The Amazon is not for chopping!

These scarlet macaws are one of the Amazon's star species

I’m wildlife mad. I don’t deny it. Cards on the table. I have an obscenely long camera zoom for taking pictures of it, and would happily spend hours in front of any David Attenborough series.

One of the places that has seen more than its fair share of nature documentary production teams is the Amazon Basin – located mainly in Brazil.

Forget Africa or Asia, these tropical forests are the most species-rich biome in the world – with unparalleled biodiversity: one in ten of the world’s known species, including:

  • 2.5 million species of insect
  • over 40,000 species of plant
  • over 2,000 bird and mammal species

Impressive, no?

Deforestation has long been an issue in the area – the exact amount is debated – but an area the size of a small country of forestry is destroyed every year.

But the area is protected – particularly by Brazilian law, which although hasn’t been fully implemented in the past, has dealt with the worst offenders fairly well.

Now, with Brazil’s population and economy growing steadily, there has been a bid to lax the rules surrounding the area of land that has to be kept as forest: currently 80% of land, set by the 1934/1965 Forest Code.

Proponents of the amendments – known as the “ruralists” led by the country’s Communist Party (PCDoB), say Brazil needs more area for its agricultural business in the Amazon area.

Although the vote over the divisive issue has now been postponed until next week, it could have a detrimental impact on the forest is passed.

Brazil’s undeniable track record of lifting people out of poverty is again at the heart of this debate, but it’s an easy card to play – especially where the underdogs, the poor region’s small-scale farmers, are claiming discrimination.

The PCDoB argues that current restrictions are unfair as they prevent owners of small tracts of land from developing agriculture to help get themselves away from the breadline.

The “ruralists” also want the amount of required riverbank woodland to be reduced – which could ultimately release more and more soil and sediment into the water system, creating problems downstream, according to environmentalists, and could accelerate deforestation.

Although officials said in December 2010 that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon area was at a 22-year low, there is still a lot to be done – including convincing neighbouring countries to put in place similar protective legislative – and to drop plans to dig up parts of the area for oilfield exploration.

The hole in the ozone layer above a large portion of Brazil is dangerously thin.

Given the links between deforestation and the forest’s reduced ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen – and the area’s unparalleled biodiversity – surely this isn’t an argument that should even be taking place, or if we do discuss it, it should be about protecting the area further for generations to come.

Some have said that the Amazon Basin should be more like Antarctica politically – not directly ruled and managed, or fought over – but rather an area of international importance.

The arguments against this include the fact that the Antarctica isn’t inhabited by an indigenous people, that the oceans not the forests do most of the carbon dioxide converting – and no one really regulates those areas, and of course any suggestion that Brazil would have to relinquish some of its territory would be seen by most Brazilians as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Perhaps a system of International Parks – a global network along the line of National Parks, set up in 1872 as the world’s first – that would still be a sovereign part of the country within whose borders they fall, but internationally monitored and protected, like an ecological UN, dare I say it.

Whatever the solution, a better balance – one that helps both nature and people – needs to be found, and laws need to be more rigorously applied.

As Richard Black put it:

[As] the Brazilian debate makes clear, it can’t guarantee environmental protection when livelihoods are at stake.

The Amazon is one of the places that I’m looking forward to visiting most in Brazil – along with the Pantanal tropical wetlands.

Let’s hope lawmakers see sense and put the appropriate legislation is put in place to safe – and recoup – vast swathes of this amazing New Wonder of the World, while continuing to continue the country’s legacy of reducing poverty among its people.

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