Amazon Teetering on the Edge

An Indian woman prays during sunset in an area of the Amazon forest in Brazil, in 2005. Unbridled economic development fuelled by globalisation is devastating large swathes of the Amazonian basin, the United Nations warned in a major study released Wednesday. (AFP/File/Antonio Scorza)

Amazon Teetering on the Edge

RIO DE JANEIRO - The Amazon Basin captures 12,000 to 16,000 square kilometres of water per year, and just 40 percent of that flows through the rivers. The rest returns to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration of the forests and is distributed throughout South America.

Deforestation is reducing the humidity that, carried by the winds, contributes to the water equilibrium of vast parts of the continent. Deforestation also intensifies erosion and surface drainage, which diverts water not only away from the natural irrigation of the Amazon, but also from faraway farmland.

In 2026, an Amazon converted into "the world's last grain reserve," criss-crossed by new highways and megaprojects for energy and regional integration, will attract billion-dollar investments, but with less forest and clean water, leading to serious environmental degradation that is accentuated by the impacts of climate change.

That description is the "Inching Along the Precipice" scenario of the GEO Amazon report, drafted over the last two years with contributions from 150 scientists from the eight countries of the Amazon region, coordinated by the Lima-based Research Centre of the University of the Pacific.

The environmental outlook study of the Amazon (GEO Amazonia), sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation, and released Feb. 19, lays out four possible future scenarios based on combinations of variables and a wide range of information.

The more optimistic "Emerging Amazonia" predicts that by 2026 there will be better environmental management and regulation of productive activities, under the "polluters pay" concept, but with a remaining lag in eco-efficient technologies and best use of biodiversity.

In another scenario, "Light and Shadow", the region continues seeking sustainable development routes, with an emphasis on science, technology and innovation, and attempting to halt harmful productive activities. "The Once-Green Hell" scenario portrays a more dramatic future, with "irreversible loss of natural and cultural wealth," more poverty and deeper inequalities.

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) methodology developed by UNEP is interesting because it offers an integral view and describes "possible situations conditioned by different factors and uncertainties" in order to guide decisions, commented Marcos Ximenes, director of the environmental research institute of the Amazon, known as IPAM, which contributed to the report.

The big challenge is that this broad knowledge needs to be "taken seriously by decision-makers," Ximenes told Tierramerica, recalling his experience with other GEO reports that did not give rise to practical results.

In any case, the process of creating integral knowledge should be ongoing, with greater resources and promotion, he said. This first report was carried out with scarce resources and voluntary contributions, he pointed out.

The data and analyses of GEO Amazonia are not new, nor are they current or complete, but collecting them in a systematic way marks an advance, in part because they include the entire region and not just country-based portions, commented Adalberto Verissimo, of the Institute of Man and the Environment in the Amazon (Imazon).

For the first time, a figure for the deforested area of the entire Amazon Basin has been presented, although it is "surely underestimated," because the countries, with the exception of Brazil, have not yet developed adequate measurement systems, Verissimo said in a Tierramerica interview.

The accumulated sum of deforested area, according to the report, was 857,666 square kilometres in 2005, equivalent to 17 percent of the entire Amazon jungle. The expansion of deforestation reached a 27,218 square kilometre annual average between 2000 and 2005.

Deforestation already affects more than 18 percent of all Amazonia, and 15 percent of it takes place in Brazil, estimates Verissimo, who systematically monitors the phenomenon in his country.

In his opinion, the outlook on the threats to biodiversity is also "conservative" because it is based on information that is already several years old. There are 26 already extinct species, 644 in critical danger, and 3,827 that are endangered or threatened, according to the report.

But GEO Amazonia does play a positive role by pressing all countries to improve their ability to research and monitor the region, guiding the studies and establishing priorities, he said.

Constant updating is essential. The report does not include, for example, the reduction of deforestation in Brazil last year, which contradicts a traditional correlation: when agricultural prices go up, more forest is razed for crops, noted Paulo Barreto, also of Imazon.

In fact, deforestation in Brazil has been on the decline since before the outbreak of the current global economic crisis, when soybean and beef prices were still very high - factors traditionally behind the expansion of the farming frontier in the Amazon, he explained.

The portrait painted in the report does not lead to much optimism. Beef cattle, one of the main causes of deforestation, jumped from 34.7 million head in 1994 to 73.7 million in 2006 in the Brazilian Amazon, and continue to expand quickly as well in the Bolivian and Colombian parts of the basin.

Soy, lumber and mining, as well as major hydroelectric projects in Brazil and others carried out under the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative (IIRSA), which the Brazilian government has made a priority, are other economic pressures on the Amazon forest and biodiversity.

And demographic pressure is evident in a population growing faster than the national average. The just over five million residents of the Amazon in 1970 have increased six-fold, reaching 33.5 million in 2007 - that is, 11 percent of the total population of the eight Amazon Basin countries.

In seven chapters, the GEO Amazonia report covers aspects about the land, the situation today, and future scenarios.

The conclusions indicate increased degradation of the ecosystem and the need for greater local community participation in the discussion to define "lines of action," such as creating an integral vision, harmonising public policies, designing joint strategies and promoting economic valorisation of environmental services.

(This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramerica network. Tierramerica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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