Reigniting the Rainforest Fires, Development and Deforestation

By Stephan Schwartzman. Native Americas

The rainforest used to be a most fashionable environmental cause in Hollywood, but movie stars, along with much of America, have limited attention spans, and lately, the rainforest has fallen from favor. The destruction of the rainforest is as real a dilemma as it was ten years ago, only fewer people discuss it.The rainforest has real implications and consequences for all of us. Forest destruction, particularly in the tropics, and the still-open question of whether or not it can be slowed or stopped, very likely will be more important to the ecological condition of the planet our children and grandchildren will inherit than anything else happening in the world today. The destruction is worse than you think, and is likely to affect you and your children. But the chances to stop it are also much better, in large part because of what people in the forest-indigenous peoples-and their allies in the environmental movement are doing.


An area of forest bigger than Belgium, Holland and Austria put together, or about 40 percent of California, was cut down and burned every year between 1980 and 1995, some 62,000 square miles per year. NASA’s Landsat satellite photographs show that more than 200,000 square miles, an area about the size of France, has been cleared and burned in Brazil alone. All of this has happened since the 1970s.

Clearly, old-growth forest, or forest that has remained virtually untouched by industrial development, has a very different value in a world of 6 billion people. It does not look inexhaustible anymore. But global aggregates alone cannot be blamed for the devastation of old-growth forests.

A very large part of forest destruction is driven by multinational corporate developments many times at the expense of poor people (such as Indians and other minorities).

Across the tropics, energy and infrastructure development (pipelines, oil and gas extraction, roads and dams) and mining have taken a heavy toll. Guyanese Amerindians, the Ogoni minority of Nigeria and New Guinea tribal peoples all can testify that multinational investment in the tropics often has featured the dismal combination of environmental damage, compromised health for local people and human rights abuses. Major players in the global development race have used public money and (with the partial exception of U.S. export credit agencies) have done so with minimal or no environmental, freedom-of-information or human rights policies.

American consumers are linked directly to tropical deforestation by tropical timber exports. Each piece of mahogany furniture and every strip of Indonesian plywood are a part of the devastation. Both commodities are key causes of opening up the most pristine rainforests in the world to depredation, fires and invasion of indigenous people’s lands. Tropical timber is a small item in U.S. wood and wood product consumption, but it has environmental and human consequences drastically out of proportion to its economic value.

It is, however, important to understand that most tropical timber is consumed in tropical countries-Brazil exports only 14 percent of the timber extracted from the Amazon. U.S. consumption of tropical timber could cease altogether with little or no appreciable effect on deforestation in most of the tropics, unless consumption patterns in Asia and the developing countries also change.

Americans use 10 times more paper products than developing countries, but the consumption of wood and paper is growing much faster in the developing world than in the United States.

Some scientists estimate that there are only 5.2 million square miles of old-growth forest (not just tropical, but temperate and boreal as well) left in the world. That 62,000 square-mile-a-year deforestation figure could be off by 10,000 either way, but if it does not radically slow down-and soon-no old-growth will be left in just two human lifetimes.

Eradicating the old-growth forests of the world would change the course of evolution on the planet in ways that we cannot imagine. It could also make global warming happen much faster than it already is, and in ways that could seriously impair the planet’s ability to sustain life at the levels it presently does. Ecosystems, as Native people and, more recently, ecologists have long warned, are interconnected like a Chinese puzzle-take one piece out, and it all starts to come apart.


Forests do things for us we continue to ignore and discount, to our increasing loss. These things are sometimes called “ecosystem services” and they are in ever-shorter supply. China, not a world leader in green consciousness, last year banned all logging in its few remaining natural forests after disastrous flooding wreaked havoc along heavily populated rivers. In so doing, China hoped to save remnants of forest cover on the upper headwaters. But so much forest is already gone that it may not make much difference.

