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July 03, 2003

A Modest Proposal for the Brazilian Rainforest


A long time ago you raised the issue of how us right-wingers fail to deal with the environment in a posting entitled Crunchy Cons (which can be read here). I admit to being uneasy about the tendency of the left to use the environment as a club to bash free markets and capitalism, as well as a megaphone to cheer on the growth of centralized command-and-control-government. (I think they just like coercion, deep down in their bones.) However, I must grant that keeping our natural environment from getting trashed is a genuinely important goal. Your post, therefore, raised a legitimate question: if I don’t like how the the left wants to go about it, what approach would I argue for?

Well, I’m not smart or knowledgeable enough (okay, just not smart enough) to advance a complete theoretical agenda on this topic. I thought I might try to find my way to one by writing some posts on this subject. (Apologies to those who regard 2blowhards’ writ as extending only to the cultural realm.)

So when I noticed a story in the New York Times of June 27 entitled “Rain Forest Is Losing Ground Faster in Amazon, Photos Show” (which you can read here). I checked it out. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I quickly found a similar story on the Environmental News Service (which you can read here.) . The main thrust of both is as follows (quoting from the NY Times article):

Newly released satellite images show that the Amazon rain forest is disappearing at an increasing rate, with about 10,000 square miles lost mainly to pasture land, soybean plantations and illegal logging in the 12-month period that ended last August…. It was the fastest acceleration in the loss in the Amazon forest, the world's largest continuous area of rain forest, since the same 12-month period in 1994 and 1995, environmentalists said.

Well this sure sounded alarming, but I felt the need of some context. To get some, I checked out the size of Amazon rain forest, which wasn’t listed in either account. Spreading across parts of Brazil, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia, it takes up some 2.7 million square miles. Thus, from mid-2001 to mid-2002, when 9845 square miles vanished, 0.36 % of the rainforest ate it. At that rate in 50 years only 18% of the Amazon would be deforested. This doesn’t mean we’re not dealing with a serious problem (unchecked, that rate might well rise), but it does cause me to wonder—yet again—how much trust we should repose in “news reports” of environmental problems. Why? Well because I’m fairly sure that everyone who wrote on this story did the same calculation you see above and omitted the results because they didn’t seem, er, dramatic enough. Instead, the news reports relied on “experts.” I quote from the Times:

The environmental group Greenpeace has warned that the rain forest could be wiped out in 80 years if deforestation rates are not slowed. Scientists say about a fifth of the Amazon [rainforest] has already vanished, helping to accelerate global warming. [Emphasis added]

From the ENS article:

An area larger than France has already been deforested in the Brazilian Amazon, and about one-third of those cleared lands are believed to have been abandoned and underutilized. [emphasis added]

Apparently Greenpeace is better than I at such figuring; my calculations show, at this rate of deforestation, that it would take 274 years for the rainforest to be wiped out.

That claim that a fifth of the rain forest has already been deforested is also interesting; it would imply that 675,000 square miles had vanished. It is especially interesting to note in connection with the statement in the ENS story that an area larger than all of France had been deforested, since France’s surface area is only 547,030 sq km or 211,208 square miles (if I’m converting square kilometers to miles properly.) I mean, shouldn’t the ENS story have read “an area over three times larger than all of France has already been deforested in the Brazilian Amazon,” if our figures are all solid here? Or, if the comparison with France is accurate, that “about a fourteenth of the Amazon rainforest has already vanished?”

Okay, I promise not to beat the dead horse of news media sloppiness any more. What actually intrigued me, however, was the (non-) reaction of the Brazilian government. According to the Times:

Brazil's new, left-leaning government, which has publicly embraced environmental issues, pledged to act immediately. The environment minister, Marina Silva, called the new data "highly worrying" and promised "emergency action," although no specific proposals were offered.

Despite years of lobbying, the World Wildlife Fund says that of the six [Brazilian] states with rain forest on their territory, only one, Acre, which contains less than 10 percent of the Amazon area, has put laws into effect to promote sustainable development through controlled logging and modern farming technology. [Emphasis added]

And from the ENS article:

[Environmental Minister] Silva announced plans to bring together all the ministries concerned to identify causes and to implement measures to solve the deforestation problem….The Brazilian government has said it plans to invest over $40 billion in new highways, railroads, hydroelectric reservoirs, power lines, and gas lines in the Amazon over the next few years. About 5,000 miles of highways will be paved. The government claims that these projects will have only limited effects on the Amazon.

