This article is adapted from the Fall 2015 print edition of Americas Quarterly. To subscribe, please click here
When Theodore Roosevelt explored the Amazon a century ago, he was enthralled by the mighty river that ran “from west to east, from the sunset to the sunrise, from the Andes to the Atlantic.” In the former U.S. president’s 1914 travelogue Through the Brazilian Wilderness, he waxed lyrical about the “great trees, the network of bush ropes, the caverns of greenery, where thick-leaved vines covered all things else.”
Roosevelt concluded that the Amazon was the world’s “last frontier… and decades will pass before it vanishes.”
Today, it’s doubtful Teddy would feel so confident. As you read this, an area approximately the size of a soccer field is being razed every single minute in the Brazilian Amazon alone. About 20 percent of the Brazilian Amazon has been deforested in the last four decades. An additional 20 percent suffers from “degradation” — which is broadly defined as a forest losing the ability to produce timber, conserve biodiversity and store carbon — because of logging and forest fires.
As with any ecosystem, the Amazon has a natural threshold beyond which it will be impossible to recover. Some scientists fear that, if deforestation rises to 40 percent of its territory, the Amazon will begin an irreversible process of transformation into savannah. The implications for global warming, weather patterns and biodiversity would be catastrophic.
There was a time, not so long ago, when we seemed headed toward precisely that fate. In 2004 alone, around 27,000 square kilometers (10,400 square miles) of forest — an area larger than Belgium — was destroyed within just Brazil. That year, because of this hyperdeforestation, Brazil was among the world’s top five largest emitters of greenhouse gases. This was especially vexing because, even though Amazon deforestation accounted for more than half of Brazil’s carbon emissions, the region generated only 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Even worse, the region saw some of Brazil’s worst indicators in health, education and public safety.
Put another way: We were losing one of our greatest treasures in return for nothing.
Brazil, which is home to roughly 65 percent of the Amazon forest, has always had a special responsibility to defend it. That same year, in 2004, the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced an ambitious plan to contain deforestation. Given previous policy failures, no one anticipated that it would work. But surprisingly, it did. By 2014, the amount of territory in Brazil deforested every year fell to about 5,000 square kilometers (1,900 square miles), a decline of more than 75 percent compared to 2004.
The plan had several mechanisms that, taken together, proved very effective. It included initiatives to monitor the forest almost in real time, using satellite images to stop perpetrators before they cut down the forest. It implemented effective punishments for violators, sending them to jail and confiscating their property. It set aside a record amount of territory for “protected areas”— an area of more than half a million square kilometers (193,000 square miles), roughly the size of France, in just three years. The resulting reduction in Amazon de-forestation is considered humanity’s greatest conquest to date in terms of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases — more than 3 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent was prevented from being put into the atmosphere.
This is, indeed, an accomplishment to be celebrated.
But it is not sufficient.
Even though deforestation has fallen 75 percent, the pace of tree loss in the Amazon still ranks alongside Indonesia’s as the world’s fastest. As such, we have merely postponed the risk of an environmental and economic catastrophe, rather than avoided it altogether. So instead of being comfortable with the status quo, it’s time to pursue a more daring and necessary goal: reducing annual deforestation to zero.
Some consider this goal radical, or even utopian. Yet the truth is that a goal of zero deforestation is not only possible, but desirable. It would be good for the environment, obviously, but that’s only one reason to do it. Zero deforestation would also bring tremendous benefits to the economy of the Amazon, and to its people.
Here are four reasons why.
1. We already razed all the land we need.
Brazil has, over the last 40 years, cut down an area of forest bigger than California and Arizona combined. Yet nearly two-thirds of the deforested area is underutilized, and more than 10 million hectares are simply abandoned (an area equivalent to the size of Virginia).
Indeed, the land that has already been razed is more than necessary to sustain new farms, dams, mining projects, and cities for decades to come. It would be entirely possible to increase the economic production of the Amazon, and provide work and wealth for its roughly 33 million inhabitants, without deforesting new areas. Achieving this depends primarily on developing and implementing technologies and techniques, many of which already exist, to make better use of already razed land.
