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Aggressive development in Brazilian Amazon galvanizes forces for sustainable alternatives
By José Maria Cardoso da Silva
Vice President for Science, CI-Brazil Center for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC)

The forests where I did my early research are now gone, victims of the flood of development that has swept over the eastern and south-ern portions of the Amazon in the past three decades. Largely due to this economic pressure, the Brazilian Amazon—which represents 60 percent of the Amazonia wilderness area—is currently averaging a deforestation rate of nearly 4.45 million acres per year, the highest rate of any tropical forest.

To dwell on these statistics can be discouraging. However, it does not represent the whole story. Ambitious, largely unsustainable development projects over the past few decades have been met by equally ambitious conservation initiatives. Leaders at the local and national levels are gradually recognizing that the long-term environmental health of the region is key to any sort of lasting prosperity.

There is, in short, a race for the Amazon, and the next two decades will be critical to its long-term health and survival. If development continues as it has, without science-based conservation guidelines, the region could quickly become a species-poor landscape made up of small forest fragments. On the other hand, if we continue to convince leaders that sustainable development is not fiction, but something that can be achieved by creating more protected areas, promoting sound land-use management and supporting economic alternatives, I believe we have a chance to save most of the region and the life it supports.

Brazil’s Amazon: Wilderness area or economic frontier?

The Amazonia wilderness area is Earth’s largest rain forest. Its roughly 1.56 million square miles—equal to about 50 percent the size of the continental United States—shelter more than one tenth of the world’s species, including at least 40,000 plant species. Not only an immense reservoir of life, the forests of the Amazon ensure rainfall for a large part of the continent and sequester enormous quantities of greenhouse gases.

These biological and ecological superlatives have not stopped a powerful minority in Brazil from pushing their aggressive agenda forward. To date, more than 12 percent of Brazilian Amazon rain forests have been cleared for timber and cattle pastures. Expanded road networks, large-scale government resettlement programs, giant hydroelectric projects and mining also are resulting in large areas of deforestation. None of this is really improving the quality of life for the 6 million people living in the Amazon, which continues to be one of the poorest regions in Brazil. In some cases, logging companies have cut down trees then moved on, providing only short-term labor. In others, large plantation operators and farmers from the south have come to the region, clearing huge swaths of land and devastating the environment. The state of Pará and the western portion of the state of Maranhão, for example, have lost 70 percent of their natural vegetation, and many of the rivers that support the livelihoods of local communities have been rendered lifeless by excessive runoff and siltation from agricultural fields. Conflicts between local communities and colonizers have led to violent confrontations and threaten the social fabric of the region.

Of course, all is not lost. For now, deforestation has been restricted largely to the far eastern and southern regions and much of that is centered around roads and cities. Travelling west from Belém up the Amazon, the noise and distractions of the modern world are slowly replaced by the cries of macaws, the shrieks of monkeys and innumerable insect sounds. This world continues almost unbroken to the foot of the Andes Mountains. Earth’s largest and most biologically diverse wilderness area still has more than 70 percent of its natural vegetation intact. Much of the success in restraining unsustainable development has been due to increased awareness and activism by indigenous groups, local communities, scientists and other conservation advocates. Before 1979, there were only three protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. Now there are 146, totalling almost 200,000 square miles or 12.4 percent of the Amazon. Of this total, however, strictly protected areas such as parks and reserves cover only slightly more than 4.1 percent, with 8.3 percent in sustainable use reserves. Indigenous lands cover an additional 20 percent.

Many of these protected areas were created between 1998 and 2000. During that time, leading government, academic and conservation groups, including CI, participated in five workshops that identified and prioritized areas in need of conservation throughout Brazil. Of these, 385 were located in the Amazon. Twenty-five protected areas have been created in the Amazon as a result of these workshops, and the conservation priority areas will continue to be targeted for the creation of further protected areas over the coming years. To address biodiversity threats brought on by proposed development, CI and several other institutions put forth recommendations to promote sustainable development in the region and reduce the deforestation rate. These included creating new protected areas in the most biologically important and threatened places, a ban on new logging licences until appropriate controls are in place and support of sustainable development programs on indigenous lands. The recommendations convinced the new Brazilian government to reexamine all development plans and announce that any major infrastructure will require a careful and science-based environmental assessment study evaluated through consultation with citizens. CI has argued publicly that deforestation is no longer needed in the Brazilian Amazon for promoting significant economic development in the region. Effective use of the large, already deforested area (currently the size of France) by modern agricultural practices, well-designed forestry and innovative industrial activities could increase the regional economy fivefold without opening new fronts of deforestation.

