Brazil’s Difficult Gamble With the Amazon

With most of the world’s largest rainforest located within its borders, Brazil is center stage in global debates and efforts regarding environmental preservation. As an in-depth and visually stimulating NPR photo essay shows, the country is faltering in its commitment to protect this vital natural resource — though not for lack of trying; both the government and local vigilantes are fighting illegal loggers and ranchers.

But while the combined weight of government forces, grassroots resistance, and international support has helped vastly reduce the rate of deforestation, overall losses remain exceedingly high, with roughly 20 percent of the Amazon totally gone (and much more significantly degraded). Aside from the political, economic, and logistical challenges of trying to preserve such a vast expanse of wild forest, the country faces a moral dilemma:

It has happened a lot like the land rush in the American West did. Over the past few decades, the poor and dispossessed of other Brazilian states have been encouraged to move in. Trees quickly gave way to farms and cattle ranches. You either burn the forest or your starve.

So who can blame Brazil?

Its economy had been weak for so long and the forest looked green — as in money — much like it had for the U.S. Brazil now has the eighth-largest economy in the world. The economy is diverse, but a significant amount of it was built on the destruction of the rainforest. It allows Brazil to feed itself — and the world.

The NPR report recounts the experience of a poor farmer whose destruction of the forest is necessary to make a living. For many impoverished Brazilians, protecting the Amazon is a high minded but unpalatable option for their survival.

Most important is the fact that it is not just the country as a whole that needs the arable land, minerals, and lumber the Amazon has to offer: the entire planet is culpable, too. What can a large and developing country like Brazil do in the face of such pressures? After all, they are only following in the footsteps of the U.S., Europe, and other developed countries that had to tear down forests and plunder resources on their path to prosperity.

A similar challenge befalls other big and fast-developing countries like China and India; both are major polluters, yet each must industrialize rapidly, at great cost to their environments, if they are to elevate the standard of living of hundreds of millions of their citizens. Moreover, much of the pollutions comes from the Western manufacturers who have moved operations into their territory; thus, it is as much incumbent on the developed world to fight environmental degradation and climate change as it is on poorer countries.

After all, whether it is the Amazon, or any other ecosystem, the impact of diminishing natural resources and excess pollution will be felt by all of humanity, regardless of whose borders the damage takes place. There must be a concerted international effort to not only pool together as many resources as possible in this fight, but to orient the global economic system away from ceaseless consumption and the practice of outsourcing of polluting activities beyond the range of regulations and public scrutiny.

If you want to understand the moral complexities of trying to protect the environment without harming some of the world’s most vulnerable people, please take the time to check out the above-hyperlinked report. It also offers dramatic visual data of just how extensive the damage has already been — a clear warning of how quickly and completely the paradigm shift must come.

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