Cover Image
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

(introductory text...)

Major objectives and regional coverage
The substance of sustainability
The question of criticality
The urgency of improved resource management

Considerable attention has focused in recent years on deforestation rates in Amazonia and on other ecological changes in the vast basin. Concern is mounting that deforestation in Amazonia is contributing to global warming, a reduction of the region's rainfall, ozone depletion, and more severe flooding along certain rivers (Denslow 1988; Myers 1984; Reis 1972). As forests are cut down to make way for new farms, ranches, and mining operations, biodiversity is lost and potential new crop plants and drugs may disappear. Also, people whose lives depend on the forest for sources of food and income can be adversely affected by the shrinking of forest habitats.

Heightened concern about resource management and the fate of forests in Amazonia has even stirred talk in some quarters that the region is global patrimony and should be conserved and developed more rationally. In 1988, President Mitterand of France suggested that countries might want to relinquish sovereignty over portions of their territory for the common good of humanity. To tackle the global warming issue, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) helped forge an international climate treaty that calls for restrictions on burning tropical forests; the treaty was signed by many nations following the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (Riebsame 1990). The Rainforest Preservation Foundation of Ft. Worth, Texas, has the status of a public utility in Brazil and solicits contributions of US$25 in magazines to buy and preserve slightly under half a hectare of rainforest.

Such discussion by politicians and some environmentalists ignites long-held fears in Brazil that foreign interests are intent on interfering or even expropriating Amazonia (ESG 1990; Reis 1960; Simons 1989; Sternberg 1987a). The international preoccupation with environmental issues is sometimes interpreted in Brazil as a smokescreen for the North's domination of the South (Benchimol 1992 a,b; Mattos 1992). The notion that Amazonia is a major ecological "safety-valve" for the world and therefore should be under some form of control by the global community thus stirs concerns about sovereignty.

Repeated calls for some form of international intervention in Amazonia could create a nationalistic backlash and make governments intransigent about rectifying environmental problems. Although the Japanese government and multilateral development banks have backed away from supporting efforts to build a road from Acre to Pucallpa in the Peruvian Amazon, which would allow goods from the Brazilian Amazon to be exported via Pacific ports, the Brazilian government has vowed to proceed with this road-building plan in the future (Swinbanks and Anderson 1989). The President of Ecuador has flatly declared that external interference in Amazonian affairs will not be permitted.

Nevertheless, mounting pressure to address environmental and social concerns about development in Amazonia appears to be modifying government stances. Brazil has traditionally eschewed any discussion of debt-for-nature swaps in the Amazon because of concerns about foreign meddling with land-use decisions. Yet recent signs indicate that both the federal and state governments in Brazil are now more amenable to such deals.

Pressure for change is also coming from within countries with territories in Amazonia, although often with international connections. Some 2,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have surfaced recently in Brazil, most of them concerned with policy aspects of social and environmental problems (Homma 1992a). Many of these groups readily capture the attention of the media, help mobilize public opinion, and thereby influence the political agenda. International donors, particularly foundations and NGOs based in major cities of North America and Western Europe, funnel increasing amounts of money and advice to the nascent NGOs with interests in Amazonia. The penetration of these NGOs on the political scene has been made possible by the wave of democracy sweeping Latin America.

Often impassioned debate about the future of the Amazon is thus under way in countries with direct stakes in the region, as well as in the industrialized countries. The media and many scientists and politicians in South America have expressed shock at the pace of destruction in Amazonia. Environmental changes in Amazonia have become the subject of some popular music in Brazil and abroad, such as Milton Nascimento's album Yauaretê (Iauaretê means jaguar in lingua geral and is the name of a small village in north-western Amazonas). The Grateful Dead, apparently revived by the growing international interest in the fate of rain forests, have written songs for a recently released album entitled Deadicated. Although the cover of the album features a red rose, rather than a tropical flower such as an orchid or heliconia, a proportion of the proceeds from the sales of Deadicated is supposed to help conserve rain forests (Killian 1991). Sting attended an encounter to "save the Amazon and her people" at Altamira, Pará, in February 1989, and has set up a foundation to help preserve tropical forests and defend indigenous peoples; the event was covered in other Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica (Alvarado 1990).

The exuberant flora and fauna of the region are depicted on T-shirts, dresses, swimwear, and even perfume, such as "Amazone" by Hermes. Fruits and nuts, purportedly collected "sustainably" from the Amazon forest, have found their way into exotic fruit juices, tempting ice-creams, environmentally friendly snacks, and politically correct breakfast cereals marketed in North America. The drama of the frontier in Amazonia with its environmental destruction and social tensions has even been captured in fiction (Mason 1991).

Signs are appearing that preoccupation with the fate of Amazonia is spurring action at the policy level. A number of policy changes over the past 15 years, such as withdrawal of fiscal incentives for creating cattle pastures in rain forests, have addressed some of the concerns about the environment in Amazonia. Article 225 of Brazil's new constitution emphasizes the need to live in harmony with the environment and to preserve nature and natural resources for future generations. Although lofty ideals sometimes remain ethereal, national consciousness is emerging in Brazil and neighbouring countries that Amazonia can be fragile and needs to be managed wisely. And Brazilians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Bolivians, and Venezuelans will ultimately decide the fate of Amazonia.