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Fate of the Amazon

In response to:

The Tragedy of the Amazon from the March 7, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

In his excellent article on the trashing of the Amazon, published in your March 7 issue, my colleague Kenneth Maxwell inadvertently committed a slight error in commenting on the total value of the natural products exported annually from the basin.

Citing The Fate of the Forest by Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, Maxwell alleges that in value these “may exceed one hundred billion dollars a year.” In a footnote, suggesting that I had overlooked the highly lucrative coca trade, Maxwell chides me for disputing the Hecht-Cockburn figure in my review of their book. It was published in the Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1990.

The statement that Maxwell quotes appears on page 47 of The Fate of the Forest. In a footnote on page 159, Hecht and Cockburn add: “the export business from the Andean coca-producing countries is worth $60 billion. The Andean flank of the Amazon basin is run by the coca trade.” To reach my conclusion, I deducted this $60 billion from Hecht and Cockburn’s overall total of $100 billion or more, and took issue with their bottom line: that the exports of germ plasm from the basin, excluding coca from the Andean nations, have an annual value of at least $40 billion.

As Maxwell, Hecht, and Cockburn are all well aware, this is a major exaggeration even if you figure in some small amount to represent the Brazilian Amazon’s minor share of the coca trade.

Roger D. Stone
Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow
Council on Foreign Relations
New York City

Kenneth Maxwell replies:

Roger Stone misses the point. The purpose of my footnote reference to his review of the Hecht and Cockburn book was to acknowledge that his calculations differed from theirs. The fact remains, however, that Hecht and Cockburn included coca in their estimates. Mr. Stone did not.

I have received a new report, dated March 6, on the controversy over the methods used to calculate Amazonian deforestation by the Brazilian Institute for Space Research from Professor José Goldemberg, the Brazilian secretary of government for science and technology. The Brazilian Space Institute falls within Professor Goldemberg’s area of responsibility. He writes:

  1. Data on deforestation was of rather low quality until quite recently. The widely quoted numbers in Dennis Mahar’s study for the World Bank cited in your review are really extrapolations based on data collected at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s.

  2. A researcher from INPE (National Institute for Space Research) in 1988–1989 confused the issue even further. Alberto Setzer used fires (queimadas) as equivalent to deforestation and these are quite different things. Small farmers burn fields every year and this does not correspond to new deforestation.

  3. The statistic for carbon emissions I used in my article in Folha de São Paulo was the one I had available at the time (approximately 800 million tons per year). It was lower than Mahar’s but still quite high.

  4. After becoming secretary for science and technology of the government I immediately started a program, conducted at INPE, to improve the data. Good data exists for 1989 and even better data for 1990. The numbers are lower: for 1989 some 300 million tons per year. For 1990 there was a drop of 30 percent in deforestation [since 1989] due to the removal of subsidies and better law enforcement.

  5. Even the World Resources Institute (WRI), which accepted without great analysis Alberto Setzer’s data has now revised its numbers.

In conclusion what I can say is that our scientific knowledge on the deforestation in the Amazon has improved and some inaccuracies are being removed. I think it is fair to say that the current efforts to obtain more and better information are due in part to my presence in the government. In addition to that, the removal of subsidies and better law enforcement has led to a decrease in the deforestation rate, which is still very high.

A discussion on the methods of calculation used by the Space Institute is available in Deforestation Rate in the Brazilian Amazonia by Philip M. Fearnside, Antonio Tebaldi Tardin, and Luis Gylvan Meira Filho (Instituto de Pesquisas Espaciais/Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazônia for the National Secretariate of Science and Technology, August 1990). All of these experts have great scientific credibility as, of course, does Professor Goldemberg.

The most recent tables prepared by the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (February 27, 1991), which Professor Goldemberg has sent on to me, calculate the deforestation in the legal Amazonia region as of August 1990 at 415,427 square kilometers, or 8.5 percent of the region. (By way of comparison, the newly united Germany is 356,784 square kilometers.) This is more than the 7 percent figure I cited from the World Resources study but less than the 12 percent figure used in Dennis Mahar’s World Bank study. Legal Amazonia, as I pointed out in my first article, covers considerable areas of land mass that were never covered by tropical rain forest; hence it seems reasonable to assume that the percentage of rain forest destroyed may be higher than these percentages for legal Amazonia as a whole indicate.

Improvements in statistical methods are, of course, important, but discussion of methodology should not obscure the overall point which is made succinctly at the end of the report I cited by Furnside, Tardin, and Meira Filho. The authors’ final sentence reads:

Although deforestation rates in Brazilian Amazonia are much lower than some have believed, the pace of forest loss remains high. Among other impacts, Amazonia deforestation makes a significant contribution to the global greenhouse effect.

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