These contrasting scenarios are presented as an introduction to The Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness: Conservation and development in the context of the Initiative for the Regional Integration of the Infrastructure of South America (IIRS) (T J Killeen, Advances in Applied Biodiversity Science Volume 7). This wide-ranging study provides a provocative analysis of a programme that aims to integrate the national economies of the continent.

IIRSA is different to past attempts at regional integration because it focuses on the physical infrastructure that underpins – and acts as a bottleneck to – regional commerce. The initiative is both eminently practical and strategically visionary. However, its designers do not fully appreciate the forces of change that are at work in the Amazon, where IIRSA’s most controversial investments will create a network of highways, waterways and energy grids. The study’s title is based on the meteorological analogy that describes how combined synergies from multiple phenomena can lead to a larger than expected outcome. In this case, a “perfect storm of environmental destruction” from deforestation, logging, wildfire, and climate change, which is driven by global demand for food, biofuels, minerals, and hydrocarbons.

The Amazon is a globally important repository of the biological heritage of the planet. What’s more, it’s a strategically important carbon reservoir and the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In today’s markets, to offset the carbon emissions from Amazonian deforestation would cost more than $10 bn annually. Perhaps more importantly, the forest ecosystem plays a crucial role in regulating the precipitation regime of the planet, including a wind system that exports water from the Amazon to Southern Brazil and Argentina. Recent studies have shown that a small reduction in the seasonal rains driven by this system would negatively impact the regional economy by tens of billion of dollars annually. IIRSA investments in highways that traverse forest landscapes of the Amazon will accelerate deforestation, increase the threat to biodiversity, exacerbate global warming, and impact the convective systems that maintain the hydrological cycles of the South American continent.

People matters
In human terms, the Amazon is also a very diverse place. Its communities include indigenous people and inhabitants from previous migratory waves for gold and rubber booms, as well as middle class professionals and entrepreneurs. Migration in to the Amazon continues unabated, driven by a massive land-rush that has spanned decades and shows no sign of abating. Rural to urban migration is becoming increasingly important as families seek alternatives to rural poverty; for most communities, education and health services are either non-existent or abysmally poor. IIRSA will have positive and negative impacts on the region’s communities, including much needed economic growth and increased migration, but these will not necessarily benefit the rural poor. Surprisingly, indigenous peoples may fare well, because they have gained title or use-rights to large expanses of the Amazon – assuming they aren’t lured by short-term opportunities and sell their timber at bargain basement prices.

Most environmental evaluations and mitigation programmes that accompany IIRSA investments are too narrow in scope and are executed after the fact – deficiencies long recognized and seldom remedied. However, the study also objectively examines the effectiveness of the solutions promoted by environmental and development organizations, particularly sustainable forest management, community-based development and the reliance on statutory regulations to control deforestation. This reveals a failure of most mitigation and development initiatives and their inability to halt – or even slow – deforestation, with the notable exception of protected areas and other types of conservation units, including indigenous reserves.

Perhaps the most cogent discussion in The Perfect Storm in the Amazon is the recognition that deforestation is caused by individuals responding to economic opportunity. The desire of the individual to make money is often made to look like avarice, but the people involved have a completely different perception of their actions. They feel that they are building a nation and know they are supporting their families; even agro-industrial magnates are convinced they do well by providing jobs to rural and urban populations. To save the Amazon, society must provide economically attractive alternatives to individuals rather than invoking ecological disaster or moral reprobation. Working with communities is essential, but ignoring the motivations that govern the actions of the individual will lead – indeed, has led – to failure.

So how to create a new development paradigm for the Amazon, one that embraces both the utilitarian and utopian scenarios described earlier? The focus must be on economic growth, job creation and forest conservation. Some of these ideas have been around for decades but are now proposed in the context of an integrated regional transportation system and access to global markets. The more notable examples include long-rotational forest management, fish farming and tourism, as well as the potential for replicating the experience of Manaus to create urban economies based on technology and services. The capital of Brazil’s Amazonas State, Manaus is home to a number of mobile phone manufacturing plants. The potential for biofuels is a double-edged sword. Biofuels can transform the productive capacity of approximately 65 m hectares of previously deforested land, or lead to a massive new deforestation cycle if the current development paradigm is replicated along the transportation corridors planned by IIRSA.

Implementing a new development model will depend on creating the economic conditions necessary to support production systems that actually conserve – rather than consume – forests. The recommendations in The Perfect Storm in the Amazon go beyond the traditional call to end perverse subsidies, instead recognizing the power of subsidies if employed in the opposite direction – to promote forest conservation. The potential for generating the necessary financial resources to fund the new subsidies is most immediately evident in the incipient market for carbon credits. That said, there are other opportunities for generating financial resources by taxing activities considered to be harmful to conservation and which are inherently unsustainable; specifically, the exploitation of the Amazon’s vast mineral and hydrocarbon resources.

While IIRSA is not the only threat to the Amazon, it is a stereotypical example of the types of human activities that will eventually lead to its degradation. But IIRSA could be an opportunity to change this development trajectory, because it involves all of the governments and the multilateral agencies that finance infrastructure investments. It should be possible to reform IIRSA to incorporate a new development paradigm for the Amazon, one that integrates the nations of the continent, improves the livelihood of the region’s inhabitants, and conserves the ecosystems that are – in the final analysis – the foundation of the region’s economies.