The Future of Amazonia: Inheritance or Ruin?

Photo courtesy of lubasi via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

By Marcílio de Freitas 

An issue of global concern

Amazonia is one of the planet’s last utopias. Even before the New World was “discovered,” it existed in the imaginary of foreign travelers and governments. Yet the future of Brazil’s Amazonia region is fast becoming a tragedy in the making [1], which is calling out for international attention. Its positioning in the global market system is highly problematic, with the diverse cultures and biomes of Amazonia at risk of fast becoming extinct due to privatization and exploitation, which has been accelerated by Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, and the spread of Covid-19. While the cultural and ecological complexity of Amazonia poses a threat to Bolsonaro’s government, it presents a challenge to those who believe in sustainable development. The protection of Amazonia presents a real opportunity for Brazil to enter into the ranking of developed countries and for humanity to protect one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

The cultural and ecological diversity of Amazonia

The Amazonian region is home to some of the world’s most culturally and biologically diverse areas, hosting one third of the world’s tropical rainforest reserves, a fifth of the planet’s surface freshwater, and a tenth of the world’s solid earth biota. It covers nine Brazilian states totalling 4,987,247 km2, which accounts for 58 percent of Brazil’s total territory and 40 percent of the South American continent, corresponding to about one twentieth of the Earth’s total surface area. Of this, 3.5–4 million km2 is covered with primary vegetation mostly undisturbed by anthropogenic activities.

Map of Amazonia with its two main cities, Manaus and Belem, and its main economic poles (Image courtesy of the author)

The region is home to approximately 30 million people, including 163 Indigenous groups totalling 384,000 people, or 44.7 percent of the Indigenous population of Brazil. Amazonia is also home to the Amazon River, the largest and most voluminous river in the world, which makes up the most complex hydrographic basin on the planet. It includes more than a 1000 rivers, 75,000 km of which are navigable. It borders seven countries, with its borders running to around 11,280 km, with around 22,320 communities living within its forests.

Experts have identified more than 11,000 tree species in the region, which account for 19 percent of known tree species in the world, with scientists predicting that Amazonia has the ecological potential to house around 16,000 tree species [2]. Around 2,000 species found in Amazonia have been used as medicinal plants by Indigenous groups, with 1,250 species being a source of essential oils.

Amazonia is a distinct ecological world with 400 billion trees and 350 tons of biomass per hectare, producing 7.5 tons of litter (branches and leaves) accumulated per hectare annually, making it one of the world’s largest sources of renewable biomass found on a solid surface. Academic literature documents that 20–25 percent of its territory is periodically flooded [3]. A forest in the Anavilhanas archipelago in Central Amazonia hosts a microbe population of 116,409 per square meter across a surface area approximately 10 centimeters deep, which is subject to periodic flooding [4]. Yet the increasing use of mercury, germicides, and fungicides in the region is contaminating the water basins of this “water world,” giving rise to diseases affecting the local human population. It is an open question as to how many diseases could spread throughout the world as a result of the continued destruction of this incredibly biodiverse region.

All images courtesy of the author

Amazonia and global climate change

Amazonia is strategically important to Brazil and humanity more generally. It is in effect the world’s largest open living library, as well as the planet’s thermostat and an incredibly important climate stability mechanism [5]. The cultural and ecological value of Amazonia needs to be better understood in Brazil and by the global community [6]. Despite this, the actions of Bolsonaro’s government have accelerated its cultural and ecological destruction.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 has also contributed to the unprecedented death of many of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples. Encouraged by Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, squatters, prospectors, loggers, farmers, and speculators, among others, have murdered its Indigenous people and union leaders, deforested its forests and irreversibly polluted its hydrographic basin, its biomes, and animal and plant populations. Brazil’s withdrawal from the World Climate Agreement, its diplomatic break with the Amazon Fund and its international partnerships, and the dismantling of various environmental and social protection policies and programs in Amazonia have accelerated its destruction. These actions have generated a major diplomatic crisis between Brazil, France, Germany, and Norway. The managerial and operational dissembling of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, the National Indian Foundation and its Health Districts in Amazonia, and the explicit manipulation of deforestation rates by the Brazilian Government constitute a crime against Brazil and its people, with deforestation and the cultural and ecological destruction of Amazonia advancing at an unprecedented rate.

