November 20, 2011

Reduction of the Amazon rainforest

Reduction of the Amazon rain forest
(Essay for my course of International Protection of the Environment)
by @fonchobaggins

Overhead view of clear-cutting for slash-and-burn agriculture in the Peruvian Amazon
Location: Southeastern Peru; from Cuzco to Boca Manu
Source: Mongobay - Deforestation in the Amazon

Some trees on the street may look nice, especially when autumn or spring are going on, both for taking pictures and to have some kind of internal cheer up because there is some nature around. A trip to a rainforest may not be, necessarily, a life-changing experience but surely will give a lot of perspective to a person who still finds a couple of trees as part of a “green city” (or at least a “green street”). These trees on the street are a good source to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen thanks to the magic (rather “chemical process”) of the photosynthesis, and to appreciate this we can picture the reaction of a person breathing deeply right next to a car exhaust system or at the beach, at the top of a mountain or in the middle of a forest (excluding the chance of carbon dioxide sources being around). As part of the global carbon cycle, the presence of forests all around the world have a direct impact on (the reduction of) Global Warming, which is not just a factor of carbon emissions but also the reduction of the earth’s capacity to take emitted carbon out of the atmosphere (1). The Amazon rainforest is a massive carbon extractor from the atmosphere, representing over half of the global rainforest area. Thus, the preservation of the amazon rainforest turns into a global issue, even when the “Amazonia” is shared mainly by Brazil and Peru, both sharing over 73% of the total forest area . The reduction of the Amazon rainforest goes due to the conversion for other land uses, mainly agriculture and infrastructure; and because of degradation from fires, illegal and unsustainable logging, fuel wood harvesting, and climate change. Since 1970, over 600 000 km2 of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. In 2001 the Amazon was approximately 5,4 million km2, which is only 87% of the Amazon’s original state.

The effects of the reduction of the amazon rainforest also involve the reduction of biodiversity, the release of greenhouse gas emissions, drought and soil erosion and negative impact on the people who depends on the rainforest to live. When forest cover is removed, wildlife is deprived of habitat and becomes more vulnerable to hunting. Considering that about 80% of the world's documented species can be found in tropical rainforests, deforestation puts at risk a majority of the Earth’s biodiversity. Deforestation causes 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of these, carbon dioxide emissions represent up to one-third of total carbon dioxide emissions released because of human causes. As a result of deforestation, trees no longer evaporate groundwater, which can cause the local climate to be much drier, increasing soil erosion. Furthermore, millions of people rely directly on forests, through small-scale agriculture, hunting and gathering, and by harvesting forest products. The reduction of the amazon rainforest lead to severe social problems, sometimes turning into a violent conflict (2).

Now it is clear that, for the wealth of the global environment, South American governments that are part of the integral Amazonian region have to take care of it for the whole rest of nations. This feature is set on the Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation, where it specifies that the Republics of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela undertake joint actions in order to develop their respective Amazonian territories. We can see here that property is set under the State Property regime (3). Among the questions we can start setting for this perspective we have to include the role of these other nations that have no sovereignty over the territory where the Amazon rainforest is located, how to involve them into its preservation and get some profit from it, considering that “preserving the global equilibrium” is not so profitable for not-top economies. In order to so, there is the need to change the State Property regime into a Common property one, where the nations on the globe will benefit directly. Because of the need of preserving the biodiversity, the people and stop the deforestation, the Amazon rainforest cannot be either private or open property.

Even when the Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation states the role of the governments into the search of development, no formal delimitation of the Amazonia or even the Amazon basin is taking into consideration. Thus we find small farmers who own land and base their agriculture techniques on slash-and-burn and are loyal to corporations investing on crops in the area. Therefore, Private Property doesn’t assure the preservation, no matter the conditions or contract this private entity may sign; and, even when Open Property may look like an interesting option due to the complexity of controlling the area in regards of its nature and extension, the need of preservation was already set, so the Amazonia cannot be helpless against any threat.

In regards of the transaction costs, to have a positive effect on the economic performance we need low transaction costs and high incentives (4). Nevertheless, this concept seems to be intricate when approaching to each production factor. We can mention, grosso modo, the need of setting [physically] the boundary of the Amazon rainforest in order to control de access, monitoring the area and assure no illegal activities are held, the management of international funds, reallocation or alternatives for the employment for the farmers and its respective induction on this new activities, meetings to empower environmental knowledge and coordinate actions, among others. We find the transaction costs are high, so there is the need of locate or develop strong incentives in order to achieve this positive effect. But, due to the complexity and magnitude of the transaction costs, it is important to focus on the factor that has the largest influence and thus, we need to review among labor, capital and land. After all the facts reviewed at the beginning of the paper, we can see that it is the Land that turns into the most important, due to it is directly what we want, need and have to protect.

Goals that are pursuit buy the countries that share the amazon rainforest area are, regarding the social dimension: to preserve the native population on their own environment, to increase the global and local aware of the importance of the amazon and to develop institutions for Amazonia governance, considering the need of a common supranational property. Knowledge for Amazonia conservation should be a target too, so local population can avoid being manipulated by not-precise-information from community outsiders. On the economical dimension, agriculture and wood exploitation should be corrected into a sustainable model, thus both timber and soy can keep being important exports. Here there should be a special effort from the government to redistribute the income and preserve the area and its native population and biodiversity. The provision of fresh water can be assured if there are incentives for sustainable projects that may involve local labor force. Consider also, that keeping nature alive can increase the touristic flow.

Certifications for timber and soy, in exchange of the compromise of maintain 80% of the forest on its own property. Thus, consumers can prefer the products from the companies holding such certification (5), but a previous condition is to have the boundary of the amazon rainforest well set and controlled. Carbon stocks markets that allow funds flow for the preservation of the amazon rainforest are also an opportunity for privates to invest in the Amazonia preservation. Permission for R&D for the pharmaceutical market, in exchange of a percentage of their profit on the new medicines related to products found on the Amazonia (thanks to the biodiversity). Local labor force can switch from slash-and-burn agriculture into hydrological services personnel.

As it was mentioned before, the transaction costs for the sustainable management of the amazon rainforest are high, and so the incentives should be. Due to the strong opposition of the local population to let the government or any external observer, the slow rhythm of the initiatives taken, the cumulative damage that the amazon rainforest already got and the not-so-strong incentives for private companies nor governments this problem just look to keep on its track. Between 1991 and 2000, the total area of Amazon Rainforest cleared for farming and infrastructure goes between 415 000 km² and 587 000 km² and year deforestation keeps on track (6). There is the need of a massive intervention to have control over it and avoid private interest to keep destroying biodiversity, but according to the numbers there is no real or feasible solution.

(1) A. L. Smith, Oxford dictionary of biochemistry and molecular biology, 1997
(2) - Rainforests facts
(3) Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation, 1978.
(4) J. Platje, Institutional change and Poland’s Economic performance since the 1970s, 2004
(5) Pita Verweij and others, Keeping the Amazon forest standing: a matter of values, 2009.
(6) Wikipedia - Deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest

Websites (i used more than this, but i think it's enough for further reading)
The Economist online, Chopping down the Amazon
The Amazon Fund, homepage
The Amazon Conservation Team, homepage
Greenpeace – Amazon
Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, homepage
The nature conservancy, Rainforest
US Department of State, background note: Brazil
...and of course u have to check Wikipedia :p

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