I don’t know about you, but that pledge to bring all the ministries together to identify the causes of the problem (which seem quite clear) combined with the road-building program sounds like a classic foot-dragging response to me. Do you get the idea that the Brazilian government may have another agenda here?

And what is the response of the international conservation community? Well, the World Wildlife Federation’s suggestion is the Brazilian government should create yet more protected areas (that is, areas off limits to economic exploitation):

Urgent creation and implementation of protected areas, to prevent the expansion of the deforestation front is needed, said WWF. The Amazon Protected Areas Programme, carried out by the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment in partnership with WWF, could serve as a model. Implementation of this program will ensure that at least 12 percent of the Brazilian Amazon is set aside as nature parks and reserves.

And they advocate this kind of command-and-control model—i.e., bribe the Brazilian government to “just say no” to economic development of the Amazon rainforest—despite the following analysis on their own website (which you can read here if you then click through "Biomes", "Amazon", and "Threats to the Region")

A report from the Strategic Affairs Department of the Brazilian Presidential Office shows that 80% of all timber in the Amazon [is being] extracted in some kind of illegal logging activity. There are 22 known foreign mills operating in the region, and very little enforcement by government agencies. The data reflect the lack of governmental control over the region. Furthermore, it is estimated that 60% to 70% of the timber cut in the region end up being wasted due to inefficient harvesting and processing. To make matters even worse, the government continues to implement extremely large infrastructure projects in the Amazon, resulting in environmental degradation, with few benefits to locals. Although the Brazilian environmental legislation is considered to be among the most advanced in the world, laws alone have not been able to stop forest devastation. The most serious obstacles against effective action by authorities are the lack of enforcement personnel, natural difficulties in monitoring huge and frequently inaccessible areas, poor management in protected areas and insufficient involvement of the local population… [T]he Brazilian government has been treating [its plans for economic exploitation of the] Amazon [rainforest] separately [from its environmental “commitments”]…This can be easily observed in the case of the Governmental plan for the 2000-2003 period, which ignores the definition of priority areas to be conserved, established in a study coordinated by the Ministry of Environment.

And the World Wildife Federation isn’t alone in advocating these kinds of programs. A quick Google search turned up a series of stories like this one about the World Bank giving the government of Brazil between $84 and $156 million in return for a Brazilian pledge to create a national park in the Amazon the size of Britain in 1998. (You can read it at http://www. . And yet, despite the foreign money and Brazil’s "excellent environmental laws," the deforestation problem is getting worse. Why?

Looking back in history, it turns out that the Brazilian government has been financially encouraging settlement of the Amazon rainforest since the 1940s. The motive, in large part, has been geopolitical—to wit, that hardly any “real” Brazilians live in the Amazon rainforest, and Brazil doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to park army units along the borders. Successive Brazilian governments have been uneasily aware that they have been getting away with the claim to “own” a huge chunk of the Amazon rainforest without having hardly any of their citizens actually living there, or without having any real means to control the territory. I believe they (accurately) view this as a political problem waiting to happen. I suspect their secret nightmare is waking up one morning to find out that a Bolivian company has found an incredibly valuable mineral deposit a hundred miles inside the Brazilian border, and the Bolivan army has made an armed incursion to extract it. And that Bolivian army marched across the border five years ago, and it was only detected yesterday!

Hence, why should the Brazilian government stop making large infrastructure projects in the rainforest or use scarce government revenues to monitor logging activity? Granted, the logging is probably illegal (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), but it’s some kind of Brazilian activity in this huge territory. And if the outside world wants to “bribe” Brazil to declare parts of the Amazon rainforest off limits to deforestation, well, that’s okay by the politicians—as long as the foreigners are stupid enough to think Brazil will actually abide by these covenants.

Obviously, the Brazilian government is not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem. So I looked into what Brazilian citizens are getting from deforestation activities.

The answer seems to be something, if not a whole lot. Apparently, an acre of cleared (burned off) rainforest used as agricultural land or for cattle farming is worth around $60 on “the market.” An acre which can be logged—and not all, by any means, are covered with teak or other valuable tropical woods—yields about $400. (Checking the accuracy of these numbers, I spotted several websites claiming that if you donate roughly $40, you can save an acre from deforestation, so they seem roughly correct.)

