As an introduction, it is unnecessary to recall the importance and interest of the Amazon for Brazil and the world. Brazil’s control manifests itself in various ways and its political sovereignty over the Amazon should be out of the question. That includes scientific sovereignty, which the country strives to exercise against disinformation and mystifications as the Amazon is increasingly linked to geopolitical and strategic interests.
In addition to the network of universities and research institutes in the Amazon, for about 20 years researchers from Embrapa Satellite Monitoring have maintained several sites of territorial monitoring, characterizing the space-time dynamics of land use and occupation and the resulting environmental impact. Today, Embrapa has one of the largest collections of satellite images, geocoded database, instruments and indicators for understanding and monitoring the change processes, as well as the means and specific logistics for ready employment in the Amazon (www.cnpm.embrapa.br).
Embrapa has maintained an agreement with the Brazilian Army for several years. This enables Embrapa to work with Military Organizations (OMs) on projects such as the transf of satellite antenna and reception system to Boa Vista (RR) in support of COTER and to the 7th Jungle Infantry Battalion in their operation against the 1998 fire. Accumulation of scientific knowledge and environmental indicators makes it possible to debunk five myths about the Amazon and its ecological systems that are presented as absolute truths:
1 – The Amazon is covered by a large, primitive and homogeneous tropical forest with stable ecosystems, intact, and in natural balance (‘lung of the world’).
2 – The Amazon remains a huge demographic and human void, to be occupied or not, threatened by deforestation and forest fires.
3 – Amazonian soils are unsuitable for agriculture and when deforested they become a desert or unproductive pastures.
4 – The Amazon is insufficiently protected by conservation units (parks, reserves, etc.) and by environmental legislation.
5 – Concern with environmental preservation is recent and owed to the growing presence of foreign and international non-governmental entities operating in Brazil.
1 – A homogeneous, ancient and stable tropical forest?
The reality is much more complex. In this immense territory, one finds completely different geological structures between the southern and northern trough of the Amazon River and environmental factors that produce a great diversity of ecosystems. For the first time, Embrapa Satellite Monitoring completed a mosaic with recent satellite images covering the entire Amazon with 15 meters of resolution. This required the development of specific computer programs, consumed thousands of computing hours, and generated more than 250 orbital images, producing a mosaic of 6.8 gigabytes. A simplified version of the mosaic of each Brazilian state was produced and disseminated for wide use (www.cdbrasil.c n p m.embrapa.b r ).
Homogeneous forest? The mosaic of images reveals what was already known: a complexity of situations that forbids any simplifying generalization. There are several types of terra firme or ombrophilous forests, semi-deciduous forests, deciduous forests, igapó forests, bamboo forests, palm forests, vine forests, altitude or nebulae forests, mangrove forests, campinaranas, etc., composing with open formations like savannas, natural fields, catanduvas, plowed fields, open fields of floodplains, rupestrian or litophilous fields, psamophilic, hydrophilic and hydrophytic vegetation.
Old and stable forest? This sea of forests with huge archipelagos of open vegetation was not always like this. Paleogeography and palynology show that, due to climatic fluctuations, in the last 12,000 years there were situations exactly the opposite of the current one. There were seas of savannas and natural fields, with islands of forests, concentrated along the channel of rivers and in the surroundings of reliefs. Indigenous populations witnessed several regressions or expansions of forests in the Amazon. Today we have a reasonable mapping of these moments (www.soton.ac.uk/~t jms / adams1.html).
‘Lung of the world’? Satellite monitoring of atmospheric physics and dynamics in the Amazon and around the globe shows that the world’s lungs (areas of great oxygen production) are the oceans, particularly near the Arctic and Antarctica. In the Amazon, the production of oxygen is equivalent to the consumption of the vegetation by transpiration. Its dynamic contribution is equivalent to zero. Yes, the Amazon is one of the great air conditionings of the planet. It constantly sends moisture and heat to high latitudes in quantities whose “equivalent” monetary value is astronomical.
