not currently a major rally cry for political action. In general, governments in tropical countries are much more concerned about urban environmental issues, such as air pollution and developing supplies of potable water for the evergrowing population of towns and cities. Politicians are more likely to gain votes by bringing a sewerage system to a city slum than by saving a remote tract of forest.



Fig. 1.1 Trends in land management as a result of development and increasing population in the humid tropics (Source: adapted from SerrĂ£o and Toledo, 1992)

The haemorrhaging of species and variation within wild animal and plant species is conceivably the most serious environmental issue in Amazonia. And, unless land-use practices change in the future, more areas of the Amazon are likely to slip into the endangerment or even criticality categories.