That would mean that if the outside world had been serious about preventing the destruction of 9,845 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, between 2001 and 2002, it could have purchased the land instead for a cost of between $457 million dollars and $3.05 billion dollars. While this isn’t chump change, it’s not exactly an enormous sum if the outside world is really concerned about biodiversity and global warming. I mean, why should the Brazilians forego activities that may have earned them as much as $3.05 billion? Because the World Wildlife Federation thinks it is wicked of them to cut or burn down trees? To get the developed world's pat on the head? There’s plenty more rainforest where that came from.

In short, it’s time for the world to put its money where its mouth is. By these same numbers, the “rich” world could purchase the whole Amazon rainforest outright for a sum between $125 and $836 billion. That, of course, wouldn’t fly as an intolerable interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country—imagine foreigners buying Wyoming and putting up a big fence around it with “keep out” signs posted. No, a better arrangement would be for Brazilian citizens to carve up the Amazon into private property, and then lease it out at 10% of the purchase cost per year –between $6 and $40 an acre per year—retaining as the owner the responsibility for keeping it “pristine.” (You thus convert all those landlords into forest rangers. A Brazilian of the Amazonian region, with a yearly income of maybe $3,000 could "maintain" 100 acres of jungle in his spare time, thus earning between $600 and $4000 a year in rent.) Are the environmental benefits of the Amazon rainforest worth $13 to $84 billion a year to the whole world?

Of course, this arrangement wouldn’t stop the owners from sustainably harvesting medicinal plants, fruits, nuts, oils and other resources like rubber, chocolate and chicle. Some (perhaps overly optimistic) organizations estimate that such practices could make Amazonian rainforest worth as much as $2400 per acre. If this were demonstrated to be true on a large scale, then the land wouldn’t be rentable for the numbers suggested above, but it wouldn’t have to be, as the Brazilians would be busy conserving every acre they could themselves.

So this is my proposal. Pay rent, and enlist the Brazilians on your side. Give bribes to the Brazilian government, and watch it laugh in your face as the rainforest burns or is chopped down. Rather than using World Bank grants and moral suasion as carrots and sticks with the Brazilian government, we should be leaning on it to establish something very different than national parks—property rights.



posted by Friedrich at July 3, 2003


Taking these numbers at face value, we can infer that Brazil is not really the problem. Brazil is "only" losing 50,000 sq. km a year to deforestation. However it is hard to take these at face value since Brail is either losing 5.2 million acres per year OR 50,000 sq. km -- over 12million acres. In any case, most of the rainforest seems to be lost in South Asia, although I still cannot reconcile the difference between the stated number of 78million acres worldwide, 5million for Brazil, and the huge difference -- where does that occur? All other countries listed add up to 52, -- or another 12 million acres. Are there some 50+million acres -- twice the amount listed in this table lost or fudged? We do not even have to go into the random values assigned to land. It was also never clear how the estimates for species extintion are calculated.
Regardless, any kind of wanton destruction of some irreplaceable natural resource is a shame, but it would be nice if those who plan to preserve it could agree on the numbers.

Posted by: Con Tendem on July 3, 2003 7:32 PM

I agree. With satellite photography, you wouldn't think there would be much room for error.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 3, 2003 7:46 PM

Because I'm wicked, it's always worth a chuckle when soybeans are once again the cause of an environmental problem.

First they kill all the fish in the mighty Mississip' and now they're destorying the rain forest.

Fried, yours is a very libertarian-type solution. I wouldn't mind adopting an acre... and then charging rent.

Posted by: j.c. on July 3, 2003 8:08 PM

I loved your comment about the Bolivian army having entered the rain forest five years earlier! Kinda makes the point.

Posted by: annette on July 5, 2003 7:56 PM

If you want to check out the consistent misuse of "the numbers" by virtually all of the environmental groups. I recommend "The Skeptical Environmentalist" by Bjorn Lomborg.

Posted by: 3rd Wave Dave on July 8, 2003 5:31 PM

Your right, I think we should be given as people the right facts, even the area size of the Amazon is different in every book that I have read or website.

Posted by: Carlo on August 12, 2003 4:08 AM

i also agree with the claims

Posted by: chima nwagu on December 4, 2003 10:51 AM

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