Sale of the sanctuary
Brazilians are angry that foreigners are making online purchases of chunks of Amazon rainforest in an effort to stop deforestation
Gallery: Brazil's deforestation
Jan Rocha in Sao Paolo
Wednesday October 24 2007
How do you save the Amazon rainforest? Easy. All you need is a bit of cash and a computer. Then go to the site of Cool Earth and, with a click of the mouse, you can "Add to cart" half an acre of endangered rainforest for just £35. Cool Earth claims this will keep locked up 130 tonnes of CO2 - "the same as the annual carbon footprints of 10 British families" - and protect 400 unique species. So far, the site says, more than 31,000 acres have been saved.
One of Cool Earth's main supporters is Johan Eliasch, the Swedish-born businessman and Tory funder chosen by Gordon Brown to be his forest adviser, with the task of looking at mechanisms that stimulate "deforestation avoidance". Besides selling the odd half-acre on the website, Eliasch says he is persuading fellow millionaires to follow his example by buying chunks of rainforest. He claims to have bought 400,000 acres, and it is this land that is being offered for sale on the site.
But is this really the best way to save the rainforest? Brazilians, especially the military, have always been touchy about foreign designs on the Amazon. And news that foreigners are buying up large swaths of their rainforest, for whatever reason, has infuriated Amazonians. In Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, the director of one NGO involved with small-scale sustainable development projects says: "Johan Eliasch is not welcome here."
The problem with Eliasch's "green colonialism" is the implication that Brazilians are not capable of saving the rainforest from destruction, and ignoring the many organisations already in the field, particularly those of the original inhabitants of the rainforest. Yanomami Indian leader Davi Kopenawa, on a visit to the UK to raise support for indigenous health needs, says: "The forest cannot be bought. It is our life; we have always protected it."
He is not alone. The Alliance of Forest Peoples, which represents indigenous groups and the many communities that live sustainably from the forest, says the way to save the forest is to protect the indigenous and extractive reserves, where satellite data shows deforestation has largely been held at bay so far. Indigenous reserves alone cover a fifth of the Brazilian Amazon.
For the many environmental organisations with years of experience in Amazon campaigning, the only answer is to stop all deforestation. Nine of the biggest green NGOs - including Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth and the Nature Conservancy - and leading Brazilian organisations such as ISA, for indigenous peoples, and the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research have put forward a seven-year plan to reduce deforestation to zero by 2015. An area the size of France - almost a fifth of Brazil's Amazon region - has been deforested, mostly in the last 40 years.
Zero deforestation would bring a huge reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that make Brazil one of the top five climate polluters in the world, and stop the loss of biodiversity. The NGOs believe the key is economic, so that standing forest has more value than what replaces it. They want the government's generous financial incentives, historically channelled into destructive practices such as cattle ranching and crops, to be redirected to "environmental services" - a plan that is supported by three of the nine state governors of the Amazon region.
Of course, the key player is the Brazilian government, and the problem is that it speaks with many voices. Its powerful works minister, Dilma Roussef, leads the "developmentalist" sector demanding infrastructure, roads and dams. Environment minister Marina Silva advocates a mosaic of giant conservation units and environmental safeguards before the infrastructure. Yet her ministry is behind a controversial new "forests for hire" scheme to allow selected Brazilian logging companies into areas of previously out-of-bounds national forests. The idea is that it will be easier to control such logging, but the voracity and ruthlessness of Amazon loggers make critics liken it to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
The proposal by agriculture minister Reinhold Stephanes that deforested Amazon land should be used for sugar cane production has caused another uproar. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had promised that Brazil's booming ethanol production would not threaten the rainforest, but the influential biofuel lobby will plant sugar cane wherever it can, and experience with other boom crops, such as soya, suggests the problem will be the domino effect - high sugar cane prices will push less profitable crops on to cheaper land.
A new factor is about to be introduced into the equation: climate change. Rainfall in Brazil's major agricultural regions is influenced by the rainforest. Destroying the Amazon could trigger drought in other regions and seriously affect crops.
That vital connection is about to be made clear - with discreet but vital support from the UK government - in a report called the Economics of Climate Change. "It will be a sort of Brazilian version of the Stern report," says an informed insider.
Almost 20% of the Amazon rainforest has already been cleared, and scientists believe that 40% is the tipping point. The race against time to find ways of stopping deforestation has begun.
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The Guardian, 24/10/2007
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