While the battle for the Amazon continues to rage, many of Brazil’s leaders are coming round to the idea that the best hope for the future of the Amazon lies in building models for—and implementing—sustainable development. A model for such development is the Mamirauá State Sustainable Development Reserve in the western state of Amazonas. Here scientists work side by side with the local people to study and implement sustainable fisheries and selective logging practices. Sales of their products, as well as income brought in from ecotourism and research-related jobs, have meant real improvements in the quality of life for local people.

Building on these and other conservation successes, in 2003 governors of the states of Amazonas and Amapá announced they would set aside tens of millions of acres of rain forest for strict protection or varying degrees of sustainable use. Initiatives, which are backed by CI and its partners, include the creation of a 25-million-acre biodiversity conservation corridor in Amapá anchored by the recently created 9.56-million-acre Mountains of Tumucumaque National Park. In Amazonas, the governor pledged to create six new protected areas, safeguarding an additional 10.37 million acres. Amazonas now has 40 percent of its territory designated as protected areas—a total area almost the size of Texas.

Looking ahead: A new plan for the Brazilian Amazon

Can the Amazon be saved? With the right strategy, we think so. To this end, CI and its partners have proposed a comprehensive conservation plan that would establish a regional system of protected areas spanning the entire Brazilian Amazon and beyond. This system is based on the best available scientific information existing in the region and is the product of several years of discussions with key stakeholders.

Anchoring our proposal are what we call “areas of endemism.” One of the many fascinating things I learned as a researcher was that the Amazon is not a single block of biodiversity. Rather it is composed of several regions and diverse landscapes separated by natural boundaries such as large rivers, each sheltering many endemics, or species found only in that region. Conservation strategies, I concluded, need to be structured around these areas of endemism to ensure that all species are adequately protected.

Commitments made by Amazonas and Amapá governors are important first steps in the implementation of this endemism-based system. New protected areas in both Amapá and Amazonas, for instance, fall entirely within areas sheltering certain unique species, such as the caica parrot in Amapá and the wattled curassow in Amazonas.

Critical to the success of this initiative will be significantly increasing the number and extent of strictly protected areas, such as Tumucumaque in Amapá state, as they comprise the core areas for conservation corridors within the Amazon Basin. To minimize future human impacts such as roads, we also are proposing that sustainable use reserves or indigenous lands surround these strictly protected areas. Our plan advocates linking such blocks of protected areas with a matrix of biodiversity-friendly economic activities, such as sustainable fishing, agro-forestry and ecotourism, in order to form regional-level corridors such as that being developed in Amapá. Where strictly protected areas cannot be created, we are recommending these regions be made part of sustainable use reserves and indigenous lands. After 12 years of experience with the Kayapó communities (see story on left), CI is convinced that well- structured conservation and development alliances with indigenous communities are of fundamental importance.Before 1979, there were only three protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. Now there are 146, totaling almost 200,000 square miles.

Building strong local economies based on the sustainable use of the natural resources is central to the plan. By following general ecological guidelines and excellent present-day Brazilian environmental legislation, well-managed private and community lands can provide connections between protected area blocks and ensure the viability of plant and animal populations.

On a larger scale, these regional corridors will be connected to form what we call “mega” biodiversity conservation corridors. Such large-scale initiatives have already been proposed with Guyana and Suriname to the north as well as with Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela.

Such networks require a substantial financial investment, many times larger than what has traditionally been invested in the region. To ensure that conservation projects do not experience financial shortfalls, CI is proposing the establishment of long-term financing arrangements. CI’s Global Conservation Fund is currently exploring such funding options for conservation activities in the Kayapó Reserve as well as along the Amapá conservation corridor.

The Amazon is too important to be sacrificed in the name of shortsighted development. We believe our plan will build a biodiversity conservation system large and resilient enough to hold back deforestation, circumvent future global environmental changes and accommodate better living standards for local populations. It will also provide Brazilian society and the global community with the ecological services that only the world’s largest tropical rain forest can offer.

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Courtesy of José Maria Cardoso Da Silva
José Maria Cardoso da Silva.

© Pete Oxford
White-fronted capuchin. The Brazilian Amazon is home to more primate species than any other region on Earth.

© Pete Oxford
Wire-tailed manakin, a species found in the Amazon forests of western Brazil and neighboring countries.

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