Too late for the Amazon?

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The global talking shop on the environment will soon be upon us – the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in August. Remember Rio? That was 10 years ago. And from my reading of UN preparatory meetings (and a few OECD articles), the message will be “it’s time for action” – urgent action in the case of deforestation. I couldn’t agree more. But do we need to spend US$50 million (one-third for security) and have as many as 65,000 people attending to do something? It’s surely an open question.

I’m particularly concerned about the Amazon, which accounts for 40% of the world’s rainforest and is the largest remaining wilderness. Over a year ago, a team of Brazilian and American scientists predicted that only about 5% of primary forest in the Amazon will remain standing by 2020 and the process that will wipe this wilderness out could become irreversible within a decade. If it’s taken a decade (since Rio) for the international community to begin sorting itself out on environmental issues such as climate change and deforestation, isn’t it already too late for the Amazon?

Discussion in the UN and the OECD testifies to our genuine concern for environmental hot spots. So why has the Amazon become such a total blind spot? I don’t think it has anything to do with greater concern for global security or other international issues which command our attention. I believe we have simply given up. We’d rather talk than invest in practical solutions which are already on paper. But when you consider that last September the Brazilian Congress partially approved a new draft forestry code to allow landowners in the Amazon to more than double (to 50%) the amount of forest they can cut down, perhaps we should just throw up our arms in despair. Or should we?

Of course not. There’s plenty of evidence to show that working with government and landowners can make the Amazon economically and biologically sustainable. Though I put it to an Amazonian botanist that the draft law would be a disaster. On the contrary, he replied, any law, however rapacious, is good news as long as it can be enforced. Law enforcement, especially against illegal logging, is urgent. There is no environmental policing in the Amazon, period.

We must pour far more money into projects on the ground, alleviate poverty, educate, work on a massive scale to help the Brazilian government sustain the Amazon. The will and the knowledge are there if only we talked less and did more.

Hugo Fay,

London, United Kingdom

©OECD Observer No 231/232, May 2002 

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