9th June 2006 at 01:00
The Amazon eco-system is vital to the planet's survival, and yet we continue to wreak havoc on the 'lungs of the Earth'. Yolanda Brooks reports

hen multi-millionaire Johan Eliasch bought 400,000 acres of the Amazon rainforest for pound;8 million from a logging company, many environmentalists rejoiced. The opinion of the thousand or so loggers who lost their livelihoods as a result is unknown. Is Eliasch the ultimate ethical consumer or just another rich westerner who can use money and influence to decide what's best for the natives?

Eliasch (worth pound;355 million, according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List) is not the first to buy a parcel of the Amazon to save it for future generations. Billionaire George Soros also has his own personal Amazon and people of more modest means have donated money to buy a piece of it. The Amazon may belong to South America, but it seems that the world is its guardian.

After centuries of plundering, the urge to preserve has taken hold in the Western world. But how do you balance the rights of South Americans who want to develop and prosper; the indigenous people struggling to live off the land; and the rest of the world who fear environmental disaster without it?

The Amazon has always been seen as a land ripe for exploitation. Whether it's trees or people, rubber or gold, cacao or Brazil nuts, hydro-power or mineral reserves, there are fortunes, or at least a living, to be made.

The Amazon is more than just the river that runs for 6,516km from the Andes to the Atlantic. The Amazon basin - which incorporates the river and all its tributaries - lies within the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, with Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname on the fringes. The Amazon is dominated by rainforest, although around 17 per cent of the trees have been lost to cattle ranching, plantations, logging and development projects. More than 60 per cent of the land lies in Brazil, South America's richest and largest country, and it is the economic and political decisions of the Brazilian government that have the most impact on the region.

When the first Spanish explorers arrived at the beginning of the 16th century, it wasn't the forest that was immediately under threat, but the people. Expedition diaries describe large, complex farming communities along the floodplains and archeologists agree that the region was well populated at the time, but estimates vary greatly from five to 15 million people.

Whatever the figure, most communities collapsed in the decades following the arrival of the colonists. The European explorers looking to make a foothold in the region brought measles, smallpox, tuberculosis and flu with them, which wiped out around 90 per cent of the American Indian population.

Further lives were lost as they were enslaved to work for the colonists.

In the early days, European settlers found the so-called "drugs of the backlands", such as vanilla, cacao and root-beer vine, more profitable than plantations. They had little knowledge of local agricultural practices and it was easier to harvest wild-grown forest produce from paddle-powered expeditions up the river. Jesuit missionaries provided some protection for the indigenous populations and their villages were often the most successful at producing crops.

By 1750, the Treaty of Madrid put a large part of the Amazon under Portuguese control and, as the century wore on, imported slave labour from Africa was used by plantation owners for the cultivation and export of crops such as sugarcane and rice.

The 1830s saw the first of many Amazon boom-and-bust cycles with the explosion of the rubber industry. As men like Charles Macintosh, Charles Goodyear, John Boyd Dunlop and Henry Ford devised products that needed liquid latex, hundreds of thousands of impoverished Brazilians were persuaded to move from the drought-scorched north east to become rubber tappers along the Amazon floodplains. Rubber barons built mansions and opera houses while the rubber tappers, or "seringueiros", were forever in debt, often working for food and basic living supplies.

The "good times" lasted until 1910 when prices for the raw material began to wane because of competition from plantations set up in Asia, where the raw material was produced more cheaply from trees grown, ironically, from seeds gathered in the Amazon. By 1920, the rubber industry in Brazil was dead. It was briefly resurrected during the Second World War when Malaysian plantations fell under Japanese control and the US government needed to find an alternative supply. Globalisation may be a 21st-century buzzword, but it was something well understood by 20th-century rubber tappers who either left to find work elsewhere or stayed and survived off the land.

The next wonder crop was jute, which arrived in the Amazon via Japanese immigrants in the 1930s. Production and exports boomed in the mid-1970s and crashed in the 1980s with competition from synthetic fibres and cut-price jute from Bangladesh. The jute farmers tried cattle farming or took to the river in search of new livelihoods.

