Whither the World's Last Forest?
Brazil bets that it can save the Amazon wilderness while tapping its riches
The flame on the horizon is startling, a tight orange cone shimmering over the tree line. After flying for almost two hours southwest from Manaus with nothing but trees and an occasional snaking brown river underneath, any sign of civilization is satisfying. The fire's source becomes clear as we approach: a sprawling series of white chimneys, part of a high-tech industrial complex that looks like a secret military installation. An army of workers in orange jumpsuits moves through a maze of pipes and steel towers and low squat buildings. We hadn't seen a town for hundreds of miles in any direction, not even a road, except for the spine of black pavement we spotted as we approached this clearing. A wildcatter from Oklahoma exploring for oil in the Peruvian Amazon once said to us, "As a general rule, you have to remember the good Lord was a fine man, but he picked some godawful places to put oil." This was one of them.
The oil and gas field at the headwaters of the Urucu River lies almost dead center in the South American continent, surrounded by primary rain forest for hundreds of miles in all directions. If there were a part of the Amazon that even the most worrisome environmentalist considered impenetrable, this would be it.
It's estimated that there are at least 100 billion cubic meters of gas and 18 million barrels of oil in the Urucu region. "This is not Saudi Arabia, but for Brazil it will be very helpful," said Ronaldo Coelho, who manages the site for Petrobras, the state-owned oil company.
The hydrocarbons are high quality and easily recoverable. The crude is unusually pure, bubbling out of the wellhead like espresso. "You could practically strain this through your handkerchief and put it in your gas tank," said Coelho as he rubbed some between his fingers. "The only issue is how to get it out of this site to a market. And that's a political problem, not a technical one." A big political problem.
Whenever an access route has been created in the Amazon, a spontaneous influx of immigrants hungry for land has emerged. Environmentalists see the gas and oil finds as a death blow to the remote western jungle, fearing that pipelines to Manaus and Porto Velho in the southwestern Amazon will open a seam of entry to empty forest and protected Indian lands, clearing the way for a torrent of loggers, miners, and cattle ranchers. The controversy over the pipelines-along with other burgeoning industries such as cattle ranching, soy farming, and iron mining-has profoundly changed the traditional debate about how to manage the Amazon-or, as many environmentalists would see it, how to save the Amazon. The construction of these pipelines will alter the rain forest but will also generate energy for millions of people. Nearly 2 million people live in Manaus alone, and they need energy. Blackouts rotate through the city daily. Lack of energy has retarded factory construction, holding back employment expansion. When Brazilian President Lula da Silva approved the pipeline to Manaus in the spring of 2004, he said, "If people want development that preserves the environment, we have to have energy. It's no good people saying the Amazon has to be the sanctuary of humanity and forget there are 20 million people living there."
The Amazon is not, and never has been, a pristine wilderness that could be fenced and preserved as an intact ecosystem. Increasingly, it is proving to be a resource-rich region of a continent that desperately needs to grow. Brazil, which contains most of the Amazon basin, is under particular pressure as it tries to reconcile its great disparities between rich and poor. And there's a voracious market for the goods, whether it's the Chinese buying steel or the Europeans buying soybeans. At the same time, the vast basin of freshwater and forest is a global feature of such magnitude that its destruction will only help tip a fragile global climate further over the edge. The hard question facing the various governments and organizations with a stake in the outcome is whether some development can prevent a lot of deforestation.
Every year a chunk of forest equivalent to an average-size U.S. state disappears from the Amazon. In the year ending August 2004, 16,236 square miles, about twice the size of Massachusetts, were deforested. According to Conservation International, that represents between 1.1 billion and 1.4 billion trees of 4 inches or more in diameter. This deforestation took place during a time of heightened environmentalism in Brazil, during a robust return to democracy when a comprehensive body of laws protecting the Amazon had been enacted and supported by broad enforcement powers-though often, not the enforcement itself. The reaction of the Brazilian government and nongovernmental organizations to these annual figures can be summarized by the Yogi Berra quote, "It's like déjà vu all over again." The so-called experts annually express "shock and surprise" at the figures. The shock subsides, then reappears the following spring. Fingers point at the culprit du jour-the cattle ranchers in some years, or the soy farmers, or the migration of small families clearing homesteads. Loggers, miners, and ranchers get denounced regularly. And in response, the government usually sets aside another national park equivalent in size to a small American state. A federal department's budget gets increased by more than $100 million, at least publicly. A government official sometimes resigns. Nongovernmental organizations use the statistics in their annual pleas for contributions. The New York Times writes an editorial reminding Brazil that "the rain forest is not a commodity to be exploited for private gain." The Economist chides Brazil for its institutions, which are "weak, poorly coordinated, and prone to corruption and influence-peddling." But from one year to another, the process repeats itself and the Amazon shrinks. When we first traveled here in 1980, about 3 percent had been deforested. Today, more than 20 percent is gone.
