Saving the Amazon, but what is the cost?

2019-09-09 13:27
In this aerial view the red dust of the BR230 highway, known as "Transamazonica", mixes with fires at sunset in the agriculture town of Ruropolis, Para state, northern Brazil. (Johannes Myburgh, AFP)

In this aerial view the red dust of the BR230 highway, known as "Transamazonica", mixes with fires at sunset in the agriculture town of Ruropolis, Para state, northern Brazil. (Johannes Myburgh, AFP)

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The Amazon rainforest is on fire; every minute, an area the size of a football pitch is being wiped out - a priceless resource under threat.

Fires are a regular occurrence in the Amazon during the dry season, but nearly 73 000 fires were recorded between January and August, compared with 39 759 in all of 2018, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Environmentalists blame the surge in fires on reduced protection of the environment under Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro campaigned on a promise to open up the Amazon to farming, logging and mining, and to strip native Amazonian tribes of their land. And as president, he is defunding the bodies responsible for environmental enforcement.

Bolsonaro and his supporters argue that their economic growth is being held back because they cannot exploit the Amazon.

But how do you put a price on the Amazon rainforest? What is the rainforest - which produces 6% of the world's oxygen and is home to a fifth of the world's freshwater supply - worth? And is it time to offset the damage from these fires, and stop buying Brazilian beef and soya?

The cost of saving the Amazon

A study by the science journal Nature suggests the economic benefit of leaving the Amazon rainforest in its current state would be $8.2bn a year. Deforestation of the Amazon would lead to a fall in rainwater and agricultural losses of $422m and other social and economic losses that could result in a loss as much as $3.5tn over a 30-year period.

The cost of saving the Amazon would be $64bn, and that could help restore the landscape and change agricultural practices.

"The key point is to question the logic that the clearance of the Amazon... is necessarily a precondition for sustainable economic development," says Toby Gardner, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

"One clear fact that is important to keep in mind in this whole debate... is the area that has already been cleared in the Amazon. The vast majority of the land is not currently under any economically viable, productive use. In fact, the majority of it is in very extensive, low productivity cattle pasture often making a loss economically; and also a huge area of it has been abandoned."

According to Gardner, Brazil has the opportunity "to make much better use of the land that has already been cleared... and the agri-business community of Brazil is the first to say that they have enough land to expand and satisfy their needs - while also protecting the remaining areas of the Amazon and other native ecosystems that are so vital as well to the economy of Brazil, the well-being of Brazilian people, and the well-being of people across the planet."

Environmental groups argue Brazil's beef, soybeans and other exports are linked to the Amazon fires. But for individual consumers, experts say, it is difficult to have confidence in making a purchase free from any exploitation of the resources within the Amazon rainforest.

"Soy is embedded in countless products that we are buying on supermarket shelves. And we are often very ignorant, blissfully ignorant, about where it's come from. Most soy in the world is used to feed animals. And you are not thinking when you are eating a chicken burger for example, that you are also eating soy that may come from the Brazilian Amazon," Gardner says.

Brazil's handling of the situation has strained its relationship with the EU. At least two countries have frozen their donations to the government-managed Amazon Fund to condemn Jair Bolsonaro's environmental policies. The drop in donations could impact dozens of environmental projects relying on the fund, as Teresa Bo reports from Itapua.

Read more on:    brazil  |  amazon  |  wildfires  |  fires
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