AMAZON WATERSHED -- THE NEW ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION George Monbiot Publisher: Michael Joseph, London Price: Pounds 17.99
GEORGE Monbiot's book, for which he risked his life, is a delightfully lucid piece of serious investigative journalism on the ecological destruction of the Amazon, which he describes as the world's "greatest environmental tragedy" and its "greatest ecological catastrophe". Monbiot maintains that the Amazon ecosystem, with its large tropical forests, rare plant species and unique biodiversity, is the greatest living system on earth.
The Amazon's crisis involves its forests being destroyed and its tribal population declining rapidly due to poverty, malnutrition, hunger and exploitation. The pattern is universal and reflects the imposition of a totally alien system of development, which has had devastating results. The area's resources have been exploited mercilessly and without any concern for the local people. They benefit those who dominate an economic system constructed by people living far away and not organically related to the Amazon's natural system.
The devastation of Amazon's resources is symbolised by the burning of forests, which account for almost 25 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the world. Water has become scarce and the soil, unproductive.
Anthropologists have shown the Amazon ecosystem once sustained a large population of tribals, who knew how to use its resources and, more importantly, how to conserve them. Tribal women managed the clearings, while the men manipulated the wilderness around them. The Amazonian Indians also enhanced the diversity of the natural systems, planted fruit and palm trees, conserved soil nutrients and helped in many ways to regenerate plants.
Though some Amazon Indians may have overexploited resources, the tragedy of the 1980s originated in the colonial period and was accentuated in the post-colonial era, with the influx of big farmers and modern agriculture. Colonialists arrived in the Amazon by millions, as did commercial and logging interests, with all their international linkages. The slow pace of agrarian reform failed to give the peasants security and to stop migration, despite the rise of the so-called liberation theology, which has done much to increase the peasants' conscientiousness.
The author's intimate account of the destruction processes is replete with encounters and experiences of a kind that are almost universal. He gives graphic descriptions of the influx of settlers, construction of major projects, exploitation of tropical timber and the role of the timber companies who cut down trees indiscriminately. And, he identifies the guilty at the international level, holding the World Bank responsible for the sorry state of affairs because it continues to fund logging in virgin forests; the International Monetary Fund for its lack of concern about the environmental impact of its policies; the United States government, which gives less aid to Latin America, and the northern nations, for seeking to suppress economic systems that are not modelled on their own.
The foreign pressures are more visible in the Amazon than probably anywhere else. But the situation is not without hope. One of the redeeming features is the growing consciousness against mindless destruction and the growth of local movements aimed at securing the rights of local people to their resources and to better environmental management.
Before the Rio Earth Summit, Brazil reported a steady fall in Amazon deforestation rates -- from a high of about 30,000 sq km in 1985 to 11,000 sq km last August. This was related to factors such as suspension of tax incentives for ranching and logging projects, fines levied against violators of forest laws and a sharp decline in the Brazilian economy. But there is hardly any cause for complacency. About 10 per cent of the forests of the Amazon in Brazil have already been felled. And, there still exists the combination of land-hunger among the peasant refugees from Brazil's overpopulated north-east, its poverty bowls and the powerful commercial logging lobby.
It is not accidental that with the Amazon at the centre of worldwide attention, the Earth Summit should have been held at Rio de Janeiro. In a way, the summit has only globalised the Amazon story and articulated related environmental concerns.
K S Singh is the director-general of the Anthropological Survey of India.
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