The Green vs. the Brown Amazon

One of the first things any Brazilian tells a foreigner is that Brazil is really two countries: the south and the north. With a highly educated population of predominantly European origin, the south, with its two great cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, is becoming an agricultural and industrial superpower, producing computers and advanced pharmaceuticals and exporting large numbers of jet aircraft to the US. Brazil has attained world-class status in forestry, ranching, and agriculture. Even more significant for the future is that largely through the use of biofuels, such as alcohol derived from sugar cane, it is one of the few countries in the world to have achieved self-sufficiency in energy. When oil reaches $100 a barrel, Brazil will be sitting pretty.

The north, in truth, is another country in all but political geography. A mostly non-European population languishes in poverty and illiteracy. With the exception of the largest cities, the north is saddled with the vestiges of a feudal past. Descendants of African slaves crowd the northeast whereas people of mixed African, European, and indigenous origin populate the huge region centered on the Amazon River and its tributaries—a region known simply as the Amazon. Since the days of the conquistadores, the Amazon has never had a stable economy. Cycles of boom and bust have encouraged a get-rich-quick mentality and lack of allegiance to place.

After five centuries of ignoring the north, powerful interests in the south have recently taken interest in the resources of the Amazon, precipitating a paroxysm of change in the north that will affect the entire world. Politics will guide the course of change but how, and for what reasons, remains uncertain, for internal and external forces are pulling in opposite directions. Internal forces, large corporations among them, overwhelmingly favor rapid development of the Amazon—expansion of the logging, mining, and agricultural frontiers. By contrast, those concerned with the world environment view the “loss” of the Amazon as an impending global tragedy. They want to find ways to sustain the vast forest, and with it, an unrivaled wealth of biological diversity, hundreds of indigenous tribes, and, of increasing importance, the vast store of carbon contained in the Amazon’s trees.

How will these tensions play out? What happens to the Amazon over the next two or three decades may prove decisive in the world’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. If the Brazilian government continues to take a cautious approach to energy policy, as it has for several decades, and makes an effort to plan and control development in the Amazon, the area could serve as a model for the world’s remaining regions of forest wilderness—among them the Congo basin, Siberia, northern Canada, and the outer islands of Indonesia. But if Brazil chooses to follow a business-as-usual policy—a laissez-faire, Wild West scramble for resources—it could push the South American continent, if not the world, over a climatic tipping point from which there would be no return, a prospect that should be of concern to everyone…

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