In February, numerous people died and hundreds of millions of dollars in property was destroyed in massive floods that shut down the industrial capital of South America, São Pãolo. Paving over every patch of green that could have absorbed run-off is one major reason. Some 70 percent of Brazil’s population lives in the coastal Atlantic forest region. Their water supply, flood control, soil conservation and regional climate all ultimately depend on this forest, which is more than 90 percent gone. Experts now expect a third of the world’s population to face serious water shortages in the next 25 years-the most and worst where there are the least old-growth forests.

The Amazon is a good example of how trees and water connect-about half of the rain that falls on the forest is produced by the forest itself, which breathes out water through its multi-billions of capillaries. Cut the forest down and there are fewer plants to hold the rain and cycle it back. More water runs off, carrying more topsoil, leaving less to make rain. The Amazon has about a fifth of the fresh water in the world, so it is not drying up-yet.


Tropical forests hold between 50 and 90 percent of the living species on the planet. This margin of uncertainty accounts for what biologists do not know about the plants and animals in tropical forests. No more than one-tenth of the species alive are known to science (and maybe only one-one hundredth).

Tropical forests have given us rubber, chocolate, vanilla, quinine, d-tubocurarine (which, made from the arrow poison curare, revolutionized modern surgery) and vincristine (extracted from Madagascar periwinkle, which greatly increased survival rates for childhood leukemia). Scientists have recently reported a new generation of painkillers under development, much more powerful than heroin, but non-addictive-based on frog venom traditionally used by Amazon Natives for shamanic purposes.

Diminished forests will mean diminished biotic resources. Biologists have calculated that the greatest wave of extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared 60 million years ago is happening now because of tropical forest loss.


The grand master of ecological disasters is global warming. It covers everything. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some 2,000 climate scientists strong, has concluded that the Earth is already warmer than it was a century ago, and could become between one degree and 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer on average over the next century, largely because of the carbon dioxide and other gases we are pouring into the atmosphere. How quickly and how much warming occurs could make a big difference. Scientists are already documenting rising sea levels and melting glaciers, and looking at shifting ecological zones, more rapid evaporation and more extreme weather patterns.

Scientists point to carbon dioxide as the primary suspect in this unfolding story of ecological cataclysm. Specifically, carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in industrialized countries-with the United States first and foremost. But the burning of tropical forests runs a strong second-tropical forest destruction has contributed some 20 percent of the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere. The burning of the Brazilian Amazon as measured in the Landsat pictures alone contributes about 5 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, recent research suggests that forests may act as carbon “sinks”-which take up and store more carbon than they give off in photosynthesis, and absorb even more in an increasingly carbon-rich atmosphere. Forests could be the determinant between low-end temperature increase, slow enough to adapt to without major social disruptions, and high-end change, faster than current social arrangements will easily bear.

The recent wildfires in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and the United States have triggered an alarm. More fires mean even more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the truly hair-raising prospect is that climate change may be making the forests drier and more fire-prone, while more fires hasten the change, making bigger fires more likely. The Woods Hole Research Center has found that for every acre cleared and burned in the Amazon, at least another acre burns in ground fires under the forest canopy and/or is degraded by selective logging (not picked up by the satellites). The frequency and extent of these ground fires skyrocket in El Niño events, which can then cause drought in some tropical forests-and such fires are likely to increase in frequency and intensity with global warming.

The fire that burned out of control in the Amazon forest for two months last year may look like kindling the next time around. Runaway industrial energy consumption plays out in everyone else’s atmosphere, and so do the fires in the Amazon. The carbon dioxide emissions of Amazon fires may be close to 10 percent of the world total.


In order to change the way things are headed in tropical forests, people and organizations in the United States have to work with allies that are there, who can do something about it and who have a real interest in changing the status quo.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have made major gains over the last decade. Leaders such as Davi Yanomami, Ailton Krenak, Jose Adalberto Macuxi, Euclides Macuxi and many others have built the alliances needed to move the Brazilian government to recognize 20 percent of the Amazon-an area twice the size of California-as indigenous territory. This is the largest expanse of tropical forest protected anywhere. Indians in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador have also won substantial gains in recognition of their land rights. While many areas are invaded and leaders sell timber and strike deals with miners, protecting indigenous land in the Amazon objectively halts deforestation.

