Curtain Raiser

The Amazon’s Biggest Foe, Colltalers

The Amazon Waters Conference in Lima, Peru, and the World Economic Forum, in Medellin, Colombia, which happened over the weekend, may have offered a limited view of the outlook for environmental policies in the continent, in the next few years.
One reaffirmed the commitment of over a dozen global entities along a few governments to preserve the Amazon basin, home of one out of every ten species in the world. The other was about finding economic opportunities for corporations with interests in the region.
The two views, not necessarily exclusionary of each other, exist in the context of profound political and economic changes taking place in Latin America right now. Given recent developments, it’s fair to expect that environmental efforts will be conditioned to their ability to generate returns to investors, despite studies showing the important link between the Amazon basin and global climate changes.
This flippant attitude toward conservation of natural resources, although not new, is fatal for such a large and yet fragile ecosystem as the Amazon. Human occupation when guided solely by commercial interests and profit is the very reason the rainforest is now shrinking at a variable but still unsustainable high rate. It’s the biggest enemy conspiring to the survival of million of species.
Things may get worse with the sharp right turn happening in many countries below the equator. After a dozen years, out are the left-leaning governments that prioritized social programs, and back in is a new crop of technocrats, eager to appease multinationals and wealth investors’ needs. It’s a new morning in South America and by heavens and the I.M.F., it looks very much like 20 years ago.
To be sure, not all of the political parties that ruled the first decade or so of this century in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, and others, including Central America, were left-wing. Neither they severed ties with the international capital during their brief moment in the sun. Also, many of them had poor or not very well-thought environmental policies to speak of during that time.
But as the new leaders establish their priorities, with like-minded others to potentially follow, there are concerns that their business background will determine the weight that preservation and care of the nine-country Amazon forest will receive.
The final document of the Lima conference sets a list of seven goals, from expanding ecosystem management to promoting more research, and some of the biggest threats to the basin, such as pollution, exploitation of natural resources and invasive species.
By numbers, the whole system is staggering large, some three million square miles, and richly diverse, with indigenous peoples, plants and species, some yet to be discovered. It’s also central to the statute of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the conference’s host.
Threats are many, and interests, powerful. Gold mining, deforestation, giant dams, basic human occupation, all cause the forest to lose the equivalent to two soccer fields a minute, according to Reuters data. The analogy is fitting, easy to relate to, and also, incredibly sad.
Another lethal threat, not mentioned on the Lima document, is directed at those fighting to preserve it: the threat of being murdered. Only in 2014, 29 environmentalists were killed in Brazil, and 25 in Colombia, to cite two. Most of those crimes remain unpunished.
The World Economic Forum, on the other hand,

attracted over 500 participants to discuss Reigniting Latin America’s Inclusive Growth. It’s an interesting choice of words for a title of a conference presided, from Geneva via video link, by its founder, Klaus Schwab.
He exhorted the array of corporate chiefs (no civil or independent parties) present to prepare for the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ which will offer ‘consequence and opportunities for the region, particularly in terms of required skills.’ And praised the example of Medellin’s recovery, since Colombia started discussions (in Havana, Cuba) about a permanent state of peace with the guerrilla Farcs.
We all know the enormous growth potential that Latin America has always had. The problem is that such a promise of a completely industrialized continent, made since, well, at least the first Industrial Revolution, has been broken one too many times. And one of the reasons for that may be exactly this business-first approach that seems to be back in vogue, defended by the region’s new leaders.
It’s a model that requires increased debt, heavy capital inflows and little regulation, projects based on corporate and not local community needs, and above all, reliance on a strongman political regime, of the kind the continent was known for most of the 20th century.
No wonder the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are also back in most conversations about ‘rescuing’ Latin America for business. Even the concept that the region is in need to corporate rescue may be arguable. For little can be accomplished by propping up subsidies and agricultural firms, or open yet more local units, their usual M.O., while global commodity prices remain under pressure.
What’s needed is another kind of model, one that considers wider access and structural changes in education, development of new technologies, and focus on a more diversified trade balance. And that, to a certain extent, was already part of the region’s ‘great left experiment’ that never was. Ironically, under left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), Brazil, for one, was at its most ‘business friendly’ mode.
Again, the ideal may be some kind of combination of the two. But for the nine nations sharing this extraordinary set of natural resources
that is the Amazon basin, the answer may be well beyond a signed document with a summit of wealth corporations to back it up.
Ultimately, a coordinate effort to nurture and protect the Amazon requires the participation of all nations, not just those nine. After all, we don’t even understand yet why it’s there, what it contains, and what exactly does to keep global climate trends under check.
But in case we were to neglect it to extinction, not even all the efforts of every single individual, country and corporation, if that would be even possible, would be enough to bring it back. Most likely, we’d be extinct well before even trying. Enjoy the sun but use protection. WC

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