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The Green vs. the Brown Amazon’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Green vs. the Brown Amazon from the November 22, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Brian Kelly and I are flattered at the time and attention The New York Review devoted to John Terborgh’s review of The Last Forest [NYR, November 22], and we agree with many of his conclusions about the future of the forest. But we’re flummoxed by some of his observations which don’t square with the contents of the book.

  1. Most important, we fear that he overlooks the main point of the book: development is inevitable in much of the rain forest and must be rationally managed if there is going to be any hope of preserving the forest as a whole. Professor Terborgh writes that we omit the fact that much of the forest already is in “protected status.” By itself that is a meaningless statement. We actually acknowledge the host of enlightened laws in Brazil to protect the environment and the set-asides which have come with them. However, we point out that these laws and these reserves provide nothing more than paper assurance of preservation; without adequate resources, Brazil cannot monitor and enforce these laws and protect the protected areas. Including tropical forests in the renewal of the Kyoto protocols will be a big step in the right direction.

  2. Professor Terborgh takes us to task for ignoring the importance of fire in the region. He writes, “One such unforeseen development is fire, which holds the potential to be the undoing of the Amazon, a fact not mentioned by London and Kelly.” He may have overlooked many passages of the book when he drew this conclusion. For example, on pages 39–40 of The Last Forest we write:

All the while, fires burned out of control in Amazonia. More than eight million hectares (nearly twenty million acres) of rain forest had burned in 1987, the culmination of what filmmaker Adrian Cowell called “The Decade of Destruction.” In the Amazonian state of Roraima, four million hectares, an area larger than Switzerland, burned in less than a month that year.

And he might have skipped page 155, where we write:

Valentim advocated against burning as a means of pasture clearing, a radical departure. He showed that burning often fails to kill the roots of the burning plants, kills off the remaining productive grass, and acts as a trigger for the dissemination of seeds of invasive plants through the smoke. Burning also destroys the protective shield around waterways, leading to uncontrollable erosion and flooding. Because fire burns the flora indiscriminately, it robs the pastures of opportunities for shade, a necessity for cattle in this area.

  1. Professor Terborgh notes that the words Avança Brasil “do not appear” in the book and that we have “frustratingly little to say” about this grand national plan to develop the Amazon. We have “little to say” because it’s a plan that was born at the beginning of the decade and died quickly, although its pieces remain in the form of a variety of development projects. Avança Brasil, substantively, is nothing more than an expression of interest. We devote much of the book to the plan’s specific projects, especially the impact of roads and the agriculture that follows them. Over the past five years we have had multiple interviews with former Presidents Cardoso and Sarney, Governors Braga, Viana, and Maggi, as well as Minister of the Environment Marina Silva. Undoubtedly, these people are as clued in to the “big picture” of the Amazon’s future as anyone in Brazil. The words Avança Brasil never came up in our conversations.

  2. We are delighted with Professor Terborgh’s praise for some of our interviews but were dismayed that he wrote that “it is not clear that either speaks Portuguese.” He appears to have read our first book, Amazon, and he should have recalled the introduction where I explained the circumstances of my learning Portuguese. Many of the interviews in our books could only be available to Portuguese-speaking journalists.

  3. We appreciate Professor Terborgh’s concern for the Amazon and its future.

Mark London

Attorney at Law

London & Mead

Washington, D.C.

John Terborgh replies:

I am happy to have this opportunity to reply to Messrs. London and Kelly. The Last Forest does a great service to the Anglophone world in drawing attention to the large-scale changes underway in the Amazon and some of the implications of these changes for Brazil and the world as a whole. Many trends are at work in the Amazon and some are contradictory. Although I enjoyed reading The Last Forest, I felt it fell short in synthesizing and integrating much of the relevant information.

Current trends associated with Amazonian economic development, including the expanding frontiers of logging, mining, and agriculture, aided by huge hydroelectric and transportation projects, result in massive forest loss. Offsetting these environmentally destructive trends are countertrends, most prominently urbanization of an erstwhile rural population and the establishment of protected areas, already amounting to nearly 40 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. London and Kelly regard this as a “meaningless statement,” an opinion to which I take strong exception, since protected areas constitute the bedrock of conservation. It is true that the resources available for managing protected areas in developing countries are far from adequate. But ultimately, it is not resources alone but public and international opinion that will determine the fate of parks and other public lands.

I offer a case in point. Just this October a bill was presented to the Peruvian Congress proposing to excise 209,000 hectares—over 500,000 acres—from the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in order to clear the way for oil exploitation. The proposal resulted in a blizzard of e-mails and petitions to the government and Congress, mostly emanating from within Peru. I have spent more than ten years of my life in Peru, and I have never seen such an outpouring of public protest over a conservation issue. One is reminded of our own experience with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After the intensity of public opinion became apparent, the bill was withdrawn. What really protects protected areas are people who care about them. As parks receive more and more visitors, the number of people who care continues to grow.

As for the issue of fire, what I said was, “Fire…holds the potential to be the undoing of the Amazon, a fact not mentioned by London and Kelly.” The authors rightly point out that they did mention fire. Indeed, it can hardly be ignored, as the annual burning season in the Amazon casts a pall of smoke over large sectors of the country. What they did not say is that fire is perhaps the most serious threat facing the Amazon because it occupies the key step in a chain reaction that starts with logging and ends with the complete destruction of the forest.

Intact tropical evergreen forests burn with extreme reluctance or not at all, even in severe droughts. But the slash and killed trees left behind by logging operations allow fires to propagate widely, even through lightly logged forests, as they did in the central Amazon during the 1998 El Niño drought. This fact raises a serious question whether “sustainable” logging of tropical forests is even a valid concept. My own view is that it is not, but the jury is still out.

I will concede to Kelly and London that the term Avança Brasil for a grandiose infrastructure development plan for the Amazon has fallen into disuse, but only after it provoked a furor of controversy and protest, including a feature article in Science magazine in 2004. It would, however, be foolish to imagine that the environmental threats represented by Avança Brasil have abated, for the plan lives on in the minds of government officials charged with advancing economic development in the Amazon. Which components of the original plan will eventually materialize remains unclear, as conserving the Amazon’s huge store of carbon (equivalent to fifteen years of current global emissions) becomes an ever more vital and urgent international priority. Fifty years from now, which will it be: a green Amazon or a brown Amazon? Neither London and Kelly nor I know the answer.

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