State of the Amazon

Michael Reaney, April 15, 2011

The section of the planet that is most vulnerable to human emissions are the Andes. Peru is home to 70 percent of the world's tropical ice glaciers, which are of critical importance to the drinking water, irrigation and electricity of the region. Scientists are reporting that the glaciers are disappearing faster than they previously anticipated. According to a World Bank report, Environmental and Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean-Policy Brief, in 2009, the Peruvian White Mountain Range has "already lost 26 percent of glacier mass, and this loss is accelerating." The report continues, "It is estimated that by 2050, glaciers in the sub-region will only exist above 6,000 meters of altitude, and it is probable that small glaciers would have completely disappeared by 2025." Glacial melting will have enormous impacts on water availability and electricity generation for the Andean countries, which rely on glaciers for more than 70 percent of their electricity. By 2020, 40 million people could be affected by deficiencies in hydro energy, irrigation capacity and clean drinking water. These forthcoming consequences led the World Bank to call upon Andean governments to "draw up an Andean Strategy on Climate Change … to cope with and mitigate climate change-related effects." However, no tangible developments have been enacted by the Peruvian government to date, as the glaciers rapidly recede into non-existence.

A year after the plea from the World Bank, the Amazon finds itself reeling from the worst drought ever recorded. On February 2, a joint commission of British and Brazilian scientists reported that the drought in 2010 (covering over 1.16 million square miles) was worse than the drought in 2005 (covering 734,000 square miles), which was thought to be a once-in-a-century phenomenon. During the 2005 drought, the Amazon released a combined 5 billion tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Writing for Climate Change, Nick Sundt exclaimed that the Amazon absorbs 2 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide a year. The British and Brazilian team found that the 2010 drought may soon exceed the 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide reportedly released in 2005. The Rio Negro was reported to be at its lowest point on record, 13 feet below its dry-season average, during the 2010 drought.
The burning of forests releases about 22 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, which are emissions of carbon dioxide caused by humans. This does not include the other harmful greenhouse gases that are released during deforestation, such as nitrous oxide, methane and other nitrogen oxides. This immense deforestation is dismantling a vital machine that creates the very air we breathe and cannot be replaced once it is destroyed. Scientists are reporting that if deforestation continues at the same pace, then the natural environment will be unable to recuperate and regenerate. Peruvian officials need to start developing better conservation strategies before their country becomes a case study of how climate change can bring a nation to its knees.
Brazilian policy
Peru could learn conservation methods merely by looking over the Amazonian treetops to its eastern neighbor, Brazil. In that country, deforestation rates dropped 45.7 percent from August 2008 to July 2009 and reportedly another 14 percent from August 2009 to July 2010. Credit is given largely to Brazil's Action Plan for Deforestation Control and Prevention in the Amazon, a set of intra-governmental policies and measures that were launched in 2004. The plan still aims to improve monitoring, strengthen enforcement of legal logging, define conservation areas, and aid sustainable activities in the area. Through the use of satellite surveillance to prevent illegal logging, Chauvenet asserts that Brazil has developed "one of the best policies regarding these isolated groups in the world."
However, Brazil has not made a complete turnaround in protecting the Amazon and its inhabitants. At the end of January, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) issued a "partial" license for the commencement of construction for the Belo Monte Dam, which would be the third largest in the world, and provide Brazilians with thousands of MW of electricity. If the dam is built, construction would destroy a large area of the forest and harm fish reserves, which are crucial to the indigenous residing in the area. Survival International announced on February 2 that "Brazil's Public Prosecutor's Office has called for the immediate suspension of the license, which was issued illegally as the majority of conditions required for an installation license to be granted—conditions set by IBAMA itself—have not been met." Public Prosecutor Felicio Pontes Jr. said, "Following decisions like this one, we can call IBAMA the biggest environmental violator of the Amazon." If President Dilma Rousseff wishes to maintain Brazil's world-renowned conservationist reputation, she may want to revise her aspirations of 70 large dams to be built within the next two decades.
The Amazon significantly contributes to lessening the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. It is in the interest of Peru and the planet as a whole to conserve what is left of the largest rainforest on Earth. The Peruvian government should oversee an investigation of the Ministry of the Environment and determine if their best interests indeed do lie in the environment and those that inhabit its rainforests.
