June 11, 2008

Protecting the Amazon

Last week pictures went around the world of natives in the Amazon rainforest firing arrows at the aircraft taking the pictures (here's a video news report on the BBC). The aircraft was from FUNAI, a Brazilian government organisation that exists to protect the interests of indigenous people. Official policy is to leave uncontacted tribes alone having learned from past experience that populations are devasted when they come into contact with new diseases for the first time.

FUNAI took the pictures to prove its case that there was an uncontacted tribe in the region and so they should be left alone. The tribe is believed to have arrived there having moved across the border from Peru to escape loggers.

Who owns the Amazon? Is it these tribes which date back thousands of years? The Brazilian government, which has sovereignty in international law for that on its territory? Or is it a resource that belongs to the whole of humanity?

A story popular in Brazil - that has been claimed to be an urban myth - is that in school books in the United States the Amazon is shown separately from Brazil as part of a plot to deny Brazilian sovereignty. Certainly there are calls for the rainforest to be taken into global stewardship as it locks up so much of the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere.

We all have reason to be concerned about the Amazon. Ashleigh Meyer of the Global Commons Institute, which proposes the Contraction and Convergence approach to dealing with climate change (see yesterday's blog) talked of this at a past Simultaneous Policy forum. There is a risk that carbon sinks such as the Amazon could become carbon sources if climate change dries them out to the extent that forest fires start to become commonplace, so releasing the stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Apparently the frequency of forest fires is increasing. You can hear Ashleigh's presentation on SL-SPAG radio, which broadcasts a programme of talks on SP at:

We have had meetings about this in the virutal world Second Life SP Adopters' Group (SL-SPAG).

I was very fortunate to be able to visit the Amazon delta last month. I was speaking at Brazil's National Breastfeeding Conference on regulating the baby food companies, including a policy proposal I have submitted for inclusion in SP. I'll say more about that another time.

After the conference I was able to take a trip into the delta. Natives are living from the forest, collecting fruit to sell in the city.

In the course of the tour I spoke with Oswaldo, our guide, of the need to protect the Amazon as the 'lungs of the world'. He objected to this. Firstly on the basis that the Amazon does not produce all the oxygen we use (he cited a figure of 22%) and that at night it emits carbon dioxide. I corrected the terminology so we spoke instead of it being a carbon sink, locking up carbon in the timber.

Secondly he objected on the assumption that my next suggestion would be that the Amazon should be taken into global ownership to protect it. But this was not where I was heading and in the end we found ourselves in agreement.

It seems to me that if the Amazon is such a vitally important resource for locking up carbon dioxide which industrialised countries are churning into the atmosphere, most having largely destroyed their own forest cover, then it needs to be respected. It is a resource that benefits the world as a whole and so the rest of the world should help to pay for its maintenance, just as we pay a country for other resources, such as oil.

A polluter-pays approach to climate change would see collect taxes from polluters. This would provide an incentive to improve efficiency and so pay less tax. At the same time, the taxes raised should be used to address climate change too, both nationally (such as for investment in renewable sources of energy) and for a stewardship fund for important resources such as the Amazon.

The Brazilian government is trying to protect the Amazon with satellite surveys and armed authorities to enforce protected areas and licenses for permitted economic activity. But the place is absolutely immense. The stewardship fund could help pay for policing the Amazon.

But we need to go further. Brazil also wants to improve the living conditions of Brazilians and this places conflicting pressures on the Amazon. Around its edges, it is being cleared for agriculture. An analysis in the news weekly in Brazil, Veja, calculated that it is cheaper for a farmer to clear virgin forest than maintain cleared land for sustainable agriculture. Whatever the regulations may say, money talks. People in every country use their resources to improve their standard of living. So let us see if maintaining the forest for the benefit of others can me a more profitable use of it.

Farmers could receive funds for stewardship of the land, as is increasingly the case in European countries. Legally a licensed Brazilian farmer has to maintain 80% forest cover on owned land. This rule is often breached and poorly enforced. If farmers received payment for forest cover then the situation would change radically.

No doubt there would be all sorts of problems, as with 'set-aside' schemes that have paid farmers not to farm in industrialised countries. But perhaps those problems will be easier to deal with and less catastrophic than the Amazon dwindling away.

It was very interesting to have a Brazilian perspective on this idea. Unsurpisingly it is much more appealing - and practical - than the rest of the world trying to take over responsibility for the Amazon.

It would be great to have much more feedback and, ideally, a group of interested SP Adopters who can develop and promote any such schemes they have thought up. A good place to do this is on the 'Contraction and Convergence' discussion board at:

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