Crisis? What Crisis?

Crisis? What Crisis? – Amazon rain forest damage assessments conflict

Peter Bunyard

ACCORDING TO A FOUNDER OF GREENPEACE, THE AMAZON RAINFOREST HAS NEVER BEEN IN BETTER SHAPE. PETER BUNYARD HAS NEVER HEARD SUCH RUBBISH.

ACCORDING TO ex-Greenpeace founding member Patrick Moore, all the stories about the destruction of the Amazon rain forest are ‘at best vastly misleading; at worst a gigantic con’. But his facts are plain wrong — the Amazon is still in trouble, and its fate will also affect the planet’s climate.

HAVE YOU HEARD the good news? Patrick Moore and professor of biogeography at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Philip Stott, have recently gone public with a ‘report’ in which they insist that the forest is in good health. Only 12.5 per cent of the 260 million hectares of forest contained within the 5 million square kilometres of the ‘legal’ Brazilian Amazon has actually been destroyed, they say. And, furthermore, even that small level of damage has taken 30 years to achieve — so there’s plenty left for the fires of the cattle ranchers and the chainsaws of South-Asian logging companies.

Moore has made his name in recent years by turning against the environmental movement which he helped to found. This, it seems, is his latest salvo in his personal crusade to right the wrongs of his past — but it is the most ridiculous yet. In railing against the likes of Sting and today’s ‘misguided’ Greenpeace campaigners (or anyone, for that matter, who has shown concern for rainforest destruction), Moore and Stott have made the extraordinary claim — the keystone of their argument, in fact — that at least half the forest which has been destroyed is in full regeneration and therefore presumably doing its bit as a carbon sink in the battle against carbon emissions and global warming. Their evidence? They have flown all over the Brazilian Amazon and pored over satellite pictures. Furthermore, countless Brazilian officials have told them categorically that tales of wanton destruction are little more than a publicity wheeze by environmentalists to bring the cash rolling in.

Stott, as an academic, should know better, and is certainly out of sync with Brazilians and other South Americans who are deeply concerned at the implications of continuing forest destruction. The official figure is that 20,000 square kilometres of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are being destroyed per year, with some years far worse than that, like 1994/95 or 1998 when the figure leapt to nearly 30,000 square kilometres. But those official figures don’t take proper account of the growing volume of forest being stripped in the states of Para and Maranhao for charcoal production in pig iron manufacture. In 1990 exports of charcoal-fired pig iron were 260,000 tons.

Seven years later they had topped one million. More than 30 per cent of Maranhao and 15 per cent of Para are now deforested. The state of Rondonia has lost more than a fifth of its forest, The overall figure of 12.5 per cent can lull the ignorant into a false sense of security.

The Amazon rainforest, spread over the basin’s seven million square kilometre area (the UK is 35 times smaller) is both a product of and generator of climate. But Moore and Stott think otherwise. Only patches of the forest (biological refugia) were left during the drying out of the last ice-age — therefore, they say, consequently we have more rainforest today than the world had 12,000 years ago. So that’s alright. Yet this unbelievably facile claim displays an ignorance of the vital, contemporary role that the Amazon plays in stabilising global climate.

As Brazilian physicists and climatologists showed long ago, the forests to the west of the Atlantic receive their watering through a chain of evapotranspiration, with the same Atlantic-derived water precipitating as many as seven times as the air currents move from east to west across the Amazon basin. More than 20 per cent of the rain that falls never hits the ground, but is promptly evaporated from the canopy. That is a function of the dense, natural forest. As much as 48 per cent is transpired — again a function of the forest. The Amazon river carries back to the ocean less than half of all the rain that falls. The remainder fuels the stream of massive cumulonimbus clouds that finally send their latent energy into the Hadley Circulation and help spread the energy from the sun to the higher latitudes, to he benefit of all of us in northern Europe.

A few numbers tell us what is actually at stake. The Amazon basin receives 12 million million tonnes of water a year. In energy terms, that amounts to 950 terawatts of latent heat, which is 73 times more energy than that deployed by all humanity across the globe. Just a 20 per cent decline in precipitation and consequently in evapotranspiration will amount to a drastic drop in the energy transported to the higher latitudes, equivalent to at least 15 times the world’s use in energy.

We have no idea of the area of Amazon rainforest that must remain intact for the chain of precipitation/evapotranspiration to be sustained. Who knows what the limits are? But even if it were true, there would be nothing reassuring in the claim that ‘only 12.5 per cent has gone’. Meanwhile, the prediction from the UK Met Office that global warming could put paid to the Amazon rainforest within 50 years, quite apart from the current destruction, is deeply alarming. If the Gulf Stream falters because of global warming and the Amazon rainforest has gone, then we can surely expect a serious chill up in this region of the world.

But then, if Stott and Moore are right, what has the Amazon got to do with us in Britain? According to them it’s not something we should be worrying our silly little heads about.

Peter Bunyard is the science editor of Tire Ecologist.

MURDER AT THE MINES

Carajas in the eastern Amazon of Brazil is home to the world’s largest open-cast iron mine. In return for supplying five European countries with half their iron-ore needs, the European Union pledged [pound]400 million in loans for the construction of a 550-mile railway link from the mine to the coast.

The World Bank also contributed and made it a condition that 120,000 hectares of forest should be staked out for the Awa tribe who had been displaced by the project.

Vain promise! In the 10 years since the mine opened, loggers, ranchers and mineral prospectors have waded in, destroying 400,000 hectares of forest a year and dispossessing the Awa of their land. According to Survival International, the Awa have been shot, poisoned and tortured and are now in danger of extinction.

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