Amazonia—Center of Controversy
A sudden drive to open up the Amazon Basin has triggered one of the hottest ecological controversies of the century. Chunks of tropical rain forest are going up in flames. The rest of the world wonders what the long-range effects will be. Will the world’s largest green jungle become a red desert? Our correspondent went to Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon, for a firsthand look.
“BRAZIL is on fire,” exclaimed the Brazilian Special Environmental Secretary. Others join in his outcry. Reports about the possibility of the vast Amazon region being transformed into a “red desert” by the year 2000 have alarmed scientists, the common man and the Brazilian government.
Satellite pictures reveal that in one area of 136 million acres (55 million ha; the size of France), 10 million acres (4 million ha) have been deforested. That is an area larger than Holland. What is more, some renowned scientists express their belief that possibly as much as 10 percent of the Amazon rain forest is already gone.
On the other hand, Veja magazine states the opinion of many Brazilians: “It is also natural that Amazonia cannot indefinitely remain closed to economic exploitation as if it were a botanical garden—the country positively needs the region’s riches.”
Just what is at stake in the Amazon? What is the Amazon jungle really like?
World’s Largest Tropical Rain Forest
Amazonia, as the Brazilians call it, sprawls over territory in eight countries. Including the Tocantins, it is an area of 2,700,000 square miles (7,000,000 km2), or about the size of Australia. Brazil’s share is almost 2,000,000 square miles (5,000,000 km2). Although it is the world’s largest tropical rain forest, only about 65 percent of the entire area is more or less dense jungle. The rest is woodsy grassland, open country and shrubland. An incredible arterial network of 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of waterways crisscross this immense region. Over 14,000 miles (23,000 km) are navigable—equal to over half the earth’s circumference.
So diversified is its composition that researchers recently identified 179 species of trees with diameters over six inches (15 cm) on a mere two-and-a-half acres (1 ha) of land. All together, some 4,000 different species of trees grow in the forest. But so little is known about these trees and their potential that only six or seven are commercially exploited. Among the better known are sleek Brazil nut trees, mahogany, cedar and rubber trees.
In general terms, it is said that over 60,000 species of tropical plants are native to the Amazon Basin. That is nearly a quarter of all known plants. No other concentration of tropical plants on earth can match this. Even so, many thousands have never been classified. Nor have all the animals, birds, fish and insects been studied. For centuries the Amazon jungle has virtually been untouched.
Therefore, what might a mass clearing of the Amazon mean to mankind? According to scientists, complete knowledge of the Amazon flora and fauna could be lost before it ever came to light in its entirety. At a recent Endangered Species Conference in San José, Costa Rica, David Munroe, president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said:
“There are enormously powerful arguments to be made in favor of preserving the rain forest. At the same time the leaders of developing countries believe there are equally powerful arguments to cut it down and use the money for the economic gain of their people. At some point you begin to reach another level of argument that is less materialistic. People are going to have to decide in their own minds what kind of world they want. One in which everything is convertible to economics and which looks to be pretty barren and dull. Or one where there is great value placed in the grand variety of things, where there is the excitement of surprise in the natural world and the beauty of many kinds of life all working together.”
What other possible damage could be wrought? There is no simple answer. The Amazon forest is subject to a complex and, as yet, little understood ecology. For instance, only about half a dozen of the basin’s 1,100 rivers carry nutrient-rich sediments. Then, really, how rich is the soil? Wrote the Brazil Herald:
“The crux of the problem is that the Amazon’s appearance of eternal fertility masks one of the world’s most fragile ecological systems. In the words of American scientist Betty Meggers, the Amazon is a ‘counterfeit paradise’—a jungle whose lushness derives not from its soil base but from the continuous recycling of nutrients through dense forest cover.”
Actually, the soil of the Amazon is thin, highly acidic and far from fertile. So how is the jungle able to sustain itself? By the so-called direct-cycle nutrient system. Around practically all the taller plants and trees there is an intricate system of surface roots. The rainwater filters through the various foliage levels and removes mineral salts from leaves, branches and tree trunks. On its way down toward the humus layer on the ground, the nutrient-rich water is partially absorbed and stored. Parasite plants, fungi and insects also play their own part in the feeding of the forest.
Another crucial factor in the process of the forest’s survival is the yearly rainfall of up to 142 inches (3,600 mm). Said the Latin America Daily Post:
“The change in vegetation following deforestation could lead to alteration of local climates in some tropical regions. While these changes remain a matter of conjecture, one Brazilian research project has concluded that 50 percent of the rain in the Amazon basin is generated by water evaporation from the forest itself. If the rainfall is reduced significantly as a result of clearing, the entire natural balance of the basin could be upset.”
This discovery came as a surprise, for in other regions, such as along the Mississippi River, only 10 percent of the rains are caused by local evaporation, while the rest comes from the sea.
Amazon—the “Earth’s Lungs”?