The National Organization of the Amazon Indigenous people of Peru (AIDESEP), in a letter to Minister of the Environment Antonio Brack Egg, responded critically to the Readiness Preparation Proposal of Peru (R-PP), a document that Latin American countries have composed in order to be recognized as a contributor to forest conservation by the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF). AIDESEP addressed some issues they had with the document; for example, the minister did not address the root causes affecting the Amazon, such as resource extraction. Peru, in order to be acknowledged by the FCPF as an active member in reducing forest degradation, had to pass this R-PP document. The languorously inclined minister of the environment should commission an investigation allowing him to expose core problems when dealing with the indigenous groups. Minister Egg should work towards reducing degradation rather than using his best efforts to achieve a non-effective R-PP label for archly political reasons.
In this same letter, The National Organization of the Amazon Indigenous people of Peru AIDESEP asked the Energy Ministry to properly clarify if they sought consultation from local inhabitants before awarding 14 more contracts for oil and gas explorations. As AIDESEP points out, the government shyly mentions that they consulted with the tribes and representative organizations, but provide no proof of this. As AIDESEP expressed in their letter, "The competent public authorities are ignoring as many as 300 communities that have ancestral titles and therefore should be taken into consideration." The government should create enforcement mechanisms for their forestry laws and the international regulations that give the indigenous people their rights.
Alternatively, more environmentally friendly solutions for increasing the economic output of the Amazon are readily available. Investing in agro-forestry, which is currently practiced by indigenous groups and organizations in the Amazon, would be a sustainable way to profit from the rainforest in an eco-friendly manner. The Amazon boasts a vast array of profitable goods, such as Brazil nuts, coca, tropical fruits and sacha inchi (a vine with a nut that is sold for its value in omega 6 and 9), not to mention the thousands of plant species used in medicines, and those that have yet to be discovered. As Rainer W. Bussmann and Douglas Sharon emphasize in their journal on Peruvian medicine, "everyone has an interest in preserving rainforests because they might contain compounds that could cure cancer, HIV-AIDS and other diseases." If the current practice of slash-and-burn exploration continues, then many of these plants and potential miracle medicines will never survive to be discovered. In a recent interview speaking to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Megan MacDowell, Amazon Conservation Association's D.C. office director, stated that "agro-forestry is the most sustainable way to gain an income from a standing forest … but only if there is a healthy forest there to supply the industry." In other words, with responsible investment, there is great potential for a sustainable agriculture industry to flourish within the Amazon.
The Peruvian government and licensed companies should provide compensation for those inhabitants of the Amazon who are negatively affected by collateral operations. The government should consider creating a compensation process for those who can prove that they have been afflicted by extractive practices, including ongoing and postoperative effects of operations. Such an act should enable the formulation of a body similar to the structure of the Brazilian FUNAI, instead of the ill-structured Ministry of Environment.
Many environmentally hazardous incidents occur due to faulty practices or ill-engineered equipment used by corporations. Thus, it should be more difficult for companies to acquire licenses for projects that could leave scars on the rainforest. The Peruvian government should closely investigate the histories of corporations that plan to invest in the Amazon and their previous legacies in environmentally sensitive areas. Since most of the environmental damage is caused by leaks of old or degraded equipment, Peruvian authorities should monitor the types of materials and tools used to ensure companies are following regulations.
Looking towards the future
Peruvians should look closely to the upcoming April 10 elections for a candidate who will rid the Amazon of severely harmful extraction techniques, both legal and illegal. However, until the July inauguration (and maybe his own in 2016), García should contemplate the cost and benefits when signing concessions with international corporations that have little to no interest in the ultimate effect their practices have on Peru or the Amazon.
With these upcoming elections, all eyes are focused on the presidency and the future of economic growth following the García administration. Reportedly, President García has taken the opportunity to promote himself while attempting to tie-up some loose ends. The Latin News reported that García was attempting to distract citizens from the emergency decrees by giving them a tax break he announced on February 9. Skeptics suggest that he was merely anticipating the 2016 election, since he must wait until then to run again. Former President Alejandro Toledo, and outspoken critic of the García administration, argued this was "smoke and mirrors," designed to distract citizens from the recent Urgent Decrees shoved through Congress.
Living in Peru reported that on February 7 two emergency decrees were quickly passed through Congress with García's backing. These decrees allow accelerated bidding on 33 investment projects by easing environmental regulations, which article 5.3 now declares "are no longer required to obtain administrative authorizations for these projects, and for any project in the near future." García's campaign to eradicate the rainforest is creatively being transferred to a legacy, from where it seems he wishes to spring if he is reelected in 2016. Interestingly, the presidential race that will determine his successor does not have global warming on its agenda, even though loss of resources from the Amazon and the Andean glaciers will be an evident issue to be addressed during the next president's five-year term.
Michael Reaney is a research associate for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). This is the second of a two-part article originally published by COHA:

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