Despite the booms and migrations, the population of the Amazon remained lower than during pre-colonial times and infrastructure was limited until the 1960s, when the military government instituted an ambitious development plan called Operation Amazonia. The area would no longer be an economic backwater, but a wealth-generator for the nation. Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco, the president at the time, described it as a "land without people for people without land". By opening up the Amazon, the government hoped to alleviate unrest in other poor and overcrowded parts of the country by relocating people out of shanty towns to a new land of opportunity, and encourage national and foreign investment.

As well as providing the infrastructure, the government offered generous tax incentives and loans for industrial and agricultural ventures. In the 1960s the Amazon had 6,000km of road; by 1980 45,000km of road and track criss-crossed the region. Where once towns clung to the banks of the river and the easiest mode of transport was by boat, it was now possible to reach further into the forest interior by road.

And people came - an estimated 170,000 - to claim their part of a chaotic land grab. The original plan had been for towns and villages to be built along a grand highway running across the Amazon. Thousands of families would run their own 100-hectare plots and others would find jobs in the industries that were promoted alongside agriculture.

This Amazon utopia didn't quite work out as planned. Farming was tough, and almost impossible after a few years because of poor soil. Most of the farmers were forced off the land by poverty and malaria. The cities, however, grew and the cutting of timber went unchecked.

Massive and controversial hydro-electric projects followed in the 1970s and 1980s. With funding from the World Bank, the government developed these projects to give the country a more stable supply of energy (the oil crisis was at its height) and supported big industrial projects such as mines.

Roads have been built and forest logged for sought-after tropical hardwoods and cheap lumber, but on top of sanctioned clearance there is the problem of illegal logging, which the Brazilian government has found hard to police. With an area almost as large as Argentina to cover, illegal cutting operations by rich and poor are often only spotted after the fact because of satellite images. Logging in the Amazon is scorched-earth in action - even if a few highly-prized trees are sought, whole areas will be cleared.

However, it is the explosion of cattle ranches that is the cause of most of the logging in the Amazon, and the cut-and-burn method is the quickest and cheapest way to prepare land for pasture. Cattle rearing was limited until the middle of the 20th century but, as the population of the Amazon grew and government subsidies appeared, the number and size of ranches expanded.

The Amazon doesn't offer particularly good grazing land, but there is lots of it. Rearing cattle or buffalo is much less labour-intensive than crop-growing, with only a few people needed to keep watch over vast areas. Government incentives make cleared land more profitable for owners and it is also easier to stake a claim on this than it is on untouched forest.

Stocking densities are low because of the poor quality of soil, so ranchers need huge areas to provide enough food for their livestock. Initially, beef production was for domestic consumption, but a global demand for cheap meat fuelled expansion. At the turn of the century there were 47 million head of cattle in the Amazon, much of it destined for Europe and the US.

Subsistence farmers can claim ownership of land they work for a certain amount of time. They cut down trees and plant crops for a few years before hitting the same set of problems faced by generations of Amazon farmers before them. So they clear more land and maybe add a few head of cattle to the land no longer fit for saleable crops.

Most recently, soybean plantations have been causing as much consternation as the long-demonised cattle ranches. Much of it is exported to Europe where it is fed to chickens destined for fast food outlets. According to Greenpeace, 25,000km2 of forest was downed to make way for new soybean plantations in 2005. Although the Amazon accounts for only 5 per cent of soy bean production in Brazil, the organisation says the plantations are now the leading cause of deforestation in the region.

Other environmental issues in the Amazon include gas and oil extraction, mercury poisoning caused by unregulated gold mining and the impact of poorly located dams on the region's rivers.

Tangled up in all of this are the lives and livelihoods of indigenous groups, which number about 450,000 in Brazil - less than 1 per cent of the population. American Indians trying to live off the forest need large areas set aside away from industry and agriculture if they are to stand any chance of surviving as distinct cultures. Although a few groups live untouched by the modern world, many more are involved in rubber tapping or small-scale farming. Their rights are recognised in the Brazilian constitution and 12.5 per cent of the country - almost all of it in the Amazon - is set aside for their use. But having rights under the constitution and trying to assert them in the wild north-west are two different things.

In the Amazon, the law of the land often means the law of the gun, and constant land disputes have resulted in murder and civil disturbance. Chico Mendez, who founded the National Council of Rubber Tappers, was killed in 1988 when his campaign to protect the people of the forest went global.