All images courtesy of the author

These political actions have contributed to isolating Brazil from the international community. The racial hatred expressed by Bolsonaro against the Indigenous peoples of the Amazonia region, especially as expressed by the former Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, have made Brazil one of the most racist countries in the world and Amazonia one of the most vulnerable regions in the world. The proposal by the current Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, to develop Brazil proceeds as if Amazonia did not exist, or as if it were an obstacle to the development of the country. Amazonia needs a development program supported by fiscal reform that stimulates and promotes industrial policies integrated into the region.

So how do we support the social and economic development of the region without cutting down trees and destroying biomes? This should be the guiding question for developing the region [7], with priority given to bioindustries ranging from biopharmaceuticals to new sources of clean energy. It is also necessary to develop new fiscal arrangements with business and transnational corporations in the mining-metallurgical pole in Pará State and in the Manaus Industrial Pole in Amazonas State, creating the foundation for a new regional industrial policy centered on innovation, science, and hightech technology driven by sustainable programs [8].

Simultaneously, it is important that public authorities partake in new partnerships with large successful international industrial groups in strategic areas, building regulations that protect Amazonia and its political, economic, and social interests, at the same time as boosting its economic productivity. The establishment of multiple laboratories for the research and development of new products in the region should be a focus, creating new opportunities for Brazil’s youth.

Bioindustries represent a promising future for Brazil, even though their establishment is still some way off. Institutionalizing science and technology structures in its municipalities is a prerequisite for accelerating development on a sustainable basis. The integration of Amazonia into regional and national projects is the greatest challenge facing Brazilian managers and politicians. Institutions such as the National Bank of Social Development, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Industry and Trade, among others, also have to be headquartered in Amazonia. The investment of US $1 trillion over ten years by public and private partnerships would enable successful sustainable development of Amazonia.

The political change of the capital of Brazil from Brasilia to Amazonia would consolidate this framework, which would quickly put Brazil in the ranking of the most developed countries with real prospects for eliminating its substantial social inequalities. Convincing the Brazilian Parliament of the need for the sustainable development of Amazonia is another political challenge. Historically, political representations of Brazil’s most developed regions always resist political proposals that enhance the reconfiguration of Brazil’s economic axes. Amazonia has the worst human development indexes and the least well-developed public policies in Brazil. It is one of the most socially and economically vulnerable regions on the planet [9]. Yet if Amazonia were a sovereign country, it would certainly be among one of five most well-developed countries in the world after a period of ten years.

Who will save Amazonia?

Amazonia’s future could be shaped by three major political tendencies. The first is its increasing ecological destruction by agribusiness, cattle ranching, prospectors, large-scale logging, and massive fires [10]. The second is the establishment of an increasing number of sustainable development programs and projects in the region, which reaffirm its ecological and symbolic importance to Brazil and to the broader global community. The third tendency presupposes greater international engagement and growing global collaboration through international economic and political protocols and agreements. Scenarios combining elements of all three tendencies are also feasible. However, maintaining life’s permanence on the planet across all its dimensions requires a new scale of needs and values aimed at developing a sustainable existential relationship between humanity and nature. As such, the world requires a new framework centered on sustainable structures, systems, and processes.

The ongoing destruction of Amazonia is a global tragedy, with increased international pressure on the Brazilian government one of the last forms of political resistance available. Amazonia needs to be protected through sustainable development policies, as well as literary and cultural works that celebrate its cultural and ecological diversity, and not destroyed by opportunists and greedy capitalists. Brazil’s future is dependent on Amazonia, which urgently requires national and international solidarity and support. The cultural and ecological richness of Amazonia forms part of our planetary inheritance, yet without our protection its destruction could lead to our ruin and downfall. It’s the sad tropics, as Claude Lévi-Strauss would say. History will judge us, and it is now that we must turn the historical tide and act to save this unique part of our ecological and cultural world heritage.