Much has been written about the Amazon as being the “earth’s lungs.” But is that so? It is claimed that half the earth’s plant-generated oxygen does indeed come from the Amazon. But scientists also claim that this production is very small in comparison to the total volume of oxygen present in the atmosphere. The book Amazon Jungle: Green Hell to Red Desert? says it amounts to only about 0.05 percent of the annual production of the atmospheric and dissolved oxygen pool.
However this may be, there is another disconcerting factor. It is the amount of carbon dioxide that would be released by the wholesale burning of forest refuse. Over the last 100 years the presence of this gas has already increased by 10 percent. Clearly, man is dangerously tampering with the ecology.
End of the Natives?
Many ask, “How do the natives fare in the struggle for technical progress?” The original Indian population in 1500 C.E. was some three million in Brazil. Over the centuries, Western diseases and abuses have reduced their number in the country to fewer than 200,000. In 1970, there were some 42,000 left in the Amazon. An official of the Brazilian National Foundation of the Indian stated that more than 3,000 Indians in the region are in only very loose contact with white men or are known only through the reports of other Indians.
These primitive natives, mainly of Tupi culture, live in the areas exactly where mining and other undertakings are spearheading the push toward development. What will happen to these Indians? Officially, they are granted the right to live within defined areas. But as one state governor put it: “The territory cannot afford to preserve half a dozen native tribes that are obstructing progress.” The Indian Foundation is trying to localize and pacify hostile tribes by attracting them to restricted areas. More than 100 tribes have been resettled in reserves. The best known is the Xingu Park in central Brazil.
In 1970 the Brazilian government began a radar and photographic mapping survey called “Radar of the Amazon”—RADAM for short. The project came to its completion in the spring of 1979, having cost around 1,500 million cruzeiros (50 million dollars, U.S.). It claimed the lives of 55 men, and six airplanes were lost.
What did this pioneering survey reveal? It confirmed that there is a total of 1,235,000,000 acres (500,000,000 ha) of Amazon soil. Also, 70 percent is said to be suitable for farmland and cattle ranches. Almost 25 million acres (10 million ha) have been described as highly fertile. Although this discovery has been received as good news, RADAM technicians stressed the absolute need to take great care in developing the area and to work together with the highly fragile ecosystem.
Of course, there has been great elation about the Amazon’s astronomic timber potential and the possibility of using it to reduce Brazil’s 1.2 trillion cruzeiros ($40,000,000,000, U.S.) foreign debt. There are also fabulous mineral deposits. The manganese deposits of Amapá are estimated at 36 million tons. One of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore (with 60-percent solid iron) exists in the Carajás mountain range in the state of Pará. Aluminum-bearing bauxite reserves are calculated at 500 million tons. Kaolin, used as raw material for ceramics, in papermaking and oil refining, is present in practically inexhaustible quantities. Besides that, deposits of cassiterite (tin ore), rock salt, calcareous rocks, atomic minerals and gold are there for the digging.
What efforts for rational exploitation have been made?
Ten years ago the Amazon was the biggest virgin wilderness on earth, a sleeping giant. Today it is crossed by almost 10,000 miles (16,000 km) of roads, including the 2,500-mile (4,000-km) Trans-Amazon Highway and others. By the end of 1977, more than one million colonists had moved into the area. Environmentalists are concerned and warn that the region is on the verge of devastation. The Amazon wilderness could become the Amazon desert.
Be that as it may, the rush is on. Hundreds of cattle ranches have opened up, some the size of European countries. Ranches with 20,000 head of cattle are quite common. Enormous hydroelectric plants are under construction, like the one on the Tocantins River, with a planned output of 6,700 megawatts. The size of private investment projects is mind-boggling. American billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig, for example, bought about a million ha (2.4 million acres) of jungle on the Jarí River in order to grow eucalyptus trees for cellulose, to plant rice and to dig up kaolin.
How can the irresistible advancement be rationalized and controlled? Paulo Azevedo Berutti, president of the Brazilian Institute of Forest Development, emphasized the need to increase the number of forest inspectors. In 1977, the nations sharing in the Amazon region concluded the Amazon Pact, a suprapolitical instrument designed to assure the joint exploitation and supervision of development.
Early in 1979, Brazilian Minister of the Interior Mário Andreazza announced the government’s steps toward the solution of a muddled situation. He declared that suggestions and programs for the occupation of the Amazon must have preservation in view and be discussed on a national level.
Surrounded by voices of controversy, positive sounds are also heard in the green wilderness among the nine million Amazon inhabitants. On the Brazilian side, over 6,000 are advising their neighbors that Jehovah God, the Creator of the earth, will prevent man from completely ruining it. In fact, at two recent Christian assemblies in Manaus and Belém, 8,000 persons discussed Jehovah’s purpose to turn the whole earth into a delightful paradise.
And that includes the Amazon, the world’s largest greenhouse.