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Pathfinders: What’s Going on With the Rainforest?

Last month the BBC broadcast a documentary called ‘I bought a rainforest’, in which a good-hearted but slightly buffoonish wildlife cameraman embarks on a one-man crusade to save a small corner of Peruvian rainforest by buying it and pitching camp. As might be expected, the cameraman’s schoolboy quest to ride to the Amazon’s rescue like the Great White Colonial Hope is foiled at every turn. His ‘rainforest’ turns out to be pre-logged scrubland. Nevertheless he puts up ‘Protected Area’ signs which are promptly ignored. He can’t patrol the land and neither can the scarce rangers. He has a logging squatter he can’t get rid of. He has armed cocaine-growing neighbours he is terrified of. He visits the local indigenous tribe and despairs that they are forced to log their own land. He visits a gold miner working 16 hour days in toxic conditions for mere pennies. He accompanies loggers who can’t get work any other way. He wails that ‘the west doesn’t need mahogany’ and that one tree supports more biodiversity than the whole of Western Europe. Finally he comes to the miserable conclusion that if he was one of these people, he’d be a logger too.

The overall environmental message of this generally insightful and sympathetic documentary is that the Amazon is doomed and so are we. Recent reports add to the gloom, with Brazil’s environment minister citing a 28 percent increase in deforestation last year (e.g. Al Jazeera, 15 November 2013).

What the reports often don’t say is that this is an anomalous ‘uptick’ after the lowest rate of deforestation on record. Deforestation has seen a 70 percent decline since 2004. Despite five decades of clearance over 80 percent of the Amazon is still intact. So is the rainforest doomed or not?

Unhelpfully, the media confuses matters with its preference for bad news over good, and its cavalier use of different metrics to make things look worse. For example, a report about gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon (http://tinyurl.com/ohnyumf) cites an annual clearance of 15,180 acres of forest since 2008, twice previous estimates. The reason it is twice previous estimates is that in 2008 there was a global credit crunch and the price of gold went through the roof, sparking a Peruvian gold rush which, as happened before in the 1980s, will peter out as the price of gold crashes.  But 15,180 acres is just over 61 square kilometres. At that rate of clearance and assuming no grow-back (which is impossible), it would take 13,000 years to clear the Peruvian Amazon, and 88,000 years to clear the whole rainforest. The only reason to use acreage as a metric is that it gives a big fat number.

Bucking the trend, the science press likes to emphasise good news over bad, promoting the image of science as a positive force in society. So we get ‘Deforestation Success Stories’ from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which cites a 50 percent increase in protected areas, good progress towards a halt to agricultural clearance by 2020 and towards net zero deforestation by means of compensating regrowth elsewhere (ucsusa.org and New Scientist, 14 June). UCS wants to motivate us, not demoralise us: ‘There are enough examples of success, some very rapid and far-reaching, to encourage continuing the global effort—and indeed, stepping it up’ (ucsusa.org).

As most people already know, the overwhelming cause of Amazon deforestation is beef ranching (65-70 percent – an area the size of France). 5 - 10 percent is ‘Big Ag’, mainly soya for biofuels and animal feed (including dog food), 20 – 25 percent is subsistence farming by locals. Logging is around 2 – 3 percent, while all others including mining, fires, roads, settlements and dams account for just 1 – 2 percent.

So what happened in 2004-5 to cause such a massive drop in clearance rates? First, studies estimating that deforestation caused 17 – 29 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions provoked a raft of control measures, which included punitive Forest Code laws by Brazil outlawing logging and imposing restrictions on beef and soya producers, who responded by making better use of existing cleared land. Second, the Brazilian real strengthened against the dollar, weakening Brazilian beef exports, and world soybean prices also fell by more than 25 percent. The 2008 financial crash further reduced profitability and consequent deforestation. As profits went down, more trees stayed up.

With last year’s 28 percent increase in clearance, the signs are that this has turned around. Soy is once again up and the real is down. Cattle and soya farming intensification is starting to hit a wall, while the Forest Code has been revised (i.e. revoked). This has outraged environmentalists, but the truth is that none of the control programmes were working. Most are voluntary, or rely on threats rather than incentives. The UN REDD+ scheme to compensate rainforest countries for preserving primary forest has been ‘gamed’ by dodgy companies and ‘carbon cowboys’ and none of the money has gone to the indigenous tribes it was aimed at. In short, the fate of the rainforest is inextricably bound up with the fortunes of international capitalism. As the world economy once again shifts into boom mode, the gears will once again start shifting on the Amazon tractors, trucks and bulldozers.

But statistics can only tell you so much. The BBC documentary instead focussed on the human drama, and it’s here that you see the real bind that capitalism puts people in.

Nothing brings home the reality of Amazonian poverty like seeing a child, brain-damaged from an industrial machine, smiling vacantly while her mother weeps and her father explains with admirable dignity why he’s obliged to continue defying the rich cameraman’s wishes.  Nothing brings home the human cost of gold mining like seeing a young boy standing for an hour in a bucket of mercury solution, as if he’s treading grapes. Nothing confounds the moral mind like the religious logger who loves the forest, and the plea ‘what will you pay me NOT to cut this tree down?’ And nothing so eloquently and poignantly captures the impotence of western liberal thinking like the cameraman agonising over how to choose between trees and people.

For socialists the problem is not trees versus people, but trees and people versus capitalism. The cameraman doesn’t understand this, not because it’s a hidden problem but because conversely it’s too enormous to comprehend. It’s the forest that he can’t see for the trees.

We never claim that socialism would have no problems. But by sharing the world democratically, without leaders and without buying and selling property, an entire class of ‘commodification’ problems would certainly vanish. The Amazon is the world’s greatest ‘tragedy of the commons’, where land of value to everyone is ruined by the exploitation of private ownership and trade relations. Take it into common ownership and custodianship, and our most important carbon sink and biodiversity hothouse laboratory can certainly be rescued, and indeed made to thrive.

PJS