The amazonian virgin forest

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The amazonian virgin forest
country : Brazil � Peru
place : around the Amazonia river and its affluents

Several truths that were considered more or less incontrovertible for several decades in the Amazon Rainforest were gradually changed into fallacies as a consequence of the changing social and economic context, new discoveries of natural resources and due to the development of new technologies. This phenomenon received a strong impulse in the last 20 years of Amazonian history. It is interesting to discuss these �truths� that were even established assumptions about the Amazon, since for a long time many of them served to justify conventional development, which brought us to the current situation of environmental disaster and, also, others served as arguments used by those who attempted to conserve the Amazon or to use it in a sustainable manner. These truths of bygone days that lost support in modern times should not be confused with those Amazonian myths, which were never more than just that, but that also contributed to form the current scenario
These truths or half truths of the past include the idea of a �vast Amazonian emptiness�, the incapacity of the soil to support farming and livestock breeding activities and the low contribution from this region towards national economy. Among the myths or near myths of old and today, some of the obvious ones to highlight are the concept of a �virgin land� and the idea of being �the lung of the world�, aside from the persistent notion that �neocolonial powers want to invade the Amazon�. One can also add to these the so-called importance of the forest resources for lumbering and the feasibility of sustainable management, as well as the much-promoted usefulness of the ecologic and economic zoning to organize the use of the territory. There are also a series of new realities that two decades ago were not taken seriously, such as urban concentrations in the Amazon, the evidence of global climate changes, the existence of an already considerable infrastructure, which is quickly growing, Brazil�s predominant role within the territories of neighboring Amazonian countries and, among others, the acknowledgement of major territories belonging to the indigenous people as well as a growing political function of the Indian population of the Amazon.

One cannot address in a single article, even less so with the necessary depth, so many complex themes. But one can make an attempt to explain them as an introduction to the subject, hoping that they will inform and encourage others to think more about this region which is being increasingly transformed and in a more intense manner.

Amazonian emptiness, virgin territory and brave natives

The first theme is the one that refers to the so-called �Amazonian emptiness� and, by extension, to the �virgin land or forest� and of the existence of �brave natives�, today euphemistically referred to as �those who live in volunteer isolation�. To begin with, today we have many scientific evidences that show that the Amazon, including its plain, has supported human populations in much greater numbers than thought of hitherto, especially before the conquest of South America by the Spanish and Portuguese and that, according to several evidences, was already home to many cultures and civilizations which unexpectedly developed. Their disappearance, such as so many other tropical forest cultures on the planet, is and will continue to give rise to debates; however they do not dispel the notion that the Amazon never was an �empty space� and where these cultures had settled there was nothing close to resembling �virgin land�.

Feeding these populations and producing a surplus that could enable cultural development and create a relationship with other cultures could only be achieved through significant impacts on nature. Another aspect is that after these civilizations were extinct, the forest recovered the spaces used, wiping away the more evident traces of their presence, but not all of them. On the other hand, the indigenous population of the Amazon that replaced the previous cultural developments, while in general was of a very low density, also occupied almost all of the territory based on the technique of rotation of planting fields and hunting, gathering and fishing areas. In the last two centuries, but especially in the last 50 years, the so-called �brave� natives disappeared and today we only have a few thousands which are now known as natives who live under a volunteer regime of isolation. In other words, in the Amazon there are no empty spaces, and no land which is truly virgin, or even less so, brave natives to be feared.

Moreover, the Amazon considered as a forest, in other words, the portion covered by jungle, has undoubtedly lost more than 40% of its extension in the last 300 years. The older losses during colonial times and during the first century or more of independent life, not registered in the current deforestation measuring systems, were in the Andean mountains of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, between 4,000 and 2,000 meters above sea level, where the Andean population arrived to breed cattle extensively and to practice an itinerant form of agriculture which was inadequate for the topographic and ecologic reality of the region. Millions and millions of hectares of mountain slopes are today devoid of vegetation in mute testimony of such practices.

In the last 50 years, especially in Brazil, but also in the other countries, attacks on the Amazon Rainforest occurred through the opening of deeper and deeper roads that bit into the forest with the pretext of ensuring national presence on the borders and to enable the territory for livestock breeding expansion and agriculture, as well as for the looting of valuable wood. According to the governments, experts in hiding the truth when it is convenient, this last stage of deforestation only means an average reduction (added to the historical one) of approximately 18% of woodlands. However, independent evaluations double these numbers and also show that governmental statistics and those of the United Nations that are their louder voice, carefully leave out information on the degradation of forests, which easily affects more than 60% of the woodlands that are still standing.

One must also add to these that the Amazonian population, although its density continues low, grew a great deal, representing almost 16% of Brazil�s population and more than 13% of Peru�s. The census of 2010 showed that there are 16 million people in the Brazilian Amazon. Aside from that, the Amazonian population is the one with the fastest annual growth in modern days.

In other words, actually, it�s not only false that the Amazon is a wide abandoned space consisting of virgin forest teeming with wild beasts and warrior natives, but it is also a lie that this region, seen as a forest, is as large as believed. However and curiously, this type of argument continues to be a major part of the speeches and proposals of ignorant or unscrupulous politicians, megalomaniac visionaries, ultranationalist geopoliticians and by businessmen that place their interests above those of the majority.