Many around the world remember Chico Mendes, the rubber-tapper union leader from the Amazon who was murdered ten years ago. He led the movement of forest people who make a living collecting wild rubber latex against invading cattle ranchers. This was the first social movement to seek alliance with indigenous organizations in the region. Neither Indians nor rubber tappers look familiar to most people in North America, but they and their colleagues have made significant gains in the last ten years. This forest peoples movement and sectors aligned with it have elected two state governors in the Amazon-something almost no one believed possible a few years ago.

Chico Mendes was killed creating a reserve for rubber tappers to live in and manage sustainably-the first “extractive reserve.” The idea for these reserves was drawn from indigenous reserves. The National Council of Rubber Tappers that he founded has created 21 of these reserves. A glance at the satellite images shows that Indian areas and extractive reserves actually stop deforestation on the Amazon frontier. The Council of Rubber Tappers is honoring the tenth anniversary of Mendes’ assassination with a campaign for new extractive reserves-the council wants 10 percent of the Amazon as extractive reserves by 2002-and for policies to make these and the Indian lands sustainable and economically viable.

The rainforest is not destroyed. It is shrinking but there is still time to do plenty about it. The Amazon is a forest almost half the size of the continental United States, well more than three-quarters intact. We have an historic opportunity to build strong constituencies for protection and sustainability before the natural ecosystem has been practically eliminated.

Accelerating Destruction

Probably the most significant new data on forests worldwide in the 1990s is the result of the work of the Woods Hole Research Institute team on fire in the Amazon (Nepstad et al. 1999). Woods Hole has demonstrated that more forest destruction and degradation is occurring in the Amazon than is seen by the satellite images.

For every acre of forest cleared and burned, at least another acre is either degraded by selective logging or damaged by runaway ground fires, or both. Current satellite images register clearing and burning, but not selective logging or ground fires. In El Niño years, this fire-induced damage is even greater. This research in fact predicted the unprecedented kind of fire that occurred in Roraima in 1998, when primary moist tropical forest burned as a result of runaway fire from deforestation. Previously, moist tropical forest has been fire-resistant, because of the ability of deep root systems to tap subsoil water reserves. The 1997­1998 El Niño, however, depleted the subsoil water enough so that the forest became flammable.

El Niño events may become more frequent as a result of global climate change (Nepstad et al. 1999). Exacerbating the problem, forest once burned is much more likely to burn again. As is the case with deforestation rates, the effects of logging and ground fires have been best studied in Brazil (even if much more research is needed there). But as massive fires in Indonesia and Mexico demonstrated, the phenomenon is far more widely distributed.

The prospect of climate change inducing drier conditions in tropical forests-leading to larger and more destructive fires, which in turn speeds climate change, provoking a vicious circle of drying, fires, more drying, greater conflagrations-all represents a qualitative change in the process of forest destruction. Previously, essentially all discussion of the issue has been grounded in the deforestation data-the area cleared and burned as registered in Landsat images. Fire itself, under conditions of climate change, may threaten much greater areas of forest much more quickly than deforestation per se.

In addition, local deforestation or burning reduces the leaf surface available for evapo-transpiration, or the cycling of rainwater through plants and trees back into the atmosphere. Since evapo-transpiration accounts for about half of the rain that falls on the Amazon forest, increasing deforestation could lead to reduced rainfall on a local level, further exacerbating a cycle of more drying and greater fires.

The most extensive exercise in analyzing the state of the world’s forest cover is the world forest map compiled by the World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC 1997). By this analysis roughly half of the world’s original primary forest is now gone-and a disproportionate share of this has been lost in the last three decades. The largest remaining areas of primary forest are expanses of boreal forest covering parts of Siberia and northern Canada, and the tropical forests of the Amazon and Guyana shield region. Most sources agree that primary temperate forest has virtually disappeared (WCMC 1997; FAO 1997).

Stephan Schwartzman is a senior scientist with the International Program of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington DC.All rights acknowledged

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