The Tragedy of the Amazon

The Last Rain Forests: A World Conservation Atlas

edited by Mark Collins, foreword by David Attenborough
Oxford University Press, 200 pp., $29.95

Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide

by Louise H. Emmons, illustrated by François Feer
University of Chicago Press, 281 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon

by Susanna Hecht, by Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 266 pp., $24.95

World Resources, 1990–1991: A Guide to the Global Environment

a Report by the World Resources Institute
Oxford University Press, 383 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Government Policies and Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Region

by Dennis J. Mahar
The World Bank, 56 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Developing Amazonia: Deforestation and Social Conflict in Brazil’s Carajás Programme

by Anthony L. Hall
Manchester University Press, 295 pp., $45.00

The Decade of Destruction: The Crusade to Save the Amazon Rain Forest

by Adrian Cowell
Holt, 215 pp., $19.95

Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush

by David Cleary
University of Iowa Press, 245 pp., $17.95 (paper)

If 1989 was the year of revolution in Eastern Europe, 1988 was the year of drought and fire in the Americas. It was a year of growing public concern about global warming, with dire projections of melting ice caps and ozone depletion. It was a year of dramatic images of the charred remnants of once majestic forests from the Rockies to the Amazon basin. For the first time the destruction of the tropical rainforest of Brazil became a major issue for North Americans and for people concerned about the danger to the environment throughout the world. But how did this vast ecological disaster occur? What can be done to deal with its effects?

Some answers to these questions are provided by the books under review, each of which deals with some aspect of the tragedy of the Amazon. Another kind of answer is provided by the controversy over the murder in December 1988 of Francisco “Chico” Mendes, the ecologically minded leader of the Brazilian rubber tappers union whose two convicted killers, a father and son, were sentenced in December to nineteen years in prison. This article will examine the crisis in the Amazon and its causes. A second article will be devoted to the extraordinary story of Chico Mendes, and to potential remedies for the Amazon crisis, among them the idea of “extractive forest reserves,” a concept Mendes helped to promote. By doing so, he brought on his assassination.

The Amazon is a vast region; not all of it is rainforest, nor is all of it Brazilian. As it was legally defined in 1953, the Amazon region within Brazil incorporates about 60 percent of Brazil and includes savannah grasslands, wetlands, and shrublands, as well as humid rainforests, all connected with the Amazon river system, which contains one fifth of the earth’s fresh water supply. The river rises 17,000 feet in the Andes and flows some 4,000 miles until it reaches the Atlantic, yet as one follows it 3,000 miles inland from the sea it rises only to 300 feet. The river’s mouth is 200 miles wide, and for 1,000 miles upstream it remains seven miles wide; ocean-going liners can travel 2,000 miles up the river from the sea. The river and the rainforest cover the heart of the subcontinent and encompass nine South American countries. Seventeen of the Amazon’s tributaries are more than 1,000 miles long, each longer than the Rhine.

Brazil’s Amazonian forest is the largest remaining tropical forest on earth, and its natural life is the richest and most diverse in the world, containing 20 percent of all higher plant life, the same proportion of bird species, and 10 percent of the world’s mammals. The tall trees produce a dense overhead canopy, which keeps out all but a fraction of the sunlight. Within the semidarkness thousands of species thrive, only a tiny number of which are known or recorded by scientists. Each tree can support as many …

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Letters

Fate of the Amazon June 13, 1991