(Cavalier Daily) (U-WIRE) CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- "Heartless capitalists (i.e. lumber companies) are destroying the rainforests at a rate of 2 football fields an hour." We've all been told some variation of this statistic since elementary school. We've all learned how horrible it is to cut down trees and upset delicate ecosystems. However, the issue of deforestation is much more complex, and the subject merits further scrutiny. It turns out that with careful planning, the benefits from deforestation (of which there are many) can be harnessed while simultaneously protecting the environment. It requires ingenuity, creativity and a willingness to step beyond the environmentalist mantra of "save the rainforest," which is easier said than done.
I admit, I was a bit skeptical when I came across the following lecture topic: "Road Building and Environmental Preservation in Amazonia: Turning an Environmental Liability into an Environmental Asset." Washington and Lee Prof. James Kahn explained this seemingly impossible condition in a seminar series for the department of environmental sciences last Tuesday.
Kahn spent time in the Brazillian state of Amazonia examining and studying the increase in road building and deforestation since the 1970s and its effects on both the ecosystem and the local population. He came away with a set of policy initiatives designed to achieve an optimal balance between preserving the rainforest and providing a better quality of life for people living in Amazonia.
His suggestions, while received and seriously considered by the Brazilian government, run counter to what many scientists in the United States advocate. Kahn pointed out that many American scientists are completely against road building in Amazonia -- considering it akin to what he characterized as the "coming of the apocalypse." However, they don't suggest a constructive and plausible solution to handling the inevitability of road construction, something the Brazilian government most likely won't attempt to curb. Instead, these scientists should focus on formulating a viable, multi-pronged proposal with the aim of capturing the gains from road building while minimizing the negative externalities.
Kahn acknowledged that there is an undeniable correlation between road construction and deforestation. Over the past three decades, there has been an increase in the amount of roads in the area and an increase in the acreage of cleared forest. However, this doesn't necessarily lead to the conclusion that roads have caused deforestation. Other causal factors, such as micro and macroeconomic drivers and waves of migration have, led to increased development and deforestation. One study cited by Kahn released in 2004 at an American Geophysical Union meeting revealed that the impact of roads on deforestation is "positive, small and declining."
Contrary to popular belief, the rainforests aren't being demolished at lightning speeds. According to Kahn, the rainforest in Amazonia, an area roughly equal to 20 percent of the lower 48 states in the United States, is 96 percent intact with its original forest cover. Even XXXXX XXXXX, a top eco-scientist and a founding member of Greenpeace, declared in 2000 in an interview with the New York Post after returning from a trip to the Amazon, "All these save-the-forests arguments are based on bad science... This stuff about them vanishing at an alarming rate is a con."
The advantages of road construction in the rainforest are numerous. Kahn noted that roads reduce transportation and extraction costs of agricultural and forestry products and "sustainably produced products," increase "availability of public services," such as education, health care and law enforcement, and increase "community quality of life." Also, roads could encourage eco-tourism in the region, which could occur, and already does, to an extent, with little damage to the environment. With proper planning, the revenues could flow back to the community. When asked in an interview what the people of Amazonia favor, Kahn stated that he hadn't conducted any sort of scientific poll, but did gather from his time in the region that the people in remote communities wanted roads in order to gain access to services.
Aside from road construction, agriculture -- while a relatively small sector in the overall economy -- is still capable of damaging the environment, both from large industrial farms and small family owned farms. Kahn calls for initiatives such as education of farmers in sustainable agriculture and agroforestry techniques, economic incentives (e.g. leasing systems, performance bonds, tax breaks) to promote sustainable forestry practices, toll collection on roads, and the formation of an independent environmental agency to enforce strong regulations.
This type of policy analysis -- one that takes into account an inescapable reality, road construction in the rainforest, and integrates it thoughtfully into a comprehensive environmental program -- is what will lead to workable practices that will maximize benefits and minimize devastation. The alternative -- thumbing one's nose at a supposedly horrid phenomenon, absent any sense of pragmatism -- ends in supercilious scolding with no measure of progress in combating a potentially disastrous dilemma.
Blake, W. "COLUMN: A new enviornmentalism." University Wire. 2006, February 23