THE AMAZON

by Gunnar Eigener

The Amazon contains just over half of the world’s remaining rainforest. Home to some 390 billion trees, one in ten living plant and animal species and annually absorbing approximately 1.5 gigaton of carbon dioxide, this rainforest is one of the last few significant land carbon sinks. The effects of climate change were demonstrated when the Amazon briefly lost its ability to absorb carbon dioxide during severe droughts in 2005 and 2010.

The Amazon has long been a poster-child for the environmental movement and its importance has never ceased, although other causes have taken some of the coverage and media interest away. The time has come to refocus on the Amazon before the damage becomes irreparable. The consequences of losing it would be globally catastrophic.

The time has come to refocus on the Amazon before the damage becomes irreparable. The consequences of losing it would be globally catastrophic.

Already there exists 140 hydroelectric dams in the Amazon basin with over an additional 400 already planned. A study, published in the journal Nature, shows the risks that could be imposed on the river system. Damage to sediment movements could affect wildlife, risking extinction for some. The study found that, while environmental assessments were being carried out, these tended to be focused on individual dams and not the overall effect. Dams have also long being a financial burden, rarely being constructed within budget and therefore not a worthwhile financial investment. The main problem is that these dams are being built but will only be able to provide electricity for a short period of time, after which the water will begin to dry up. The result is that pastures and farmland will have been created, but there will eventually be no water to help irrigate them. Severe droughts will come again causing even more problems. Slowly but surely, rainforest will disappear and the intended uses for the land will become inapplicable without the water resources to support them.

amazon deforestation

Destruction of the Amazon, as of 2006. The situation has worsened since. Image credit: Lou Gold, Flickr

So why carry on with these projects if the end result is so negative? The Brazilian National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) has loaned out billions of dollars in the last decade to ambitious consortiums in order to fulfil Brazil’s growing demand for electricity. The former Brazilian finance minster Guido Mantega was arrested last year for questioning regarding alleged malfeasance at BNDES. He was accused of pressuring building contractors to make political donations in return for subsidised loans. These loans were given out at a much lower default rate but subsidised through high market rate borrowing, increasing public debt. Companies that backed successful candidates received on average an additional $28 million. With so much money available to lend, to the detriment of the Brazilian people, BNDES has become the biggest development bank in the world, even out-lending the World Bank. Spiralling costs and skimming have virtually given contractors their own ATM.

There has also been a dramatic increase in violence against indigenous people in the area. Brazilian human rights NGO, Comissao Pastoral da Terra, has reported that 37 people have been killed so far this year.

There has also been a dramatic increase in violence against indigenous people in the area. Brazilian human rights NGO, Comissao Pastoral da Terra, has reported that 37 people have been killed so far this year. Funding cuts have been made to Funai, the Brazilian indigenous rights agency. The result has been that land owners have proceeded with land grabs, killing those who try and resist. The inability of government agencies to act has left criminals the opportunity to carry out their activities without fear of justice. Brazilian Indian tribes remain affected by such illegal actions, but this is a problem that began years ago when land was taken from the tribes and distributed amongst powerful land owners during the dictatorship era. Such land-owners enjoy connections to politicians and support from both the police and national guard, who the government is only too willing to send in to act for the land-owners.

amazon protest

Image credit: International Rivers, Flickr.

All of these actions, or lack thereof, leave the Amazon in a troubling position. With 60% of the rainforest placed in Brazil, much is needed of the Brazilian government to carry out the necessary work needed to protect the Amazon. But with so many scandals hitting that government, the problems of the Amazon are pushed back, and we risk the environmental damage continuing unabated.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, for good work is already going on.

Approximately half of the Brazilian Amazon has been designated as national parks or indigenous lands. Fast food chains, like McDonalds, have stopped sourcing soybeans from recently cleared rainforest. The Brazilian cattle industry has officially refused to take cattle raised with 10km of deforestation fronts. Satellite monitoring and the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Programme have helped enforce protection of the Amazon. Rainforest Action Network’s (RAN) Protect An Acre program funds indigenous tribes to help them with legal problems. We can do more at home, such as reducing beef consumption and checking where paper companies source their material. There are plenty of ways in which to contribute.

And contribute we must, because the consequences of doing nothing are astounding. Current models suggest that the Amazon could be a desert by the end of the century. The loss of the Amazon would put unbearable pressure on other carbon sinks, such as the oceans, leading to total failure to absorb carbon dioxide. Technology does exist that might help, but adapting is time-consuming and flawed.

Human convenience and profit margins are the driving factors behind so many problems, but these will become irrelevant if this planet, and we, can’t breathe.

Featured image credit: CIPHOR, Flickr

 


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