In natural balance? Anthropological and paleobotanical studies have shown how indigenous populations have altered the Amazon landscape. By using fire, they expanded and continue to expand the cerrado to the detriment of forests (as seen in satellite images of the border of Brazil with Suriname). The natural area of the cerrado would be 40% smaller than the current one. The rest is due to human influence. Another vector is the extensive indigenous agriculture, materialized in part in the Amazonian “black lands”, formed mainly in the years prior to the colonization, when native populations were much larger. Its extension, thanks to the study of archaeological sites in the region of Manaus, the Guaporé channel etc. is beginning to become better known. The accumulated total of forest areas changed by extensive crops, plantations of species of interest along the paths (pabirú), by the effects of hunting etc. before the Portuguese arrived may reach 10%! It is thanks to the 15,000 years of human presence in the Amazon that we have knowledge and availability of so many medicinal plants, food products, fibers, woods, oils, perfumes, resins, etc.
2 – A demographic void threatened by deforestation and fire?
The Amazon population exceeds 20 million inhabitants, of which 65% live in the cities. It has the country’s highest rate of urbanization and the fastest growing regional GDP.
Demographic void? Working with about a hundred night images of an orbital US defense system, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), which is able to detect light with great sensitivity, the Embrapa Satellite Monitoring revealed and mapped the existence in the Amazon of about 1,500 areas already urban, or in the process of urbanization, with electric power. The system has been used by the CIA to compare “spending” with lighting and calculate country GDP, generating indicators of economic and energy efficiency.
Economic vacuum? The expansion and consolidation of cities and services in the Amazon is the great economic and social fact in the beginning of this century. After the Rio92 Earth Summit, the future of the Amazon is no longer in the hands of actors like small or large farmers, gold miners, Indians, rubber tappers, etc. Cities and urban interests are in charge. Annual satellite monitoring of deforestation (www.inpe.br) shows that more than 65% of new deforestation occurs near cities at a total regional rate of about 15,000 km2 / year. They are the result of urban investment – especially by the local middle class – in agriculture (coffee, milk and dairy cattle, fruit growing, etc.).
Expansion of services. Exchanges with the rest of the country and the development of services are so intense and sustainable that the problem is no longer demographic but one of circuits, networks and economic systems. A survey by Embrapa Satellite Monitoring reveals an immense and growing capillarity of agro-industrial purchasing and distribution networks in the region (Nestlé, Parmalat, Danone, Perdigão, Sadia, Ceasas, etc.). The area of direct and indirect influence of each Amazonian city is increasing and encompasses practically the entire Amazon. Only in the northern zone do significant areas remain outside this influence. Planned and ongoing investments under the PPA (Multi-Year Government Plan) make this process effective, consolidate and extend it.
Threatened by fires? Do not confuse fire with burning. Fire is an undesirable blaze, out of place, time and control, with no one to respond for it. Burning is an agricultural technology in which the producer decides the timing and place to burn, in a controlled and desired way. Many media outlets in Brazil continue to show mythical images of fires in Florida, California, and Mediterranean Europe. In Brazil, an orbital burn monitoring system has been operating for more than 10 years. All findings are fully available on the Internet at www.queimadas.cn p m.e m brapa.br/index.html, a unique case worldwide. IBAMA has also implemented other fire warning and monitoring systems (PrevFogo), and so has INMET.
What is the solution for burning: to fine farmers or to implement technology? The annual repetition of spatiotemporal burning patterns indicates its agricultural character, which is voluntary and non-accidental. For the first time, the Ministry of Agriculture began a positive plan in this area by taking to Amazonian agriculture, via Embrapa, alternative technologies to the use of fire. In the most critical municipalities, detected by satellite, booklets were distributed, seminars with producers were held, and promotional campaigns done to replace fire with new agricultural techniques. Between 1999 and 2000, fires in the critical region were reduced by 25%, improving the quality of agricultural production.
3 – Are Amazonian soils unfit for agriculture?
The Amazon region has nearly two hundred soil types. Any generalization in one sense or another about their productive capacity is a mistake. Moreover, the productive capacity of soils depends on agricultural technology.
Fertility or technology? Cerrado soils were considered unproductive until the middle of the last century given the agricultural technology available. Today, they are a granary. Bragantina in Pará has been cultivated for more than a century without losing productive capacity. The disaster announced by alarmists for small agriculture in Rondônia and for projects of medium-sized private colonization in Mato Grosso did not happen. The properties were consolidated without the land concentration announced by those alarmists. People continued in the region without migratory reflux, slowly capitalizing, building and diversifying their agriculture, as happened in other areas of the Amazon (TO and PA) and of the country. Of course, there are areas unsuitable for agriculture. If deforested, they do not present sustainability. Therefore, ecological-economic zoning should guide the adaptation and spatial diversification of economic activities.
