October 23, 2007
The fires in southern California are alarming. Now multiply them by a thousand. Guardian:
Veteran Amazon pilots such as Fernando Galvao Bezerra are hard men to shock. During 20 years in aviation Mr Bezerra, 45, has ferried prostitutes and wildcat miners to remote, lawless goldmines. He has taxied wealthy loggers between ranches, lost countless colleagues to malaria and once survived when his plane plummeted out of the sky. But as his 10-seater Cessna banked over a vast expanse of burning rainforest in the state of Mato Grosso, the pilot, who now works for the environmental group Greenpeace, was virtually speechless. "Holy shit," he blurted over the plane's PA system, as the plane swung sharply to the right towards an image of destruction which owed more to a scene from Apocalypse Now than the Amazon rainforest. "Just look at the size of what this guy is burning."
It is burning season in Brazil, and across the Amazon region, where illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and a growing number of soy producers continue their advance into their world's largest tropical forest, similar scenes are taking place. In August government satellites registered 16,592 fires across Brazil, the overwhelming majority in the Amazon.
For environmentalists the fires are one of the first indications that deforestation is once again on the rise. Over the last two years fears for the future of the Amazon have been tempered by news of a reduction in deforestation. In August the Brazilian government heralded a 30% drop in rainforest destruction - the result, it said, of a government deforestation plan launched in March 2004. The plan outlined the creation of conservation units and 19 anti-deforestation units in deforestation hotspots such as Novo Progresso and Apui. [...]
Already there are signs that rainforest destruction is gathering speed. Deforestation in the states of Mato Grosso and Para is reportedly rising, with chainsaws and forest fires levelling thousands of hectares of pristine forest. Figures released last week by Brazil's space agency, INPE, show that between May and July of this year there was a 200% rise in deforestation in Mato Grosso.
Further north, in the Amazon state of Para, local ranchers and environmental activists claim a similar process is under way. Flying over the south-western corner of Para the tell-tale signs that logging continues at a staggering rate are everywhere: in the illegal dirt tracks that trail through the forest and the trucks that are dotted along them; in the charred trees that litter the landscape; and most strikingly in the newly deforested areas, which have turned the landscape into a messy patchwork of dark green and dull brown.
"It [the level of deforestation] is definitely going to rise," said Agamenon da Silva Menezes, the president of the Rural Workers Union in the Amazon town of Novo Progresso and one of the region's most powerful farmers.
"Lula [president of Brazil) says what he says because it is beneficial for him. But this year they have chopped down much more. What I am supposed to say to the guys [to stop them?]" added Mr Menezes.
Mr Menezes compared the illegal actions of the loggers to the American invasion of Iraq. If George Bush could attack a country out of financial interest, why could the loggers not do the same to the rainforest, he wondered. [...]
Activists claim that the spike in deforestation is a sign that the government's action plan has been largely ineffective. They argue that the recent reductions owe more to external economic factors such as the market price of soy and beef.
With ranchers now looking to cash in on rising prices, Marcelo Marquesini, a former inspector for Ibama (Brazilian ministry of the environment's enforcement agency) who now works for Greenpeace, says the outlook for the rainforest is bleak. [...]
He described the idea that a policy of "zero deforestation" could be introduced as "the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard". Mr Menezes asked: "Where is he [President Lula] going to get 30,000 soldiers from to police the insides of this whole forest?"
Three thousand feet over the burning forest Paulo Adario, the Amazon director of Greenpeace, let out a sigh of resignation. "It's like a scene from a world war," he said gazing down at the forest, which now more resembled the aftermath of a napalm bombing.
"It is forbidden to sell cocaine, it's illegal to deal marijuana and it's illegal to molest little children," Mr Adario added with mix of frustration and irony. "And, as you can see, it is also illegal to destroy the Amazon rainforest." [Emphasis added]
Stories like this make me despair for our future. Individuals continue to act on their own short-term self-interest even though the sum total of all of their actions amounts to collective suicide. We see this everywhere. People figure their little drop in the bucket won't make a measurable difference, so why be a martyr? Why not take the path of least resistance? Why not not cash in?
So individual choices inexorably lead to collective ruin. Somehow, the common good and the individual good need to be brought into alignment. It's hard to see that happening, though, without one of two things. Either people need to accept a vision of collective solidarity that so thoroughly informs their actions that they wouldn't think of taking the selfish path — or drastically coercive measures need to be taken. The first seems improbable, the second (rightly) unacceptable. So we race ahead, gobbling everything we can get our hands on.
Me, I vote for vision. We need to zoom out, see the big picture.
This is our home. All of us together. There is no escape hatch.