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The Amazon challenge

R. Samanez-Mercado

Roberto Samanez-Mercado is a professor at the Forestry Institute of the National Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

To address the challenge of Amazonia is a difficult task. The enormity of the region's geographic dimensions, the multinational political structure, the biological diversity, the persistence of generalities and myths, the threats to the ecology, the need for rational utilization, the superficial lushness and underlying poverty, and many other factors combine to form a complex, often confusing tapestry. This article (adapted from a larger work prepared for the May 1990 meeting of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Special Commission on Environment, held in Bogota, Colombia) briefly sets out the environmental situation in the Amazon region, and then examines the recent acceleration of political commitment to environmental collaboration by the eight signatories to the 1978 Amazon Cooperation Treaty (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela).

The Amazonian subregion, with its huge extent and complexity, is without doubt one of the most important biological reserves in the world today. The region covers some 7.2 million km2, of which 6.3 million km2 are forest area. The Amazon forest accounts for 56 percent of total broad-leaved forests in the world and comprises several of the world's most complex ecosystems with hundreds of thousands of flora, fauna and insect species, many of which have not yet been identified. Knowledge and long-term management of this natural heritage is a basic requirement for sustainable development.

In many pasts of the subregion, however, increased demographic pressure, unplanned use of soil and vegetation, continuous migration both into and from the region, and the concentration of land ownership and use rights, have set off a progressive deterioration process. Poorly planned settlements, and efforts to produce short-cycle commercial crops or raise cattle (often driven by financial incentives), have contributed to the accelerated degradation of some areas of the region, especially Ceja de Selva in Peru; Rondonia and Acre in Brazil; northeastern Ecuador, and Ariari, Caquet and Putumayo in Colombia.

Deforestation up to 1985 has been estimated at 79.6 million ha (12.6 percent of the forest area), with an annual increase of 4.1 million ha since 1980. The deforestation process is giving rise to serious environmental imbalances, including changes in the hydrological cycle; disaggregation, leaching and compacting of soils; acceleration of the erosion process; loss of species diversity; changes in water quality and in water-life habitat; and increased emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to extended forest clearing by fire. Unfortunately, no updated information is available for the entire region, owing to the lack of monitoring programmes and technical means in almost all countries [Ed. note: Data on forest resources and trends are currently being updated through the FAO Forest Resources Assessment Project 1990]. The lack of knowledge about forest resources and of the ways to make sustainable and adequate use of humid tropical lands, the delay in defining and implementing the management of conservation areas, and the absence of policies and technology packages encouraging the sustainable management and use of renewable natural resources are a constraint on resource development, environmental stability and even social peace in the region.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that in many areas of the region, forestry-related activities are the most important economic activities, and the associated income is extremely important in view of the limited alternative sustainable opportunities. Therefore, it is essential to ensure the sustainable management, conservation and use of the forests of the Amazon subregion based on increased scientific and socioeconomic understanding.

The forestry challenge

Sustainable forest management is vital for the conservation of the Amazonian forests and for the long-term development of the region based on the wise use of renewable natural resources. However, although significant efforts are being made in Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname and French Guyana, and in spite of information indicating clearly its multiple benefits, sustainable management of the natural forests of the Amazon region has not become a generalized, systematic reality.

The Amazon subregion

Three fundamental questions require concrete responses: Can the forests of the Amazon region be managed on an economically effective and sustainable basis to produce needed wood and non-wood forest products without irreparably degrading the resource and damaging the environment? Can forest industry depend on natural forest management for an adequate and sustainable supply of raw materials? Can traditional forms of development economics be appropriately applied to the Amazon situation?

The first two questions can be answered affirmatively if adequate management and supervisory measures are adopted, if adequate growth and production data are made available, if institutional and infrastructural support is expanded as necessary, and if a sufficient number of pilot areas with representative physical-biological characteristics can be studied intensively. For the third question, it will be necessary to consider both timber and non-timber forest products and related economic and social benefits; the costs of safeguarding the environment; as well as factors affecting short-, medium- and long-term variations in the forest resource.

The programmes that are currently being developed in the region are insufficient in number and intensity to guarantee positive responses to the questions posed above. A programme for sustainable forest management must be assigned top priority on a regional level, based on the principle that the valorization of the forests is the only way to stimulate their conservation and the corresponding social and economic benefits for the populations that depend either directly or indirectly - on these resources for economic survival.

