Darkening Skies on the Road to Durban – Part II
Darkening Skies on the Road to Durban – Part II
SAN FRANCISCO: Vast and lush, the Amazon rainforest gives an impression of infinite richness. Some view this wealth as a treasure to be protected, others as a chest to be pilfered. This tension between subjugating or preserving a wild place has been ongoing for five centuries. Only during the last few decades has debate emerged about who should make the call – development proponents and conservationist NGOs in the US, or the people who inhabit the Amazon? The question is critical as the planet’s health depends on the Amazon, the “lungs of the world.”
The clash between the sustainable and the extractive view has never been stronger. Awareness of the need to protect the Amazon rainforest for the planet’s well-being has increased with the realization of the range of ecological functions that the rainforest performs, including regulating water quantity and quality; nutrient cycling, erosion control and soil stabilization; biodiversity conservation; waste treatment; food provision and raw material production; and genetic resources. The Amazon stores 1/10th of the carbon contained in the world’s land ecosystems, equivalent to 15 years of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Pumping 20 million tons of water into the atmosphere per day and producing 20 percent of the planet’s freshwater, the Amazon affects global wind patterns and air temperatures.
And yet the rush to the Amazon continues for exploitation of its resources through agriculture, ranching, and mineral and oil extraction.
The governments of the nine Amazonian countries, chief among them Brazil, understandably seek paths to economic development and have turned to the rainforest. So have commercial interests, eager to gain access to raw materials and agricultural land. Deforestation continues in Brazil at an unsustainable rate, driven by soy plantations and cattle ranchers and fueled by policies that make deforestation a path to land ownership. In Colombia, the Santos government has opened up vast areas to mineral exploitation in a forest that covers 43 percent of the territory and produces, in a strict economic sense, 1 percent of the country’s GDP.
Yet the Amazon is not an empty expanse of land waiting to be accessed: 33 million people inhabit the Amazon. There are more than 400 indigenous cultures spread over more than 2,200 territories, excluding indigenous peoples living in cities and isolated areas. Recent evidence points to an estimated 129 indigenous communities that remain isolated.
For all the rhetoric surrounding sustainable development in the Amazon, most projects so far have been extractive and non-sustainable. Many development projects impact directly indigenous land reserves where traditional communities have lived sustainably for thousands of years. Growing recognition of the forest stewardship of indigenous peoples has largely not been accompanied by an enforcement of their rights to land and culture. This must change.
It’s a tall order to reconcile the drive to extract value from the Amazon with the desire to ensure the survival of this fundamental ecosystem. Conventional models of development, even relatively enlightened ones, have proven destructive and unsustainable. Conservationist initiatives – necessary and often successful – will not satisfy the needs of the Amazonian countries’ governments. At the same time, recent studies point out that indigenous-managed forest land is healthier than that put under strict conservation measures alone.
Initiatives aiming at preservation of the Amazon have garnered momentum. Almost half of the Amazon is now under some form of protection, either as indigenous lands or nature preserves. In Ecuador, the Yasuni-ITT initiative is aiming to keep oil in the ground in exchange for international payments for carbon conservation. In Colombia, despite colonization, encroachment and illegal coca plantations by the country’s armed groups, most rainforest in the hands of the indigenous peoples has been preserved intact, though the threat from mining interests looms large.
Civil society has voiced opposition to development projects. In Brazil, international pressure has drawn attention to the attempted development of the Belo Monte dam – a hydroelectric project that would devastate a large rainforest area in the Xingu river basin. In Colombia, opposition to chaotic mining concessions has prompted a moratorium on the issuance of new prospecting licenses and, more recently, governmental proffers that protected lands in the Amazon will be off-limits for extractive industries.
While these efforts have contributed to the tug of war between development and preservation, they have not yet succeeded in putting forth an alternative model of sustainable development that could create wealth for the region’s populations without contributing to their gradual destruction.
It’s not easy to develop such a model, particularly one that is replicable and works on a large scale.
Too many development projects disrupt the social fabric of communities more than they contribute in terms of income and services. Development projects also suffer from unintended consequences: the creation of a road for a mining project opens access to remote areas for less regulated activities, such as large-scale slash-and-burn agriculture, poaching and logging. Employment of local populations – often touted as a plus – often removes community members from traditional roles as elders, teachers and community providers. Productive processes, even those based on rainforest goods, can replace a sustainable local economy with one based on money exchanges and the influx of outside goods. While the prospect of income for communities living in a largely non-cash economy has certain pull, this creates tensions as some groups lean toward traditions, others toward economic comfort.
In the run up to the 2012 Rio+20 conference, it’s crucial to analyze what has worked and what hasn’t – and discussions must take into account the perspective of the indigenous peoples who for 10,000 years have acted as the Amazon’s stewards.
International norms provide for the right of indigenous peoples to prior consultation on projects that affect them and their lands. These consultations must be strengthened to be a real avenue for dialogue and not a muddled rubberstamp for obfuscated proposals. Assumptions cannot be made that indigenous people long for highways or that they wish to remain frozen at an arbitrary point in their history. One option granted to indigenous peoples should be that of opting out of development schemes and continuing on a traditional path in territories recognized as theirs.
Governments, for their part, need to recognize that short-term boosts to their GDP are not beneficial to their countries in the long run. Large-scale mining projects, in particular, may seem alluring as sources of royalties and tax payments, but wreak havoc on the environment and local communities.
Under the prevailing paradigm and the Western worldview of development, leaving the rainforest standing must provide equivalent market and financial benefits to offset lost economic opportunities. This requires assigning value to what we’re used to receiving freely. By the time the economic value is properly assessed, the forest may no longer be there.
An alternative paradigm must emerge from the realization that we need to act as stewards; we both depend on and are an integral part of a complex natural system. Preserving the forest is not a matter of trade-offs, but a way of life. It’s essential to ensure the long-term security and well-being of the forest and of the people dwelling far beyond it.
More fundamentally, any evaluation of the path that the Amazon should take must rely on the views of the indigenous peoples who call it home and who have, so far, coexisted harmoniously with the forest, at great benefit for everyone on the planet.