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While policy-makers squabble, Amazon vanishes

The astonishly biodiverse Amazon rainforest in Brazil is shrinking, the victim of confusing policy
The astonishly biodiverse Amazon rainforest in Brazil is shrinking, the victim of confusing policy  

CNN's Roy Wadia was one of 12 U.S.-based journalists who traveled recently to Brazil, as part of the Pew Gatekeeper Fellowship program. The fact-finding trip was sponsored by the Pew International Journalism Program at International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University.

(CNN) -- From a distance, it looks like an ordinary farm scene. Cows grazing peacefully in a grassy field, horses ambling in a nearby paddock, birds chirping in the surrounding trees. But there's more to the picture than meets the eye.

The grassy field is an acidic stretch of thin soil, unsuitable for farming. The animals are the sole inhabitants. The birds that sing on this June afternoon belong to various endangered species. And the trees here are secondary shoots that have replaced the area's original stretch of Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

"This is a good example of a bad policy," says Rita Mesquita, a plant scientist working on a program to help conserve the world's richest stretch of biodiversity.

"It's very common for someone to get money from the government, saying they want to develop land in the Amazon," she says. "Then they clear the forest, put some cows or donkeys there -- and disappear for years, just collecting the money."

Power and politics in Brazil  
Sao Paulo's complexity  

Mesquita makes the point as she leads a group of journalists from the United States through the farm, located some 60 kilometers from Manaus.

The area is vast and largely deserted. At the gate hangs a rusted sign with the inscription SUDAM -- the Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia -- one of many government programs in the region over the past 60 years.

Brazil launched full-scale development in the Amazon basin in the 1940s, during the rule of President Getulio Vargas.

The process metamorphosed over the decades into programs with different names but the same overall purpose: In the 1950s, it was the "economic valorization" of the Amazon; in the 1970s, the theme was "colonization and agrarian reform," along with gigantic road projects such as the Trans-Amazon Highway.

SUDAM, in the 1960s, was the umbrella for "rational exploitation." This, says U.S.-based biologist Phil Camill, meant cattle -- millions of cattle.

Camill says the Brazilian government, aided by various countries including the United States, believed that establishing cattle ranches in the Amazon would help generate revenue at a time of high global beef prices.

Subsidies from SUDAM initially offered up to 50 percent tax exemptions for such projects. Eventually these subsidies jumped to 100 percent.

At the same time, the government encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to move to the Amazon. The settlers were given land at a minimal price, or even for free, as long as they proved they were using it for "productive purposes."

Camill points out this led to a slash-and-burn process of deforestation. The land thus cleared yields crops of generally low quality for two to three years. By then, the soil is depleted of nutrients, and the land is often abandoned altogether.

Abandoned unless, Rita Mesquita says, crooked landowners choose to milk the government for more money by attempting to prove the area is still being used. Adding to the abuse, she says, many landowners give government officials kickbacks, thereby ensuring that the system endures.

Mesquita, who works under the auspices of the National Institute for Amazon Research, acknowledges that more people are aware these days of such abuses. But she despairs of the situation being remedied in her lifetime.

"Part of the problem," she says, "is that the people who make the policies affecting the Amazon are so far removed from the area. They've never even visited it, nor do they want to. To them it's just something abstract, more like a theory than a real place."

Far away from the rainforest, in Brazil's financial center of Sao Paulo, a group of high-powered businessmen disagree. The core members of the FIESP/CIESP -- leading industrialists in Sao Paulo state and key advisers to the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso -- strongly defend Brazil's Amazon development policy.

Addressing the same group of U.S. journalists who heard Mesquita's complaints, they insist that, despite abuses, the system is being fixed.

"We must continue to develop the Amazon," says Mario Ramos Villares, director of the International Affairs and Foreign Trade Department at FIESP/CIESP. "Yes, there have been some mistakes, but there are ways to improve the area without risking undue damage."

One of his colleagues, Joao Fernando Sobral, is more blunt. "If you or the world doesn't want the Amazon to be touched, that's fine. We'll rent the Amazon forest to the world, you pay us the royalties and the tax for it. What moral philosophy says that natural resources are untouchable?"

Sobral's remark, delivered with vehemence, draws a laugh from Villares. "He's just joking, of course," Villares assures the journalists. "Of course we don't and we can't rent the Amazon out. All we're saying is let us handle our own resources without international interference."

It is this very perception of "international interference" that strikes a raw nerve in Brazilians.

Many of them, especially those who've settled in the Amazon basin, genuinely believe that "outsiders" -- especially those from the United States -- want to take over the region.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace are viewed with deep suspicion, as are many of the U.S. scientists and researchers trying to record the hundreds, if not thousands, of bird and animal species that are disappearing from the rapidly shrinking forest.

"The paranoia is spreading to the very young as well," says William Laurence, a research scientist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who's worked in Brazil for several years.

Laurence says schoolchildren in the Amazon are frequently taught that their region is coveted by the United States and that they should be ready to defend their homeland if necessary.

"It's a situation where environmental conservation is really equated with the betrayal of one's roots, of one's country," Laurence says. "If you speak out against the degradation of the forest, you risk being called a traitor. There really is little awareness or concern within Brazil, even now, about what's going on."

In an effort to find some common ground, more and more environmentalists are seeking to work within the system rather than fighting it.

They're also trying to find eco-friendly ways to develop the rainforest, such as tapping into the pharmaceutical benefits of the plants and trees there.

In order to curtail logging and traditional slash-and- burn farming, environmentalists realize they must help those who've settled in the region find alternative ways to make a living.

The government may be coming to the same realization, as it too tries to scale back some of its subsidies in these cash-strapped times.

Having encouraged people for decades to populate the Amazon basin, the problem now is how to enable them to earn a living without destroying the very place itself. But is it too little, too late?

"It might well be," says William Laurence. "The tragic thing about development in the Amazon is that the benefits are so marginal. And every half-hour an area the size of 210 football fields is lost."

Laurence led a team of scientists who recently tried to project the future of the Brazilian Amazon in terms of deforestation and human development.

They came up with two projections for the year 2020. The more optimistic picture indicates that efforts to conserve the region will be overwhelmed by destructive trends. The negative picture suggests even more intense damage than the first.

What about environmental legislation itself? Can the laws currently in place protect the Amazon?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Industrialist Mario Ramos Villares in Sao Paulo says: "We have enough laws and penalties to protect the Amazon." Joao Fernando Sobral adds: "If you ask me, environmental protection is way over the top. It's emotions versus reality."

Environmentalists who work in the rainforest hold the opposite view. "Yes, Brazil has good environmental legislation," says Bill Laurence. "On paper, that is. The missing element is enforcement itself."

Back at the farm outside Manaus, Rita Mesquita shrugs her shoulders when asked what the future holds.

"Look around you," she says, pointing to the scraggly trees, plucking handfuls of unhealthy grass out of the shallow soil. "This could be the future." Or, she adds -- pointing to a healthy stretch of forest untouched by a development plan -- "that could be the future."

It depends ultimately, she says, on Brazilians themselves. "If more of us open our eyes to what's going on, perhaps we can make a difference. Unfortunately right now, it seems we prefer to be blind."

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