It is sad to see that many still use the argument that the Amazon is the �lung of the world� to justify defending the Amazonian forest, but actually performing a very poor service in its cause. Impressively enough, this idea was scientifically discarded decades ago. The Amazon Rainforest, as many others, supplies many essential environmental services, such as carbon sequestering, but they are not primary producers of oxygen. Aside from that, the image used in this case is inadequate, because lungs do not expel oxygen out of the body. Actually, lungs compete for oxygen with the lungs of other air breathers. They capture oxygen from the air and make it available to the cells in the body or to the being to which they belong, in this case, figuratively speaking, the plants themselves that make up the Amazonian forest.

Another thing is to speak of the forests in terms of the reality represented by the relatively new knowledge and their confirmation regarding the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and, in this case, the proper role of woodlands such as the Amazonian one in sequestering carbon in the biomass and in the soil, which can compensate for emissions of this gas produced by human activities. This is, for sure, a weighty argument to keep the forest standing and free from any degradation, since, as it has been demonstrated by ecologists and economists, the cost of maintaining woodland is much smaller than the cost of avoiding air contamination or to reduce carbon levels in the forest. There are already businesses of this type underway, and many others will come, when finally international negotiations are concluded, which can still take a while, but that nonetheless points to an inevitable path to be followed. It has also been shown scientifically that to conserve the forest for carbon businesses can be a much more profitable endeavor than raising cattle in an extensive manner, as continues to be the practice in most of the deforested areas.

But to conserve the forest is not only an economically interesting prospect for carbon-based businesses. It is also attractive in order to ensure the regular functioning of the hydrologic regime and of other biochemical cycles, and obviously to maintain biological diversity. The issue of regular availability of water and its quality is a key issue with regard to social and economic themes. As it is well known, there are already many cities at the feet of Andean mountains in the Amazon that regularly suffer a serious lack of water and many other cities and townships are unable to find clean water due to the contamination caused by mining and oil exploitation activities. With regard to companies, many of them Brazilian, they contribute through mishandled environmental exploitations that deforest the Amazon in Andean countries, and also produce destruction and poverty in their own territory, causing successive floods and extreme droughts.

The quality of the soil for agriculture and ecologic and economic zoning

One of the truths hardly discussed among edaphologists, ecologists and planners, including agronomists of 30 years ago, was that on the most part, the Amazon lacks a type of soil that is capable to support farming and livestock breeding activities in a sustainable manner. In the 1970�s, the most mentioned numbers pointed at just 3% suitable for agriculture alone, and that altogether only 10 to 11% of the region could support agriculture and livestock breeding. All the rest would only be suitable for forest covering whether for production or protection. This was the argument to preserve the major part of the territory or dedicate it only to careful forest exploitation, which obviously didn�t take place.

But the percentage of land capable of being used for agricultural or livestock breeding purposes began to increase at every revision, based on the application of new criteria encouraged by the desire to expand occupation in the region, or if you prefer, colonization and, partially due to the new economic and technological variables. For example, the lack of phosphorus and an excess of aluminum and acidity, among other limitations, could be corrected if transportation were cheaper over good roads, if the market value of the products increased or if new phosphate and limestone deposits were found. Currently, this type of reasoning to avoid changing the use of the soil, in other words deforesting, has lost its legitimacy. This was clearly demonstrated with the quick occupation and successful agriculture economics of the cerrado (savannah) region in Brazil, which offers a soil which is not better than those found in the Amazon, and also with the current occupation of agriculture and livestock breeding in the portion of the Amazon that belongs to the states of Mato Grosso and Par?. Actually, as it is well known, one can cultivate in a sustainable manner almost anywhere, including in a spaceship. To do so is only a matter of need or one of cost. The technology exists and can go ahead a great deal more.

Another idea belonging to the 1970�s is the one that refers to ecologic and economic zoning, a tropical version, actually Brazilian, of the European territorial ordering. Zoning uses, in the most part, information on the capacity of soil usage. It was applied in Rond�nia, in the decade of 1980 and soon spread to the rest of Brazil in the following decades and was likewise exported to Andean Amazonian countries. There have been enough discussions on the need or usefulness of ordering the territory by employing information on the potential of soils, ecology, hydrology, population distribution, available natural resources and economic demands. It is also unnecessary to counter that zoning must be the result of a socialized process, under consultation and agreement and that can also be revised. All of this is obvious. But equally obvious, thirty years after it was implemented for the first time, consuming years of efforts by professionals and having spent fortunes to prepare colored maps and organized meetings to discuss it is that besides educating, the processes amounted to nothing. All and every one of the zoning exercises performed to this date offered transitory results and were of no help to avoid the chaotic occupation of territories where they were applied. The last episode took place in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, where a lengthy, careful and agreed-upon zoning task turned into a circus of interests and ignorance on the part of legislators from Brazil�s Legislative Assembly in charge of approving it. Until now, the only territorial ordering that worked to some extent is the one that resulted from establishing protected areas, territories of indigenous people and those that established the proper ownership of properties.

Marc Dourojeanni was a professor and dean of the Forest College of the National Agrarian University of Lima, in Peru, and General Forest Director of that country. Currently, he is the President of the ProNaturaleza Foundation.


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