Saving the rainforest: At last, action on the Amazon

A new generation of state politicians in Brazil is tackling the destruction of the rainforest by creating a conservation area 10,000 square miles bigger than England. Steve Connor reports

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Good news does not often emerge from the Amazon rainforest, a part of the world that has become synonymous with man's rapacious desire to turn verdant wilderness into the greenery of dollar bills.

But that could change later today when a Brazilian politician announces the birth of the world's largest tract of tropical rainforest that is protected by law and policed by satellite.

Simao Jatene, the governor of the northern Brazilian state of Para, will designate an area substantially bigger than England as a unique conservation region - the biggest of its kind in the world.

Environmental groups believe the new reserve will be the basis of a renaissance in tropical rainforest conservation, a move that they hope will save the rest of Amazonia from destruction.

Sceptics may argue that we have heard it all before. Past measures to conserve the Amazon have done little to prevent its relentless disappearance - an area bigger than France has gone in a single generation.

But environmentalists who have worked closely with Mr Jatene and the state government of Para believe that this time the deal is different.

"If any tropical rainforest on Earth remains intact a century from now, it will be this portion of northern Amazonia," said Russell Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, an environmental group based in Washington which has worked closely on the deal.

"The region has more undisturbed rainforest than anywhere else, and the new protected areas being created by Para state represent a historic step toward ensuring that they continue to conserve the region's rich biodiversity, due in large part to the governor's visionary achievement," Dr Mittermeier said.

The area covered by the new state law will be 63,320 square miles, 10,000 square miles bigger than England.

The land adjoins rainforests that are already protected to some degree both within Brazil and in the neighbouring countries of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. In total, the protection zones form an immense green corridor known as the Guyana Shield, which straddles national borders and includes some of the richest wildlife habitats on earth.

The Guyana Shield contains more than 25 per cent of the Earth's humid tropical rainforest, and almost 90 per cent of it is still in its pristine, natural state.

It is home to indigenous exotic animals such as jaguars, anteaters and macaws, and contains the richest freshwater habitats in the American tropics - with almost 20 per cent of the world's entire freshwater running through it.

Conservation International said that the area covered by the strict protection contains between about 14 per cent and 54 per cent of all the animal and plant species living in Amazonia - depending on which group of organisms are considered.

In addition, the area includes important populations of at least eight endangered animals, such as the little spotted cat, Leopardus tigrinus, the bush dog, Speothos venaticus and the great-billed seed finch, Oryzoborus maximiliani.

Other endangered animals whose habitats are covered by the deal include the giant otter and the northern bearded saki monkey, as well as other well-known flagship species of the Amazon basin such as the jaguar, giant anteater and black spider monkey.

"This is the greatest effort in history toward the creation of protected areas in tropical forests," said Adalberto Verissimo, a senior researcher at the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment.

Under the terms of the agreement, about one third of the 16.4 million hectares covered by the new arrangement will be totally protected against any agricultural, industrial or domestic development.

In this region, only indigenous people will be allowed to pursue their traditional ways of life, and they will not be able own land and therefore will not be able to sell it on to developers.

Human activity in the rest of the protected region, covering the remaining two-thirds of the conservation area, will be strictly controlled with the principal aim of sustainability, Mr Jatene said yesterday.

"Traditional communities will be living in these areas, which will be protected. They will be allowed to use the forest in a sustainable way but this will not involve the clear-cutting of the forest," the governor said through an interpreter.

Road-building, logging, agriculture, mining and any other destructive, non-sustainable activities will be either banned or strictly controlled, he said. "If anyone tries to do this illegally, it will be detected by satellites. We will detect any incursions into the forest with the appropriate technology. We will work with the NGOs to make sure this works," he added.

According to the Brazilian government's National Institute of Space Research, the loss of the Amazon rainforest has been relentless over the past 35 years. During this time, an area of more than 232,000 square miles has been logged.

