Amazon rainforest 'gone in 20 years'

Posted: 5 February 2001

New research suggests that up to 95 per cent of the Amazon rainforest could be destroyed over the next 20 years, compared with just 4 per cent between the 'discovery' of Brazil in 1500 and the end of the 1970s. The speed of destruction doubled over the past 20 years, clearing an area the size of France at the rate of 20,000 sq km a year.

This worst-case scenario comes from a group of scientists led by biologist William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in the United States and the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (Inpa) in Manaus. Their most optimistic projections estimate that 28 per cent of the Amazon basin could still be intact in 20 years' time. A similar area would be destroyed and the rest would have suffered differing degrees of destruction.

The US and Brazilian researchers spent five years using satellite images and computer modelling to estimate the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon, which contains about 40 per cent of the world's tropical rainforest. Their report appeared in the US magazine, Science.

Development plan

Laurance's model of destruction, assumes that nothing will be done to halt the current process of human occupation of the Amazon and that, on the contrary, it will be accelerated by the government's Advance Brazil development plan.

This revolves around the construction of 8,000km of roads, four airports, a dozen or so ports, two gas pipelines, three thermal power stations, two big hydroelectric projects (Tucuruí II and Belo Monte) and two waterways (Araguaia-Tocantins and Rio Madeira).

There will, in addition, be thousands of kilometres of new power transmission lines and a new 1,400km stretch of the north-south railway. All this implies investments totalling some $40bn by 2007.

The destruction that has taken place so far has followed and spread out from the roads driven into the Amazon basin in the 1960s and 70s, such as those from Belém to Brasília and Cuiabá to Porto Velho, and the PA-150 logging road in eastern Pará.

Destructive roads

A study by the Amazon environmental research institute, Ipam, showed that a 50km-wide strip had been cleared of more than half of its vegetation alongside the Belém-Brasília road. The report concluded that two-thirds of all the destruction of the rainforest had taken place along the routes of the penetration roads.

Laurance expects this process to get much worse as the Avança Brasil plan advances. He projects, for example, a 200km-wide strip of devastation along the Cuiabá-Santarém road, built in the 1970s and to be paved as part of the plan. He also assumes that a 25km-wide strip will be cleared around the banks of the artificial lakes created by the great hydroelectric dams.

The pioneers of the destruction of the rainforest are the logging companies, which clear an area and then move on along the roads towards the heart of the region.

One of the main focuses of Amazonian logging these days is the region between Novo Progresso and Moraes de Almeida, in western Pará, along the Cuiabá-Santarém road, where more than 100 sawmills are functioning today, compared with only a handful as recently as 1997. Between them they are eating up 75,000 hectares of virgin forest a year and extracting 1.5m cu metres of timber.

The logging companies, enthusiastically backed by the local authorities, lobbied hard for the surfacing of the road, which they say will bring down timber freight costs dramatically.

Exhausted land

When a logging company moves on, the cleared land is given over to crops and grazing. These can produce good returns for up to 25 years, but then exhaustion sets in, and the farmers, too, have to move on.

Environment minister José Sarney Filho insists that the government's plans may be reviewed if it can be demonstrated that they may damage the rainforest. The Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (BNDES) is financing environmental impact studies for that purpose.

But, as Veja magazine points out, such assurances should be taken with a large pinch of salt: common sense has never prevailed in the past, when it has come to a choice between 'progress' and conservation.

The Government's view is that the economic occupation of the Amazon is inevitable, so it had better be planned rather than left to unchecked market forces. (Migration to the Brazilian Amazon has led to a big rise in its population over the last century to about 12 million.) Many environmentalists go along with this view, provided the chosen activities - which can include logging - are sustainable and properly managed. But for such a strategy to succeed, the government has to monitor, control and regulate very tightly the private logging and other extractive industries.

National forests

This is already being done in 83,000sq km of national forests, and the ministry plans to extend the area to 500,000 sq km, or 10 per cent of the total land area of the Amazon region, including the new frontier areas which the logging companies are moving into.

The Instituto do Homen e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (Imazon), in Belém, calculates that this can be done without reducing the volume of timber currently extracted from the region.

But Laurance's researchers are not convinced that the Amazon can survive the Brazil's plans for the rainforest.

"If these development plans go through, we'll losethe largest remaining wilderness on Earth and a huge amount of the world's remaining bio-diversity. And that, of course, does not begin to consider the enormous impacts on the carbon cycle, global climate and greenhouse warming, said Scott Bergen, a forecast scientist at the University of Oregon.

Sources: Science magazine, Latin American Newsletter, Guardian Unlimited