Sat, Dec 25, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The Amazon forests must be rescued - for everybody's sake

By Vinod Thomas

Developing countries are blessed with some of the world's most precious natural resources. But that blessing can also be a curse -- and not just for oil-rich countries, with their distorted economies and politics.

Latin American countries in the Amazon region, for example, are home to what can rightly be considered the world's storehouse of biodiversity. Yet, when it comes to protecting this global treasure, these countries are expected to shoulder the burden by themselves.

Even with good intentions, these countries on their own are unlikely to ensure that the benefits of conserving the Amazon are realized, because private interests in deforestation -- both legal and illegal -- remain very strong. The prospect of quick gains from occupying publicly owned forestland induces private individuals to grab and clear as much of these areas as quickly as possible, without regard for the environmental and social impact of their behavior.

The need to supply fuel and open land during rapid economic development had a devastating effect on European and American forests. Brazil, too, has in recent decades depleted much of its forestland, only at faster rates.

Five hundred years ago, the Atlantic rainforest stretched nearly the entirety of Brazil's 8,500km coastline; today, less than 7 percent remains. More than 15 percent of the Brazilian Amazon has been deforested, most of it in the last 50 years. Last year, the Brazilian Amazon lost 23,750km2 of forest -- an area nearly the size of Belgium.

The tragedy is that much of this deforestation has been entirely unnecessary from the standpoint of economic development. For example, since 1990 Brazil has increased grain production by 125 percent, with an increase of only 24 percent in cultivated area. But, at the same time, more than 16 million hectares of pastures and degraded land -- an area half the size of Germany -- have been abandoned in the Amazon alone, owing to poor agricultural practices and land use. With their rehabilitation, Brazil could expand agricultural production without further harm to the rainforest.

In this and other ways, the rainforest could be harnessed to finance development and generate growth in a socially inclusive and sustainable way. But to achieve this, the countries and the international community need to act.

Developing countries need to ensure reliable property rights and policy enforcement in order to generate the incentives needed to protect nature in the future. To its credit, the Brazilian government has revoked policies that had previously encouraged land clearing in the Amazon, and has mandated that 80 percent of privately owned forestland be used only for sustainable management of forest resources. Brazil has also developed a sophisticated system to track and record deforestation -- though monitoring an area the size of Europe with scarce resources is by itself unlikely to lead to much compliance.

As a result, there needs to be far greater support from the international community for promising initiatives. Consider these examples.

The partnership between the Brazilian Government, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the World Bank, and the international community has been the basis for the Amazon Region Protected Areas Program, which seeks to set aside 12 percent of the Amazon for conservation.

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