Ecology in the Amazon region: myths and realities

Like many other pieces of the Amazon puzzle, the ecology of the region is the object of much generalization and relatively little scientific understanding. It is true that the vegetative cover of the Amazon subregion produces a moderating effect on the local climatic conditions, and that (like all plant cover) it produces large quantities of oxygen while absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, contrary to popular belief, if left undisturbed the Amazon forest would be essentially in balance, with lime potential to offset the "greenhouse effect" caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Yet continued deforestation by burning does release large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Amazon subregion: area breakdown by country


Total ha



% country area

% total Amazon area









































French Guyana










Source: M. Imbiriba & F. Sepúlveda, 1986. Experiencias en desenvolvimento Amazónico político y estratégico. (4): 2

Until not long ago, there was the generalized belief that the Amazon offered a gigantic opportunity for agricultural development through the transformation of forest areas into pastures and plantations based on techniques that had proved successful in other regions. However, the fertility of the Amazonian soils appears to be more myth than reality. Although it is true that the considerable biological variety includes areas in which the terrain is truly suitable for sustainable agriculture and ranching, these areas are very much the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, the soils of the Amazon are of poor quality and easily degraded. According to research conducted in several parts of the Amazon basin, approximately 94 percent of the area is not suitable for conventional agriculture, owing to low fertility of the soil, high aluminium toxicity levels, or shallow soil depths.

Furthermore, as in many other humid tropical forest environments, the exuberant vegetation is due not to the accumulation of nutrients in the soil but rather to the participatory role of organisms (mycorrhizae) that create a short cycle nutrient transmission mechanism which keeps most of the nutrients in the biomass itself. The tropical forest is renewable in that if left undisturbed or appropriately managed, it can regenerate spontaneously over time; but this balance can be easily disturbed or destroyed by the human actions, e.g. by felling and burning large areas for cultivation or grazing.

Nevertheless, as demonstrated by case-studies of numerous traditional practices, there is an evident potential in the region for agroforestry development, for the sustainable management of fauna and flora and for the integral exploitation of forest resources. In the region as a whole, there exist at least 4000 tree species with potential value in terms of timber production; however, less than 300 of these are actually used. National markets exist for only some 50 species, and only a fraction of these are traded internationally; in several countries a single species, mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), accounts for more than 80 percent of the total export value of industrial timber. The majority of the species examined to date show good prospects for use as timber; the poor utilization results from a lack of marketing, and therefore from difficulties in competing with other, better-known species from tropical and temperate regions.

Beyond timber production, among the most relevant aspects of programmes for natural forest management in the Amazon will be efforts based on the production and multiple use of non-timber forest resources, particularly forest fruits, latexes, gums, oils, medicines, wildlife products and handicrafts.

Moving toward international cooperation for Amazonian conservation and development

The responsibility for ensuring conservation and sustainable management of the Amazon region, of course, falls to the Amazon countries themselves. These countries need to strengthen their national and regional conscience and activities, so as to increase their body of scientific knowledge and to develop individual and joint policies with regard to appropriate utilization and settlement of the Amazon, with due consideration to the conservation of the environment and the maintenance of natural resources and biological diversity for future generations.

To this end, on 3 July 1978 the presidents of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela signed the Amazon Cooperation Treaty (TCA). The overall purpose of the Treaty as stated in Article I is to "promote the harmonious development of their corresponding Amazon territories in such a way that these joint actions produce equitable and mutually beneficial results and achieve also the preservation of the environment, and the conservation and rational utilization of the natural resources of those territories".

Unplanned settlement in the Amazon region

The Treaty lays particular emphasis on the conservation of the environment in the Amazon region, stressing the need to ensure the rational and sustainable use of natural resources to raise the standard of life of its present inhabitants and safeguard the rights of future generations.

To facilitate the realization of the goals of the TCA, a series of structures and mechanisms were also envisioned, including:

· meetings of the foreign affairs ministers of the signatories to establish common policy directions, evaluate progress and take specific decisions as necessary;

· an Amazon Cooperation Council with responsibility for carrying out the decisions taken at the meetings of foreign affairs ministers and for monitoring progress in achieving the goals and objectives of the TCA;

· a rotating secretariat pro tempore, held in turn by each of the participating countries;

· permanent national commissions;

· a series of special commissions with the mandate of "studying specific problems or matters related to the aims of this Treaty".

Although the TCA laid a strong theoretical foundation for collaborative effort, during the first decade following its signing there was relatively little practical cooperation among the signatories. On the other hand, there was significant progress at the country level in terms of revising environmental policies and practices. For example, in Colombia, the Amazon Parks System has been increased in size from 590000 ha to more than 5 million ha, and a new legal institution (Integrated Management Districts) has been introduced in the Amazon region to help incorporate the concept of sustained development. Venezuela's environmental policy for its Amazon territory is marked by the absence of large-scale development mining activity, and emphasis on conservation of regional ecosystems. Recently, Brazil has eliminated financial incentives for land clearing in the Amazon, prohibited the export of roundwood, and developed a number of ecological consciousness-raising campaigns.