That number needs some interpretation. Compared with the dire predictions of 25 years ago-that most of the forest would be destroyed by now-it actually looks good. And there's widespread acceptance that even more forest inevitably will be cleared. The problem is how that clearing is managed. Now it is haphazard and uncontrollable. The emerging consensus, at least among the key decision makers in Brazil, is that the solution is more development, not less. The argument is that development means civilization, which brings the resources to create better economic incentives and to enforce the laws. The downside is that if the Brazilian strategy doesn't work, it will be too late to change course.
"You have to understand that deforestation is not just about the environment," says Everton Vargas, the top environmental strategist for the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. "Deforestation is an economic issue. It will not be avoided simply by saying, 'Don't cut the trees.' You have to say, 'Here's why you don't have to cut the trees.'"
Finding those incentives and making them work is a job that keeps Eduardo Braga up at night. The governor of the state of Amazonas is one of the most important decision makers when it comes to the future of the Amazon. After a long day at his office in Manaus, he slumps from the stress of trying to administer a territory as vast as the land between Chicago and Juneau, Alaska. His outer office is filled with small-town mayors who have traveled days just to meet with him. "I am constantly tired," he confides. "There is so much to do. So much space to cover."
His optimism comes from two serendipities that he inherited on taking office six years ago. The first can be found in the Zona Franca, an incongruous sprawl of modern manufacturing plants that rings the outskirts of Manaus, which was the capital of the turn-of-the-century rubber boom and now has turned into a mix of glassy high-rise condos, suburban housing tracts, and fetid Latin American slums set amid majestic but peeling colonial buildings. The tax-free Zona Franca takes in parts from international brands like Honda and Nokia and ships out finished motorcycles and cellphones. The other windfall is the natural gas discovery.
"Gas changes everything for us. It will give us the energy to allow industry to grow in Manaus. It will give us the energy in the small towns to improve their quality of life. Gas will give us the money to do other things, to improve social services here and to have programs to develop the rest of the state in a way that protects the environment."
He plans to create a network of family farms and supporting towns to provide a bulwark against uncontrolled development. "It's inevitable that people are going to invade these areas," he says. Braga sees two choices for Amazonas on its southern flank: spillover development and the resulting anarchy and violence endemic elsewhere in the Amazon, or some semblance of civil society. "If we have roads, we can put IBAMA [the environmental protection agency] there. We can put government agencies there. We can put schools there. We can put health centers there. We can create conditions for family farms that are clearly demarcated and where people can make a living. You think that no controls means no people? No controls means that people just invade the land and do what they want. The people already are there, and we can't leave them behind like a bag of trash. We need to connect them."
But Braga also knows that the cycle of development, once started, cannot be stopped. It is based on an economic, not ecological, choice. "I understand that the small farms eventually will sell out to the big farms, and then you end up with major agricultural interests and small people in search of land. As long as using the land brings more material benefits to people than not using the land, we don't really have much chance. I hope to break the cycle."
Braga calls the program the Zona Franca Verde, or the Green Free-Trade Zone. He's promoting a range of local products to help create stable communities: guarana berries, which make a popular soft drink; jute fibers; fish farms. This comes under the rubric of "sustainable development," an ill-defined buzzword of the international development community that has so far shown mixed to disappointing results elsewhere in the Amazon.
Much more important may be large-scale forest management through the creation of so-called certified forests. Braga wants to lease timber concessions to big companies that would practice sustainable forestry by carefully harvesting and replanting trees. The companies in turn sell their lumber to U.S. and European importers who agree to buy only certified wood.
And his ultimate goal is to tie the Amazon into some sort of international carbon market that, by putting a price on the carbon contained in the trees, would create an incentive to not cut and burn them. Carbon-trading markets exist in Europe and the United States on a mostly experimental basis. If they became global, the rights to billions of trees-whether in the Amazon or other endangered forests in South Asia and Africa-could become quite valuable.
That may be far off, but Braga sees a much more immediate possibility of bringing foreign investment to Amazonas as a way to break out of the traditional Third World cycle of exporting low-priced raw materials to advanced factories in the developed world. "People want to save the forest? They want to help?" Braga asks. "We need resources to establish these programs. Maybe Home Depot wants to build a factory here and will buy only certified wood. Let us add value here. Then we can take those profits and return them to the people." The area of Carajás has the world's greatest iron ore reserves, but there are no steel mills on-site. Trombetas has one of the world's greatest bauxite mines, but there are no aluminum mills in proximity. "It's frustrating," Braga says. "It's frustrating when the Kyoto Protocol does nothing to help us. It's frustrating when we try to open markets to products and we can't get the investment we need to support the production."
So for now, the Brazilians have decided to try to forgo the pleadings and promises of the international community and take their chances on promoting aggressive development while hoping they can control its effects. "Other countries just are going to have to trust us to take care of the Amazon," says Everton Vargas. "That's the way it'll have to be."
Excerpted from The Last Forest by Mark London and Brian Kelly. Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark London and Brian Kelly. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc. Available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.
This story appears in the February 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.