CORVALLIS - A $40 billion onslaught of highways, railroads, hydroelectric projects and burgeoning population is overwhelming efforts to promote conservation in the Amazon Forest of Brazil. If left unchecked, it will soon destroy the greatest tropical rainforest on Earth, experts say.
A new study to be published Friday in the journal Science shows that the well-intentioned conservation programs now under way in the Amazon are wholly inadequate to offset the destruction from agriculture, timber and mining that are taking place in the name of economic development.
"We've heard a lot about ecotourism, sustainable forestry and other conservation efforts in the Amazon," said Scott Bergen, a forest scientist at Oregon State University and co-author of the report.
"But if these development plans go through, we'll lose the largest remaining wilderness on Earth and a huge amount of the world's remaining biodiversity. And that, of course, doesn't even consider the enormous impacts on the carbon cycle, global climate and greenhouse warming."
The stakes are extremely high and the battle is being lost, say researchers from OSU, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Michigan State University, and National Institute for Amazonian Research.
Problems with deforestation in the Amazon are not new. But this study, the experts say, is one of the first to look at the wider range of causes, ranging from population growth to economic policies, pipeline construction, roads, power lines, an influx of multi-national timber companies, slash-and-burn farming, ranching, mining, oil exploration, and many other issues. It projects the real impact of those causes on the Amazon landscape 20 years into the future.
The results of allowing current trends to continue, the study concludes, are devastating. Non-indigenous populations in the Brazilian Amazon have increased about 10-fold since the 1960s, from two million people to 20 million. Investments totaling $40 billion are planned just in the next seven years under the huge new "Avanca Brasil," or Advance Brazil economic development program. Key environmental agencies in Brazil are largely excluded from the planning of these developments.
Roads that once were more confined to the perimeter of the Amazon Forest are now penetrating the heart of the basin, and the many land uses made possible by these roads are destroying the forests. Two models were developed to assess the future impacts of these trends, one somewhat optimistic and the other less so. Both suggest that the Brazilian Amazon will be drastically altered by current development schemes.
Under the less optimistic scenario, less than 5 percent of the land will survive as pristine forest, and 42 percent of the region will either be totally deforested or heavily degraded by the year 2020. The rate of forest destruction is now almost 5 million acres per year - the highest in the world. As a result of the planned highways and infrastructure projects during the next 20 years, that rate is expected to increase more than 25 percent per year under the least optimistic scenario, and about 14 percent even under the most favorable scenario.
Bergen, a specialist in geographic information systems, remote sensing and spatial ecology, recently spent about a year working in the Amazon as part of a larger project funded by NASA. He and his colleagues studied development patterns in Brazil in recent decades and used information from those trends to project the future impacts of current plans.
"Part of what's important about this report is we tried to tie together a lot of different components that often are not considered, but have long-term impacts on land use," Bergen said. "The ultimate conclusion is that despite the best efforts of many people and hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on conservation, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has not decreased and in some places in still increasing."
It's not too late to pursue a solution, the researchers said, but it will probably require a new approach from the government and people of Brazil.
The cash payments for "carbon credits" available under the Kyoto Protocol as part of the effort to address global warming are clearly one option, they say. Under this approach, nations and companies around the world literally pay for the rights to continue some of their development plans that would inject carbon into the atmosphere, so long as development plans elsewhere are shelved. The Brazilian Amazon offers an ideal site to sell such carbon credits, which might provide up to $2 billion per year to Brazil while keeping the Amazon forests intact.
Besides the cash they might provide through this mechanism, the researchers said, Brazil must also consider the benefits of intact forests for reducing floods, conserving soils, maintaining stable regional climates, preserving biodiversity and supporting both local populations and ecotourism. Also, they suggest that agricultural land in Brazil could be used intensively rather than extensively, favoring high-value agroforestry and perennial crops over fire-maintained cattle pastures and slash-and-burn farming plots.
"Such a model is very unlikely to develop, however," the researchers say in their report, "when land is cheap, destructive wildfires are common, and vast new frontiers are being continually opened for colonization."