December 07, 2009
When people think about preserving the Amazon rainforest, captivating animals may come to mind such as the jaguar, toucan or manatee. But while wildlife must be safeguarded there are now other urgent reasons to protect the jungle. The seriousness of the problem was recently brought home to me when I visited the Amazonian city of Manaus.
There, I sat down with Dr. Philip Fearnside of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon, one of the most cited scientists on the issue of global warming. When I asked Fearnside about the connection between the Amazon and world climate, the scientist took out a calculator. After about a minute or so, he looked up and replied that the Amazon might contain nearly 100 billion tons of carbon simply in its trees. “That’s a lot of carbon,” he remarked, chuckling.
Those trees render a great service as they suck up greenhouse gasses that would ordinarily wind up in the atmosphere. However, when they are chopped down they stop sequestering carbon and release more carbon as they decompose or burn. Even worse, yet more carbon gets emitted when the soil is tilled or other agricultural activities take place on cleared forestland.
In light of rainforest destruction it’s all a ticking carbon bomb. Already, tropical deforestation results in about 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere every year. The Amazon accounts for nearly half of that figure. So destructive has tropical deforestation become that it now accounts for about twelve percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, about the same level of emissions coming from the transport sector.
We’ve got to find a way to keep that carbon locked up in the trees and out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, delegates at the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen will be discussing REDD, or reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, a scheme which would compensate countries for reducing deforestation. Many have high hopes that the initiative will help to provide a financial windfall to governments and local residents who seek to protect the forest.
Sounds like a great idea, but who will pay nations like Brazil to do the right thing? Historically, the Global North has purchased tropical commodities linked to deforestation and U.S. companies have cashed in on the Brazilian agribusiness bonanza which has spurred rainforest destruction. What’s more, large financial institutions backed by the United States promote climate-unfriendly industries that are encroaching on the rainforest.
When it comes time to assigning guilt for our climate change morass, South American leaders have hardly been bashful. Take for example Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. As I explain in my upcoming book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2010), Lula has been a frequent critic of the Global North. Speaking at an international conference on climate change and deforestation in Brazil, he remarked, “How can we ask the poor countries to take on the sacrifices the others didn't take on?”
The Brazilian president has taken to his new role of Third World defender with gusto, declaring that Europe has no right to make policy suggestions concerning the Amazon. While Europe has only 0.3 percent of its original forests, he proclaims, Brazil has at least 69 percent of its virgin forest still standing. “No one throughout the world has the moral grounds to talk about Brazil's environment,” Lula said. “Before you begin to talk about Brazil, look at your own map.”
Rightly, Lula declares that rich nations should bear most of the cost of fighting global warming as they have been polluting the planet for centuries and have consumed most of the Earth’s resources. Yet the Lula administration, which is associated with South America’s “pink tide” drift to the political left, has pushed grandiose, boondoggle development projects in South America which stand to exacerbate deforestation and global warming.
Take for example the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America, known by the Spanish acronym IIRSA. The scheme is designed to promote the continental integration of communication and infrastructure networks and includes the destructive Interoceanic Highway designed to link up with Brazil’s existing Amazonian road network.
Scheduled for completion in 2010, the highway will traverse Peru and facilitate the export of soy and other primary products via Pacific ports. For Brazil, the project fulfills a long held megalomaniac dream of having its own flag on the Pacific or least projecting its economic power far afield. Like the U.S. in the 19th century, Brazil is obsessed with furthering its own “Manifest Destiny” by crossing the continent.
Funding the road are the usual culprits such as the Inter-American Development Bank. But this time Lula can’t blame the Global North for the deforestation climate change mess: the Brazilian National Development Bank, an institution with a sorry social and environmental track record, is also involved. Overseeing the work is not the nefarious Halliburton but Odebrecht, a gigantic Brazilian construction and engineering firm.
Having already trammeled the rainforest during the 1970s via the Trans-Amazonian highway, Brazilian business interests are now opening up previously pristine jungle in Peru to agribusiness, logging, and fossil fuel extraction. Local residents or castañeros gain their livelihood by harvesting Brazil nuts, an environmentally sustainable enterprise which preserves the rainforest. The Interoceanic Highway now threatens to undermine the castañeros by flooding the region with new migrants eager to clear cut the land for logging.
In Peru, President Alan García has backed IIRSA and the Interoceanic Highway. García is hardly an ideal politician to tackle the issue of global warming. In 2007, after arrows and abandoned camps were found in western Brazil, providing evidence that isolated, uncontacted Amazonian tribes were fleeing Peru to escape encroaching loggers, García suggested that such indigenous groups were merely an invention by pesky critics opposed to oil exploration.
It’s no surprise that Peru, a key U.S. political and diplomatic ally in the region, would embrace IIRSA. It’s dismaying however that the ostensibly more progressive Lula administration would also push for such a hair brained plan. While many in South America surely agree with Lula’s bashing of the Global North over climate change, they increasingly see their own leaders as an obstacle.
Such political divisions were placed on vivid display recently in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. There, civil society groups set up a non-binding, symbolic “climate change tribunal” comprised of a jury of European and Latin American environmentalists, lawyers, and human rights activists. The jurists had harsh remarks for the Global North which in their words shared “historic responsibility” for emitting most of the word's greenhouse gases over the past 250 years.
However, the climate change tribunal did not let South American governments off the hook either. At one point, Bolivian indigenous peoples brought a case against IIRSA and the twelve South American governments supporting the initiative. Speaking before the tribunal, the Indians denounced the continental initiative for promoting highways which resulted in deforestation and massive carbon emissions.
Having concluded the proceedings, the jurists declared that it was the capitalist system as a whole which was contributing to climate change while impeding a rapid and effective environmental response. The jurists noted that IIRSA and other cases brought before the tribunal demonstrated how governments, international financial institutions, banks and transnational corporations worked in tandem to worsen our climate change dilemma.
To placate their populations, South American leaders will have to do much more than simply attack the Global North for its environmental sins. As long as governments continue to back highways ripping through the rainforest, they will be held to account by dynamic and restive social movements in Brazil and across the Andean region.
It was Indians and others who helped propel today’s leaders into political power in the first place, but if those same leaders don’t come back from Copenhagen and start to address their own role in boondoggle schemes like IIRSA, they could quickly find themselves on the defensive.