Politics of the Amazon

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What’s the problem?

Latin America’s Amazon region is in trouble. Sometimes described as the ‘lungs of the world’ it plays a key role as a powerful cleanser of the global atmosphere, by absorbing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Something like half a billion tonnes of CO2 are sequestered in the rainforest every year. With nearly 400bn trees, the forest releases and re-absorbs water vapour creating a system of rainclouds known as ‘flying rivers’ which recycle moisture and create nearly half the region’s rainfall. The issue is that this complex and critically important eco-system is fragile and vulnerable to the damage caused by humans: deforestation, large scale commercial farming and cattle ranching, illegal mining, and the exploitation and trafficking of rare flora and fauna. As new roads open up previously isolated areas, deforestation is accelerating, causing the Amazon to shrink and begin to dry out, thereby contributing to global warming and water scarcity.

What makes this a big problem is the critical issue of size. The Amazon is home to the world’s largest tropical forest. Measured by water volume, the Amazon is also the world’s largest river. The Amazon basin itself is vast, over three-fifths of the size of the United States, covering about 7m sq kms, of which 5.5m is rainforest. The forest spreads across nine different countries. Most of it (58.4%) is in Brazil, followed by segments in Peru (12.8%), Bolivia (7.7%), Colombia (7.1%%), and Venezuela (6.1%), and then by smaller footprints in Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname.

On its own the Amazon accounts for around half the world’s remaining rainforests. It is considered one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse habitats. Around 40,000 different plant species, 2,200 fish species, 1,294 bird species, 427 mammals, 428 amphibians, and 378 reptiles have been scientifically classified in the rainforest. One in ten of the world’s known animal species can be found in the Amazon region. Rare species from the area include caimans, jaguars, anaconda snakes, electric eels, piranha fish, poison dart frogs, and vampire bats. According to a 2001 study, a sq km of Ecuadorean forest supports more than 1,100 tree species.

Over 30m people live in the Amazon. Over a third of them are living in poverty. The majority are based in urban areas but around 9% of that total are indigenous peoples living in the rainforest with varying degrees of contact with modern urban lifestyles. Human settlements in the Amazon dates back some 11,200 years. There are around 400 different indigenous ethnic groups. Sixty of them are considered to be isolated. There are still thought to be some indigenous tribes that have never had any type of contact with the outside work. The different Amazon region governments have formally recognised a total of 3,344 indigenous territories or reserves. However, these are not always properly protected, and many have suffered invasions by incomers, including landless rural workers, loggers, and illegal miners.

Rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Source: J.S. Albert et al/Science 2023

Brazil is the world’s fifth largest emitter of GHGs, responsible for around 3% of global emissions. Almost half of those come from deforestation. As a result, if the country’s current and immediately future governments can reduce and eventually stop deforestation, they will be making a significant contribution to reducing global warning. There are also significant benefits to be captured by protecting the rainforest in neighbouring countries, particularly in Peru and Colombia. Much will depend on whether all these countries can muster the political will necessary to jointly implement sound environmental policies. Because of that, this report will investigate the politics of protecting the Amazon. It will look at the political parties and coalitions that may form to support - or to roll back - what could be called a green agenda.

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