How to Save the Amazon Without Condescending to Brazil

The Amazon, the greatest reservoir of fresh water and biodiversity on the planet, is burning. Its degradation, which threatens to reach a catastrophic tipping point, means less oxygen and rain as well as warmer temperatures. Human actions have been the driving cause. In Brazil, which holds 60 percent of the Amazonian rain forest, wildcat land grabbers and ranchers, who set fires to clear land in implicit partnership with a lenient government, are the main culprits.

In 2004 deforestation rates were much worse than they are today. In the last years of that decade, Brazil stepped back from the brink and imposed constraints on what had been a free-for-all in the region. We now need to be more ambitious than we were then.

Land tenture

The threshold problem is land tenure. Less than 10 percent of the land in private hands has clear title. Chaos reigns: No one knows who owns what and pillage is more rewarding than either preservation or production. To overcome the chaos we must distinguish long-term squatters committed to making a life in the Amazon from predatory ranchers and loggers, and award them full ownership.

The Brazilian Amazon is more than trees; about 30 million people live and work there. We need to ensure that the forest is worth more standing than cut down. To that end, we must give the inhabitants of the Amazon the means to both use and preserve their environment.

The linkages between the urban economy and the forested Amazon are not yet in place. The free economic zone in Manaus, the capital of the Amazon’s largest state, could well be somewhere in China; its factories assemble products like cellphones and motorcycles. The environment-friendly but primitive production techniques adopted by the native populations in the interior lack the scale and technology required to create a viable economy. On the region’s borders, the main activity in the savanna has become inefficient cattle grazing.

Amazonian debacle

The Amazonian debacle is part of a national misdirection. Brazil has underinvested in its people and relied increasingly on the production and export of commodities. In the Amazon, the easy way out leads to destruction. The only system with a chance of saving both the people and the trees is a knowledge economy.

Technological, entrepreneurial and legal innovation premised on a definitive settlement of land tenure can allow for the sustainable harvesting of heterogeneous tropical rain forests and their use as sources of new drugs and forms of renewable energy. To make this possible, technical environmental services must be provided over an area larger than Western Europe.

Only knowledge-intensive industries and services in the cities can turn toward the rain forest rather than away from it. New ways of organizing ownership and financing production can help local communities and start-ups to experiment, compete and cooperate. This approach can begin to give practical content to the otherwise empty slogan of sustainable development.

There is much talk of sustainable development in the world. But little of it exists. The dominant tone of environmentalism in the rich North Atlantic countries is plaintive and escapist: as history has disappointed us, let’s console ourselves in the great garden of nature.

Brazilians, along with the rest of the world, need alternatives — including institutional alternatives — more than we need consolation. To rescue the Amazon, we need them right now.

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