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Brazil: The Progress Myth

July 2, 2008

Khadija Sharife

Depending on who you talk to, Brazil is either the third or fourth largest carbon emitter on earth; it is roughly estimated that 78% of this carbon is attributed to emissions emanating from the rapaciously depredated Amazon rainforest.

To date, over 22% of the Amazon has been deforested by cash-crops, loggers and ranchers. The tipping point — when the Amazon will no longer be able to precipitate its own climate — is 30%.

Mankind, by now accustomed (and perhaps resigned?) to hearing of the ‘massive’ loss of ground in the Amazon, has taken to measuring the rapid pace of deforestation by comparing it to football fields and islands.

‘You’re ape-shit for bugs and stuff, right?’ a kindly teenage kid inquired of my sister.

‘Did you know every day we lose one entire football field in the Amazon?’ he said, waving his copy of National Geographic.

This copy, dated 2001, was picked up for less than R5 at a second hand bookstore. I purchased the tattered sheathe for 50c (all I had in my pocket) and got down to reading the piece.

Fortunately, technology being what it is, I was able to find it on the net.

“Because of the way tropical rain forests work, they are dependent on trees to return water to the air,” Professor [James] Alcock said [in the article], adding that about a quarter of the total rain forest in the Amazon River Basin has already disappeared.

The Amazon straddles nine states and over two thirds of the South American continent; it is the world’s primary carbon sink, constituting over 50% of the remaining rainforests on the globe.

The Amazon not only has the world’s highest volume of endemic species in the world, but has been designated by scientists as being of unparalleled biodiversity. In this enigmatic world, life is not restricted to flora and fauna alone — Brazil has 53 uncontacted tribes with an additional 215 tribes inhabiting the rainforest. These tribes are both guardians of, and dependent on, the eco-sustainability of the rainforest.

Deforestation is the direct result of Brazil’s other distinction. It is, according to Colin Powell, the leading agri-powerhouse on the planet, with a purchasing parity of $2 trillion.

At the expense of devouring the rainforest, Brazil has now become the world’s leading producer of soy

At the expense of devouring the rainforest, Brazil has now become the world’s leading producer of soy, sugar-cane, with 65% of the market monopolized by multinationals such as Bunge, Cargill and ADM.

In just under three years, land is rendered barren; logging or slash and burn agri-techniques torch the land and ready it for the crops; rice is grown for one year followed by soy for a period of three years. The plantations yield high density monocultures, much of it genetically modified and sprayed with intensive pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. Hydro-dams, diverting water from the tributaries and rivers, are channeled towards the ‘plantations’, manned by the displaced.

When the land is dead, the multinationals move on. Ranchers utilize the soy as feed for cattle and chickens; although Brazil has a growing in-house ‘flesh’ industry, much of the feed is directly exported.

Each (aged) logged tree is sold for over $20,000, similar in price to Burmese teak, which goes for between $25,000 to $30,000, per log.

“To me, a 40% increase in deforestation doesn’t mean anything at all, and I don’t feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here, there is nothing at all to get worried about.”

In 2002, President Lula da Silva came into power; many say that his campaign of 2002 was financed by Blairo Maggi, also known as O Rei Da Soya or the Soy King. Maggi, the head of Group Andre Maggi, is the world’s single leading producer of soy, with US grain giant, Cargill, holding the title for number one grain exporter. In 2005, Maggi’s company raked in $600m; he claimed to want to triple cultivated landmass.

“To me, a 40% increase in deforestation doesn’t mean anything at all, and I don’t feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here, there is nothing at all to get worried about,” said Maggi.

Under Lula, founder of the Workers Party, a left-wing movement, Maggi not only managed to rapidly expand his empire, but also became Governor of Mato Grosso in 2003, the primary soy state in Brazil.

In 2006, Maggi was to have again financed Lula’s campaign. In return, Lula created the Public-Private Co-operative that allowed Maggi to develop and control the BR 163 Highway, extending for over 1 113 miles, cutting through the heart of the Amazon and pushing northwards into the forest. This road is also known as the Soy Highway.

