- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2001

A huge swath of the Amazon River basin of Brazil will be damaged or lost during the next two decades if that country realizes its plans to develop, a U.S.-Brazilian team of researchers says.

The effects of this deforestation of as much as 42 percent of the area could be felt worldwide, says team leader William F. Laurance, a scientist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

The top concerns are the effects of deforestation on biodiversity, greenhouse gases, rainfall patterns and the heat balance of the planet, Mr. Laurance says from his home in Manaus, Brazil.

Scientist Thomas Lovejoy agrees.

"The rain forest is basically the largest repository of biological resources in the world," says Mr. Lovejoy, chief biodiversity adviser at the World Bank and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institution. "Medicine, new insights into biology and new products for the age of biotechnology are all tied up in the global balance of carbon and continental weather patterns."

Mr. Laurance and his colleagues, American and Brazilian, recently concluded their 14-month study on the Amazon rain forest, which covers 5 million square kilometers about the size of four Alaskas. The Amazon already is disappearing at the rate of 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres) per year, Mr. Laurance says. Much of it is cleared by fire for use as grazing land.

"There has been a large amount of immigration into the Amazon," which is about 40 percent of Brazil's total area, Mr. Laurance says. "The population in the Brazilian Amazon has increased almost tenfold during the last 30 years, from about 2 million to about 20 million. The government is moving people in [to the Amazon basin] to help relieve urban crowding."

The team research was the first assessment of the effects of development projects on the region. According to the STRI, the scientists developed computer models that integrate current data on deforestation and other development with information about planned infrastructure projects, including railroads.

The study points out that the Brazilian government plans to rev up the industrial, agricultural, timber and mining sectors of the economy with a $40 billion investment in infrastructure projects by 2007.

The researchers ran their computer models without the multitudes of highways, waterways and other planned projects. The predicted rates of deforestation and degradation both decreased sharply without these major projects, according to the STRI, and forest fragmentation was greatly reduced.

"The results of our analysis are pretty shocking," Mr. Laurance says. He notes that while no one is suggesting that Brazil halt development in the region, less destructive actions including slower deforestation could better protect the environment.

"But the charge of hypocrisy is always immediately leveled," he says. "Many Brazilians see the Amazon as a source of wealth. There is a real deep-seated fear that the world is going to try to come in and take over or assume serious control that might limit Brazil's future options."

Mr. Laurance says he recently saw a newspaper story in Brazil that reported on a poll of 600 residents of the river-basin area. Eighty-seven percent of those polled opposed letting other countries become involved in decisions about the Amazon.

A possible solution Mr. Laurance cites is based on the idea of carbon offsets by which heavily polluting countries pay other countries to retain their forests, thereby reducing overall carbon emissions.

"Under the Kyoto Protocol, nations have agreed to limit carbon emissions," he says. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The United States signed it in 1998, but the agreement has not been ratified. "Basically, one quarter to one third of all atmospheric carbon emissions are coming from tropical forest destruction," Mr. Laurance says.

He continues: "Under a carbon-offset agreement, Brazil, for example, could be potentially gaining $500 million to $2 billion a year over the next 20 years if it didn't proceed with this tidal wave of new projects. Ultimately, I think it will happen, but there are still some hurdles."

However, he concludes, "These are Brazilian decisions. But what we're trying to do is provide information so they can be informed decisions. If we can't get a handle on the tropical deforestation issue, we're not going to have any luck bringing global warming to a stop."

Mr. Lovejoy concurs. "The whole point of doing projections like [the Laurance study] is so that these things don't happen. The value of his research is that it has reframed the discussion."


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