There are promising signs in this area. In eastern Pará state, cattle ranchers have become five times more productive than their peers, yielding 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of meat per hectare (2.47 acres) per year, compared with an average of just 100 kilograms (220 pounds) in the rest of the Amazon, thanks to improved pasture and adopting practices to improve animal welfare (planting trees at strategic points to ensure shade, providing fresh water, etc.) Soy producers in Mato Grosso are successfully increasing their production without deforesting further thanks to improved productivity. Also, new techniques have allowed for timber, and other regional products, such as açaí, to be harvested without cutting forest down.
2. Economic growth doesn’t require razing forests.
In 1970, when the pace of Amazon deforestation began to really pick up, the Amazon region accounted for about 8 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product, or GDP. Today, 45 years later, after all that forest was razed, after all the cattle ranches and mining projects and new cities, the Amazon region accounts for the same 8 percent of Brazil’s GDP.
Put another way, the kind of growth we’ve seen has done nothing to improve Amazon residents’ economic standing compared to the rest of Brazil. People have made tremendous sacrifices in their quality of life, seeing their pristine forest habitat replaced by polluted cities, but the benefits from such growth have accrued to only a small number of individuals and corporations. The Amazon region still has some of Brazil’s worst social and health indicators. It’s time to pursue a smarter model of economic growth that does not depend on razing the forest.
3. The forest’s economic value is large – and growing.
Our understanding of the forest’s intrinsic economic value has increased. It has tremendous strategic value in the present, and will have even more in the future.
To cite a few examples: The Amazon is the world’s biggest and most diverse estuary. It’s rich in fishing resources, and it is home to nearly 700 billion trees. The Amazon also has a key role in regulating climate in the region and in the world. Indeed, the Amazon is the “provider” of rains for Brazil’s center-south, generating moisture that is then carried southeast by prevailing winds. Some scientists believe the recent severe drought in São Paulo and other large cities may be the result of deforestation in the Amazon. The economic cost of rationing water in such places, resulting in lost business production, is far higher than whatever was gained from razing trees.
Looking globally, some estimate that the Amazon region has almost a fourth of the above-ground carbon reserves in the world’s forests. If this carbon is released into the atmosphere, it could make global warming even more catastrophic, with devastating economic and human consequences.
4. The world’s consumers won’t stand for further deforestation.
There’s enormous pressure coming from markets to eliminate products that come from deforested areas. It’s worth noting an initiative from the Consumer Goods Forum, an alliance of some of the world’s biggest companies, which has embraced the goal of zero deforestation by 2020. That is, from that date, they will no longer buy any meat, soy, palm oil, timber or paper that come from newly deforested areas. This market pressure has helped show land-intensive producers in rural areas of the Amazon that the end of deforestation is necessary to be competitive and keep their businesses alive.
The final ingredient to make zero deforestation viable is to encourage the government of Brazil, and others with territory in the Amazon, to assume daring commitments instead of being content with the current situation. There are some windows of opportunity on this front. The global climate conference in Paris at the end of 2015 is the main one. Another path would be to support initiatives at the state level. For example, the Brazilian state of Pará, which is bigger than France and Spain combined, has already announced a goal of zero deforestation for 2020. This shows that the political leadership and vision on this issue is already present; it must simply spread to the national and multinational level.
The Amazon has always been a place for the daring. That was true a century ago when explorers such as Theodore Roosevelt blazed their paths, and it’s true now for the leaders who want to save the Amazon’s marvelous patrimony for future generations. What we need are audacious ideas, and audacious people to help implement them. Let’s take the next step — and cut deforestation to zero.
Veríssimo is a senior researcher and co-founder of the Amazon Institute of People and Environment (Imazon), a thinkand-do tank NGO based in the Brazilian Amazon. He holds a master’s degree in ecology from Pennsylvania State University (USA) and a graduate degree in agriculture engineering from the Federal Rural University of the Brazilian Amazon.