Over 83% of the Cerrado (Savannah) and rainforest along the highway has been deforested. The government has been silent on this issue and that of land speculation and displacement; hard data impossible to come by.

Sources say that Maggi will own this road for a period of 20 years; thereafter it will be turned over to the government.

In 2005, the BBC reported that stealth logging in the Amazon was so prevalent that it had to be tracked by satellites.

The potent (trapped) carbon debt, accumulated over billions of years, has not been configured into many global climate models, many of whom have excluded the acceleration of global warming via the release.

What of the consequences?

According to Professor Oliver Phillips, co-founder of the RAINFOR network (Amazon Forest Inventory Network), “the global climate models are driven by emissions ‘scenarios’ approved by the IPCC. These tend to account for both fossil fuel emissions and direct deforestation.”

“However,” he continued, “so far, few such models have included the feedbacks from climate-induced forest loss on the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Likewise, few models have included the possible feedbacks from climate-induced melting of the tundra (release of methane and CO2).”

“So, a big modeling challenge now is to better represent the climate-biosphere feedbacks.”

“At six million square kilometres, the Amazon forest covers an area 25 times as great as the United Kingdom (or 15 times the size of California). This region contains about one fifth of all species on earth.”

RAINFOR was established in 2002 for the purpose of developing a monitoring baseline for the whole Amazon system, working in more than 100 permanent sample plots. “At six million square kilometres,” says Phillips, “the Amazon forest covers an area 25 times as great as the United Kingdom (or 15 times the size of California). This region contains about one fifth of all species on earth, one fifth of all carbon in the earth’s biomass, and is home to several million people. Water vapor from the region helps nurture agriculture further south,” he said.

“Each year Amazon forests cycle 18 billion tons of carbon — more than twice as much carbon as the combined emissions of all fossil fuels burnt in the world — so a small change in the net balance of the Amazon forests and soils would have a significant affect on the speed with which carbon dioxide is increasing in the earth’s atmosphere.

“Earlier RAINFOR research has shown that forests have actually stored extra carbon over recent decades, enough to slow the rate of climate change. This ‘sink’ in mature Amazon forests appears to have been about the same size as the carbon ‘source’ from deforestation. The subsidy from nature (i.e., the sink) is probably caused by several factors but is unlikely to last as a warming, drying climate overtakes the region, and as the total area of forest is progressively reduced by deforestation.”

How much of carbon debt is released per ton of soy?

“One million hectares of forest holds about 300 million tonnes of carbon in vegetation and soil. Most of this will be released over several years following deforestation (much when it is burnt, the rest from slow decay),” said Phillips.

Marina da Silva, the former Minister of Environmental Affairs in Brazil, resigned last month in protest against the mass deforestation and exploitation of Brazil’s vast natural resources, more specifically, the Amazon.

Her resignation came just one week after Brazilian President Lula da Silva unveiled his ‘sustainable development plan’ for the Amazon, inextricably linked to World Bank loans, related to ‘infrastructure, dams, investments and vertical integration of the soy industry.’

Silva was replaced by Carlos Minc, founder of the Green Party, perceived by Lula to be more receptive and pragmatic than Marina.

Minc was said to have accused Maggi of ‘wanting to deforest until the Andean region.’

Chico Mendes, an environmental activist and former rubber tapper, murdered by ranchers in 1988, said, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest… Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

As the great and mighty Amazon is slowly brought to its knees by a pack of lice, Lula, Maggi, Cargill, Bunge and ADM continue to argue in favor of ‘progress.’

Khadija Sharife is a 22-year-old freelance journalist, musician and the Deputy Director of the Phoenix Environmental Institute. She writes in her own capacity.

Copyright 2008 Khadija Sharife

To read more blog entries from Khadija Sharife at GUERNICA click HERE .

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