Marcílio de Freitas is a professor at the Federal University of Amazonas, Brazil, and former Secretary of State for Science and Technology of the state of Amazonas. He is author of The Future of Amazonia in Brazil: A Worldwide Tragedy, Peter Lang Publishing: New York, 2020.

To learn more about the threats facing Amazonia, check out Professor Freitas’ YouTube channel (in Portuguese).

[1] Marcílio Freitas and Marilene Correa da Silva Freitas, The Future of Amazonia in Brazil: A Worldwide Tragedy (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2020).

[2] Hans ter Steege, Rens W. Vaessen, Dairon Cárdenas-López, Daniel Sabatier, Alexandre Antonelli, Sylvia Mota de Oliveira, Nigel Pitman, Peter Møller Jørgensen, Rafael P. Salomão, and Vitor H. F. Gomes, “A descoberta da flora arbórea da Amazônia com uma lista atualizada de todas as taxas arbóreos conhecidas (The discovery of the Amazonian tree flora with an updated checklist of all known tree taxa),” Bol. Mus. Para. Emílio Goeldi. Cienc. Nat. 11, no. 2 (May–Aug 2016): 231–61.

[3] Wolfgang Junk and Maria Teresa F. Piedade, “An Introduction to South American Wetland Forests: Distribution, Definitions and General Characterization.” In Amazonian Floodplain Forests – Ecophysiology, Biodiversity and Sustainable Management, edited by Wolfgang J. Junk, Maria Teresa F. Piedade, Florian Wittmann, Jochen Schöngart, and Parolin Pia (New York: Springer, 2010), 3–25.

[4] Lucille Antony, “Abundância e Distribuição Vertical da Fauna do Solo de Ecossistemas Amazônicos Naturais e Modificados (Abundance and Vertical Distribution of Soil Fauna of Modified and Natural Amazonian Ecosystems).” In Projeto Bionte: Biomassa e Nutrientes Florestais – Relatório Final (Bionte Project: Biomass and Forest Nutrients – Final Report), edited by Niro Higuchi, João B. Ferraz, Lucille Antony, Flávio Luizão, and Yuri Biot (Manaus, Amazonas: Inpa-MCT Publishing, 1997),  225–31.

[5] Marcílio Freitas and Marilene Correa da Silva Freitas, “Sustainability, Amazonia and Environment: Propositions and Challenges,” International Journal of Environmental Studies 70, Issue 4 (2013): 467–76.

John Gash, Carlos Nobre, John Roberts, and Reynaldo Victoria, eds. Amazonian Deforestation and Climate (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1996), 549–76.

See also: ATTO – AMAZON TALL TOWER OBSERVATORY – Earth system research in the Amazon rainforest, German collaboration in this important international environmental research program has been coordinated by Prof. Dr. Jürgen Kesselmeir, Max Planck Institute, Mainz.

[6] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), Climate Change 2013 – The Physical Science Basic Report. Working Group I, 23 to 26 September, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013.

[7] Marcílio Freitas, Sustainability and Covid-19; Michael’s challanges. In publication, 2020.

[8] Silva Freitas, Marilene Correa, Marcílio de Freitas, and Maria Auxiliadora Ruiz, “La Politique publique pour le développement durable: l’Amazonie,” Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 28, Issue 2 (2015): 192–210.

[9] Marcílio Freitas, Marilene Correa da Silva Freitas, Antônio Ióris, and Walter Esteves de Castro Júnior, Amazônia (Amazonia) (Lisbon: Chiado Publishing, 2017).

[10] INPE – National Institute of Spacial Researches, “Alertas do DETER sobre desmatamento e degradação ambiental na Amazônia em junho somam 2.072,03 km² (DETER’s alert about deforestation and environmental degradation in Amazonia in June cover 2,072.03 km²),” INPE News, 10 July 2019.

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