The accumulated areas of Amazonia that have been deforested rose from 41.5 million hectares in 1990 to 58.7 hectares in 2000.

In just 10 years, the country lost an area of forest that was twice the size of Portugal. The mid-1990s were particularly brutal - peaking in 1995 with the worst single year on record - after which it was thought that the rate of loss would go into permanent decline.

However, the rate of deforestation rose again in the early years of the 21st century, rising to a new peak in 2002. Most of forested land was cleared to make way for soya-bean crops, used as cattle feed.

Many scientists predict that, at the current rate at which the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed, little if any of it would remain by the end of this century. This would make it harder to curb global warming; the Amazon - called the "lungs" of the world - plays an important role in absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Some studies have suggested a far earlier demise of the Earth's largest tropical rainforest, which accounts for about 40 per cent of all the world's rainforests.

One of the most detailed scientific studies of the Amazon, published in 2001, suggested that as little as 5 per cent of it would remain in its pristine state by 2020 - one of the most pessimistic assessments yet made on the future of Amazonia.

The study, by the respected Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, as well as Brazil's National Institute for Amazonia Research, used computer modelling to investigate future losses based on patterns of past destruction.

It found that road building was the most important factor that triggered the pattern of events that eventually led to the total destruction of the forest canopy.

"Once a road or highway is built, a Pandora's box is opened which is almost impossible for a government to control," said William Laurance, who led the Smithsonian team.

"Once you build a road into a pristine forest you start an inevitable process of illegal colonisation, logging, land-clearing and forest destruction," he said.

Building roads into the rainforest was like slicing up a pie. The end result was that it just makes it easier to eat everything more efficiently, the study concluded.

Mr Jatene insisted yesterday that road building in the newly protected regions of Para would be strictly prohibited and any violations would be detectable and would face the full force of the new law.

Past attempts to protect the Amazon have come as directives from the federal government based in the capital, Brasilia. These directives have not always been in touch with local opinion and sentiment towards the forests they were designed to protect.

"In the past, the creation of protected areas was not done by any overall plan. The unique aspect of this agreement is that it is done with the full co-operation of the local people," Mr Jatene said.

"This is a political agreement and without it, it would not be possible to create such a huge area that will be covered by the protection," he said.

It is important for local people to feel that they have a stake in the future of their rainforest, rather than banishing them from making a living. This is why it is critical to recognise that some economic development is necessary, providing it is sustainable, he said.

"This announcement allows a change in the perspective of those who look at Para and the Amazon as either a storehouse or a sanctuary," Mr Jatene said.

"We are none of these things. We have a powerful legal instrument to harmoniously integrate people and natural resources. This initiative is aimed at promoting the sustainable development, separating right from wrong and benefiting those who are in compliance with the law," he said.

The biggest pressures on the Amazon rainforest come from the south, with the growth of cattle ranching and soya farming.

In the more southerly Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, soya is one of the principal means of generating wealth. Half of Brazil's total loss of rainforest was in this one state, which is controlled by soya-bean interests.

However, Mr Verissimo said that local people living further north believe that the short-term gains from cutting down the rainforest are not worth the potential long-term benefits of keeping a sustainable resource for future generations.

"They look at the areas of the Amazon that have already been deforested and they see there are no jobs, and no development. So they look at what is left and they ask, 'what can be done instead?'," Mr Verissimo said.

Jose Silva, the vice-president of science at Conservation International, said that the deal being announced later today in Brazil marks the most important development in environmental conservation for a decade.

"It will protect a big, big block of rainforest forever. It's a very important accomplishment," Mr Silva said.

"There are a lot of strategically important minerals in the area but no one will be able to mine them in the strictly protected areas.

"This is a turning point and it began about four years ago with a new generation of state politicians who have come in to change the situation," he said.

However, the most difficult task is making sure that the protection is properly enforced. "Yes, the biggest challenge is to guarantee that we have enough resources to implement this agreement and to protect what is in effect the last frontier of the world's tropical rainforests," Mr Silva said.

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