This national-level preparation, combined with the international grounds well of popular and political pressure to address deforestation, led the countries of the region to the realization that a reconfirmation of their commitment to making the environmental principles of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty a reality was necessary.

Subsequently, in March 1989, the foreign ministers of the TCA signatories, meeting in Quito, Ecuador, decided "to form a Special Commission on Environment for the Amazon (CEMAA) so that... each member country may... encourage environmental research, so as to discover the present and potential natural risks in the region, prevent the deterioration of Amazon natural resources, particularly deforestation and soil degradation, study common methodologies for assessing environmental impact, prepare programmes and projects, study offers of cooperation in environmental issues, and study the possible compatibility of environmental legislation".

Following on the heels of this commitment to environmental management, in May 1989, meeting in Manaus, Brazil, to discus "common interests in the Amazon region and, in particular, the future of cooperation for the development end protection of he rich heritage of their respective Amazon territories", the presidents of the signatories to the TCA issued an Amazon Declaration. Inter alia, the Amazon Declaration reaffirms the willingness of the countries "to give full political impetus to... efforts... within the framework of the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty", and specifically expresses support for the activation of the Special Commission for the Environment.

With financial support from FAO, the first meeting of the Special Commission on Environment was held in Brasilia from 22 to 24 November 1989 with the fundamental aim of providing a fresh and decisive impetus not only to research, evaluation and analysis of natural resources but also to concrete measures designed to halt the sharp decline in the quality of the environment.

Activities of the Commission are divided into eight priority areas:

· evaluation of renewable natural resources, agro-ecological zoning, and monitoring of impact on the environment and alternatives for land use;

· ecology, biodiversity and population dynamics;

· wildlife;

· hydrobiological resources;

· conservation and utilization of forest resources;

· planning and management of protected areas;

· unification and/or interrelation of methodologies for the evaluation of environmental impact, harmonization of environmental legislation and exchange of information on national programmes for environmental protection in the Amazon;

· environmental research.

Clearly, these programmes must be interrelated if they are to contribute effectively to the solving of-conflicts regarding the use and management of natural resources and to the elimination of the causes of environmental degradation and of the destruction of the productive basis of natural resources.

In its first meeting, in accordance with the decision of the Quito meeting of foreign ministers, the CEMAA examined opportunities for cooperation and technical and financial assistance in matters regarding the environment under the eight priority areas. In addition to reviewing specific project proposals, the Commission noted that the countries of the Amazon region are all in the process of adopting the principles of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan, and characterized it as "the best mechanism to integrate and harmonize policies and programmes to encourage investments and cooperation". The Commission noted the potential of a subregional forestry action plan, specifically designed for the Amazon region.

Finally, in what must be considered the strongest demonstration of political commitment to collaborative action among the Amazon countries, the fourth meeting of the Amazon Cooperation Council, held in Bogota in May 1990, approved a resolution on "political coordination in multilateral forums on the environment". In the resolution, the countries agree to ''coordinate their positions with a view to participating in international forums regarding, inter alia, climatic change, including the protection of the ozone layer; the protection of the planet's biological diversity; and the preparatory process for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, to be held in 1992".

Parallel to the efforts of the Amazon countries themselves, international interest in the region has increased significantly. and the situation is described in increasingly dramatic terms. The forests of the Amazon are not necessarily condemned to disappear or to be reduced to discontinuous patches, in the same way that forests have over time in other parts of the world. But it is clear that the problems of occupation, deforestation and environmental degradation in the subregion are serious and that they require an international partnership effort proportionate to the perception of their global consequences.

What is required is a concerted effort that emphasizes genuine cooperation and recognizes not only the sovereign authority of the Amazon countries over their territories but the unbreakable link between conservation and development. From this starting point, there are a number of forms of possible international and intra- and extra-regional collaboration which could be oriented concurrently toward sustainable development and environmental conservation.

In terms of practical effort, however, the actions of the developed countries with respect to the Amazon challenge have to date been limited in scope and modest in intensity. A number of interesting and much-appreciated programmes including training, research and reforestation have been implemented, but these are far from the level that would make an impact on the socio-economic conditions of the Amazon subregion and of the countries that share this resource.

Despite its apparent lushness, most of the Amazon is unsuitable for sustained agriculture

Concern over conservation and wise use of natural resources has never received so much attention as it receives today, and the signatories of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty have never been so aware of the imperative need to support the conservation of renewable natural resources in their countries and in the region as a whole. Each government has recently taken convincing and concrete action to demonstrate a clear strengthening of its resolve to devote the political, technical and financial support needed to ensure the conservation and sustainable development of the Amazon basin. The celebration in Brazil in 1992 of the Second United Nations World Conference on the Environment will be an appropriate moment for all the nations of the planet to demonstrate a parallel commitment to assisting the Amazon countries in successfully meeting the challenge.

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