Infertile soil? This year alone, Mato Grosso, produced 8 million tons of soybeans (more than Paraná) without increasing the area under cultivation, gaining productivity annually thanks to no-tillage and soil conservation. It also produced 700,000 tons of cotton, leading Brazil, an importer after more than ten years, to become a fiber exporter. Textile industries are setting up and attracting other investments such as chicken and pork production chains. Today, Rondônia produces more cacao than Mexico. And Amazonian agriculture meets the increasing demands of its own population by developing agribusiness. An example is the production of fruits, cheeses, yogurts and dairy products in the surroundings of large and medium-sized cities.
4 – Is the region unprotected by environmental legislation?
Probably nowhere in the world has a more restrictive land use legislation than the Amazon. According to the Provisional Measure (Executive Order) that amended the Brazilian Forest Code, a rural producer can only deforest 20% of his property. Add to this the fact that indigenous, state and federal conservation units (parks, national forests, permanent preservation areas, ecological stations, biological reserves, etc.) represent about 35% of the Amazonian territory and you will have an idea of the legal framework or the thick legislative jungle that covers and protects the Amazon.
Legislate to degrade? The problem is not insufficient laws but rather their lack of quality, hierarchy, subsidiarity, and multisectoral integration, which compromise compliance. Current legislation tends to reward clandestine, predatory, short-term activities and discourages serious, long-term investments. One example is the planting of eucalyptus and other species to generate cheaper firewood and charcoal and reduce the pressure on the removal of this material from native forests to iron mills installed in Açailândia (MA) and in the region of the Carajás railroad. In order to plant 2,000 ha, a producer must buy 10,000 ha and keep 80% of it preserved. This made ongoing investments unfeasible (they became illegal) and compromised futures (pulp production, furniture poles, etc.). There is a lack of strategic vision and a minimum of political consensus to overcome these impasses.
5 – Is environmental concern recent in Brazil?
Many rightly argue that the Amazon problem is not regional but national. However, they are mistaken to imagine that concern with environmental preservation is recent and began in Brazil thanks above all to non-governmental organizations. Here are some examples of this national concern, from an extensive historical list.
Recent concern? A few years after the discovery of Brazil in 1500, the Portuguese Crown’s “Manueline Instructions” on “royal trees and legal woods” listed dozens of trees whose cut was forbidden by law, In 1587, Gabriel de Souza, following orders of King João III, presented an impressive inventory of Brazil’s natural resources. From 1658, we have “news of popular demonstrations against intruders and landholders who act predatorily on the environment by degrading the soil with harmful practices and contaminating and depleting waters that supply the Carioca family.” In 1760, a decree by King Joseph I “mandates the protection of the mangrove trees of Brazil”. In 1790, Brazilian statesman José Bonifácio denounced “disorders promoted by stupid and ignorant overseers in the art of whale fishing” and published the 200-page “First Memory in Defense of Whales”. This is two centuries before Greenpeace. In 1808, Prince Regent Dom Joao creates the Royal Botanic Garden, with 2,160 hectares (5337 acres), now ‘democratically’ reduced to 137 hectares (338 acres).
After independence, the Botanical Garden was open to public visitation. In 1850, the Viscount of Bom Retiro prohibits the Minister of Business of the Empire from clearing forests and replants the headwaters of the rivers Carioca and Maracanã. In 1861, erosion and lack of potable water due to deforestation for coffee planting led to a decree by Emperor Peter II giving instructions for the planting and conservation of the Tijuca and Paineiras forests through “a regular plantation of the country grove.” In 1862, Major Archer proposed “to create identical establishments in other parts of the municipality of the Court and in the Provinces”. This gave rise to the Tijuca Forest, Earth’s largest natural park in an urban area, and the only planted forest in Brazil to this day. And there are other pioneering and little-known examples.
6 – Conclusion
The challenge of balancing preservation and development in the Amazon meets a first response in the land-use planning process. The first step should be an ecological-economic zoning that shows both potential and restriction in land use and occupation within long-term scenarios. The nation has instruments, methods and human resources to carry out this zoning, already foreseen over a decade ago. Why not do it? Brazil exercises its scientific sovereignty over the Amazon and has the means to monitor the Amazonian territory with science and conscience, contributing to its integrity, sustainable development, and to the defense of national interests. The rest… are myths that do not serve the country.
Not all of the ideas in this article necessarily reflect the position of Pan-Amazon Synod Watch.
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