WASHINGTON – Occupying 5 percent of the planet's land,the Amazon is the largest forest in the world. It has 50 percent of the world's biodiversity and 20 percent of its drinking water.
Brazil's environmental minister said that about 12 percent of the Amazon forest has been destroyed,although one scientist estimates the loss is as high as 20 percent,
But the good news is that new programs appear to have slowed the rate of deforestation,even as scientists say they still don't know exactly what effects deforestation will have on the world.
In the last five years,the Amazon forest – where 1.5 million people live among the same number of catalogued plant species and 5,000 species of trees – has suffered a constant increase in deforestation. From 2001 to 2002 deforestation increased 27 percent,with increases of 6 percent in 2003 and 2004,according to data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research,or INPE.
Amazon deforestation has slowed in the last year from about 7,200 square miles in 2004 to an estimated 3,600 square miles for 2005,according to INPE.
That represents a decline of almost 50 percent in deforestation,but specialists say that protection still needs to be improved. They agree the Amazon is significant,and not just to Brazilians,although it is Brazil that will suffer the immediate effects of deforestation.
“We have proof that the Amazon forest is an important source of energy and moisture for the global climate,” said William Laurance,a scientist from the Tropical Research Institute of the Smithsonian Institution. He explained that,as natural resources are destroyed,the land's physical properties will change.
“I think it would be dishonest to claim we know exactly what is going to happen because we just don't,” Laurance said. “I would say there is increasing evidence that changes are likely to occur if the Amazon deforestation continues.”
Some specialists argue the Amazon is of worldwide interest and protecting the forest requires integrated action.
“The international community has to be willing to accept to share the costs of protecting the Amazon,” Laurance said.
But Margaret E. Keck,a professor in the political science department of Johns Hopkins University,said the international community should help Brazil “only if invited.”
If protecting the Amazon creates better conditions for the planet,the international community should participate “not to impose,but to give the conditions for its protection,” she said.
Keck said that preserving the Amazon has to be carefully discussed and that Brazil should create its own model of sustainable development according to the conditions and characteristics of the country. “Brazil has to make the key decisions,” she said.
She recognized that there have been many recent Brazilian environmental achievements,although she said that the problem is to establish government control over the area. The government has had few officials there to enforce laws.
Geoffrey Davelko,director of the Environmental Change and Security Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,said that conservation and development have to come together.
He said the international community should find ways to reward Brazil for not cutting trees.
He said the Amazon is of interest to the world because of biodiversity and climate change. “Then,the Amazon is bound to be part of the international politics of the environment in the negotiations around those issues,” he said.
Charles R. Clement,a scientist with the National Institute for Research in the Amazon,said in an e-mail interview that there is a disconnection between public discourse and public investments.
He said that politicians have adopted the discourse of sustainability,but 90 percent or more of federal,state and municipal investments are still designed for conventional development. In Amazonia,that includes more roads,more immigration from other regions and more agribusiness.
Sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” according to the 1987 report “Our Common Future,” published by the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development.
Clement said that the international community can collaborate to preserve the Amazon only by pursuing sustainable development,although he said that the world market generally does not pay for it because it is too costly in the beginning.
The Amazon forest plays an important role in sending water vapor into the atmosphere,which helps to maintain frequent rainfall,Laurance said. He said it is likely that deforested areas,often used for pastures or farms,will become hotter and more vulnerable to fires.
In the Amazon,about half of all rainwater is absorbed by the soil and roots,and then is recycled back into the air. The rest flows to the Amazon River basin and on to the Atlantic Ocean.
Marina Silva,Brazil's minister of the environment,recently came to Washington to attend an event promoted by the Woodrow Wilson Center to report on innovations the Brazilian government has used to reduce deforestation.
Silva said that the data indicating a decrease in deforestation is still preliminary and will be confirmed at the end of the year. She said the greatest challenge is to make the process long lasting and sustainable.
She reported that increased inspection and monitoring helped to diminish illegal commercial logging and deforestation. Silva said the government has applied penalties and seized equipment used by people who log and farm illegally.
The Brazilian government has created about 33,000 square miles of conservation areas in strategic regions to impede deforestation. The government is also concentrating development activities in areas that have already been deforested.
Silva said she recognized that it is an initial effort and that the Brazilian government knows it still has a long way to go.