Stripping the Amazon

The Amazon — an area the size of the United States in South America — is under another assault by business and government developers. Time and again, the dense Amazonian jungle or rain forest has beaten back its intruders over the past three centuries. The steamy heat and disease-carrying insects and venomous creatures aided its inpenetrability.

The latest drive by the Brazilian government to “open up” Amazonia to settlers, miners and multinational corporations may break up one of the world’s most critical ecologies with consequences far beyond Brazil. This drive, funded by World Bank loans, is better equipped, ready for pesticide warfare against the tropical forest, and using powerful machines to cut trees down quickly. Underneath all that awesome, thick botanical growth, replete with perhaps 40 percent of the world’s species of flora and fauna, is a remarkably fragile soil that, without its vegetative cover, can become a “wet desert”.
Deploying “remote sensing” or satellite aided aerial photography and financial incentives to developers, the Brazilian government appears insensitive to the magnitude of the impending tragedy. The regime wants the timber, minerals and cleared land now to help pay its international debts.

The Amazon region, with a river so gigantic that its discharge into the Atlantic could fill Lake Ontario in about three hours, is a species haven for the planet. It contains one third of all the planet’s forest and a greater percentage of plant species. The 4000 mile Amazon River contains more species of fish than the entire Atlantic Ocean. The region helps cool the earth and is part of the oxygen production cycle. Future runoffs from predicted heavy use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers can destroy oxygen-producing algae in large areas of the equatorial Atlantic.

Big as the Amazon River basin is, the jaws of man and machine are bigger. An area the size of Wisconsin has already been denuded. The favorite technique that is used is that of massive slash and burn. After cutting and hauling away the hardwoods, a powerful chain weighing many tons is pulled by two tractors moving parallel to each other to tear up the vegetation. The fuel is sprayed and ignited, sometimes burning the residue for months and polluting the atmosphere. If the cleared land is farmed, two years of crops can exhaust its fertility and the company plantations move to slash and burn more territory leaving behind the eroded wet desert.

There is the question of genocide of the Indian tribes. Nearly two decades ago the Brazilian government condemned its own Amazonian development agency for cruel attacks on tribes to get them out of the way. Planes would drop clothing and other products contaminated with the contagious diseases of white men with deadly effect. Dozens of tribes were exterminated during this and earlier periods of violence against the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

Presently, the pressures toward extinction is more subtle but more relentless. The World Bank, the IMF, the foreign corporations and state and federal Brazilian agencies are weaving a development agenda that is shortsighted to the extreme. The environmental wreakage that follows is of global, not just continental concern. A few Brazilian environmental groups and citizens are trying to quicker the conscience of other nations and peoples, especially the United States from whence are coming many of the corporate extractors and the financial loans.

Is anyone listening? Not the Reagan government whose stock and trade is corporate myopia and a “go for it” mentality. It was Governor Reagan who once said that if you see one redwood, you see them all. An American Society for the Protection of the Amazon is needed for our as well as their environmental defense.

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