AMAZON DEFORESTATION: Can giving locals ownership lower the risks of cutting or burning down trees in the Amazon rainforest? Image: NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures In the World's Most Polluted Places, by Andrew Blackwell (Rodale, 2012).
The highway in the dark as the kilometers ticked by. We were driving south from Santarém on BR-163, one of the few highways to cut across the Brazilian Amazon. This close to Santarém, the road was paved and free of potholes. Further south it is unpaved, becoming almost impassable in the rainy season.
Locations on the road south of Santarém are found not by signs or named roads but by their kilometer number. My friend Adam and I were headed for a turnoff somewhere in the low 70s. There, we would meet some people who spent their days ripping trees out of a protected rainforest. Yet as much as I would have loved to befriend a secretive band of lumber pirates, I had had no such luck. Somehow, it was all legal.
Dawn brightened by increments behind the tinted windows of the car. The Amazon canopy flew past, mist rising among the treetops. We were inside a vast hydrological pump, which lifts and distributes an ocean's worth of water across the Americas, shaping and driving weather patterns around the continent. Or rather, we were at its edge. To our right was the boundary of the Tapajós National Forest, the trees lining the shoulder of the road. To the left, though, the vista modulated between forest and rangeland, then would fall away in the flat blankness of soy field: mile-long rectangles of bare earth. Gil—a scruffy Amazonian windsurfer whom Adam and I had hired to be our translator and guide—squinted through his window, looking for kilometer markers.
If you're interested in deforestation, you go where the action is. So I'd come to Brazil, where I hoped I would be able to catch the bleeding edge of a booming economy in midsweep across the rainforest. I wanted to see the worst of the worst.
But I was a few years late. When it comes to leveling the Amazon, Brazil has been falling down on the job. Gone are the go-go days of the mid-2000s, when more than ten thousand square miles of rainforest could disappear in a single year. That number has since fallen by more than two thirds, to less than 2,500 square miles in 2011, which is the lowest rate of destruction since the country began keeping records in the late 1980s. And all this at a time when Brazil's economy has been growing steadily—a situation that would normally have resulted in more deforestation.
The most convincing explanations for this all have to do with economic factors that are beyond anyone's control. But many people are hoping—and the Brazilian government wants you to believe—that the lull in the destruction is also attributable, at least in part, to recent innovations in the monitoring and management of forests. Which is why we were headed now for the Tapajós National Forest.
We reached the logging camp at around seven in the morning. The loggers were meeting in a bare, wooden room in the main building. Men and women in hard hats and work clothes stood in a circle and made announcements. There was laughter and applause. They joined hands and said a prayer, looking not at all piratical. Then we went out and got into the back of a large, covered truck that bounced and shuddered down a rutted dirt road in the direction of the Tapajós River, into the heart of the national forest. We were riding with the Ambé project.