The violence continues and the land wars show no sign of ending as the government drives through its new wave of Amazon development called Advance Brazil. However, biotechnology and ecotourism are just part of the $45billion plan - if the government fulfils its ambition and financing is forthcoming, the Amazon will get new highways, canals, pipelines, airports, harbours, mines, ranches, hydroelectric plants and, of course, people.

So why does all this matter so much to a heavily deforested, car-loving West? Since the middle of the last century around half the world's remaining tropical rainforests have been lost and scientists estimate that a fifth of greenhouse gases are caused by deforestation. The trees of the Amazon absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide and release 20 per cent of world's oxygen into the atmosphere.

At a local level, they are super-efficient recyclers of water and nutrients. The Amazon forest recycles up to 50 per cent of the rain that falls in a process called transpiration. Water is absorbed through the roots and released through leaves and back into the hovering rain clouds.

Nasa satellite monitoring has shown that there are fewer rain clouds over large tracts of cleared land.

Despite supporting diverse and flourishing ecosystems, when rainforest trees are cut, the nutrients are lost with them, leaving behind poor soil.

Without binding roots, erosion increases the amount of sediment, leaving rivers and tributaries murkier than before. Streams once protected by canopy dry up, further reducing waterborne wildlife.

What happens to the climate when this huge CO2 sink starts releasing more carbon through cut and burn? How is the rainfall level affected when the trees are cut down? Can species recover the loss of habitat - where do those fruit-eating fish go when the fruits of the forest no longer drop from the sky? Environmentalists say the consequences will be less rain, more drought and fire, higher worldwide temperatures and more chaotic weather patterns. While research is increasing our understanding of the Amazon ecosystems, the forest itself shrinks as the chainsaws and bulldozers leave an indelible mark.

Even if a few more tycoons followed Johan Eliasch's lead, the Amazon is never going to become an Eden, stewarded by indigenous tribes as a gift to the world. Around 20 million people already live there, and it is becoming increasingly urbanised - no amount of campaigning or protesting is going to hold back the inevitable. The question is: can the governments of the Amazon find a way to develop it that is both equitable and sustainable? There are no contemporary blueprints or success stories to follow, so we can only hope that they don't follow the lead of much of the developed world, which didn't realise what it had lost until it was gone.

Websites survival-international.orgtribes.php?tribe_id=25 www.wwfus.orgforests


Francisco de Orellana led one of the first expeditions down what was to become known as the Amazon, in 1542. He and his men had many battles and encounters with natives along the way, but one skirmish was different - De Orellana and his men encountered some villagers who were lead by pale warrior women with long plaited hair. Armed with bows and arrows, these women fought fearlessly, but were eventually overcome.

However, fanciful stories were spun by the Europeans when they returned home - according to a captured chief, they said, the women lived in stone houses seven days away from the river. They worshipped the Sun and terrorised the villagers, stealing their menfolk for breeding purposes. No European ever discovered the village of these warrior women, but Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, who chronicled the expedition, was inspired by the Amazon women of Greek mythology and named the river Amazonas.


* At 7,050,000km2, the Amazon is roughly twice the size of India.

* By 2005, an estimated 17 per cent of the Amazon had been deforested.

Every year around 20-35,000km2 of virgin forest is cleared in Brazil alone.

However, the Amazon still contains around 40 per cent of the world's remaining rainforest.

* Just over 60 per cent of the Amazon basin (the drainage area of the river and its tributaries) sits in Brazil, South America's largest country. The other main Amazonian countries are Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, with Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname on the borders.

* The Amazon River runs for 6,516km from the Andes to the Atlantic and delivers 15 to 20 per cent of the world's fresh water to the oceans. Its width varies from 1.6km to 10km and its water volume is greater than the Nile, Yangtze and Mississippi combined. As well as the Amazon itself, there are over 1,000 tributaries, 12 of which are more than 1,600km long.

* During the rainy season the water levels rise to 15m in places and the river extends to 40km across at the widest points.

* The Amazon contains an estimated 30 per cent of all animal and plant life on earth. It will probably be impossible to ever create a definitive list of species, but the paper "How Many Species Are There in Brazil?"

(Conservation Biology, 2005) lists 40,000 plant species, 3,000 fish, 1,294 birds, 805 amphibians and reptiles, 427 mammals and hundreds of thousands of invertebrates.

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