Deforestation in the Amazon – a tax against the ax

Author: Welter Benicio

The pace of the deforestation in the Amazon is haunting the Brazilian government officials again. After a period of continuous decrease, when most expected it to become residual, the “chainsaw massacre” is back. Due to the results, claims for radical changes in the programs and legislation in place are expected. However, a careful look into the situation indicates that a lot can still be done under the existing legislation, if monitoring and control of the economic activities in the forest are properly done.

Satellite monitoring shows that the Amazon already lost 20% of its coverage, an area larger than France, and another 20% is degraded. The annual deforestation that reached a peak of 2.8 million hectares in 2004 and was reduced to a lowest in 2012 has grown since then, making the target of “zero deforestation” wishful thinking. Despite the recent disappointments, some activists believe that the reduction of water precipitation in the country can be used to compel the Brazilian government to aim and achieve better results. “Now that crop rich regions and water reservoirs are been affected and scientists relate the prolonged dry seasons to the destruction of the forest, impetus can grow” – they think. The connection between the elimination of trees in the Amazon with the reduction of the precipitation in the country derives from the biotic pumping model that describes the forest transpiration and its effects. According to the report “The Climatic Future of the Amazon” by Articulación Regional Amazônia, this transpiration sprays 20 billion tons of water per day in the atmosphere, cleaning the air and sucking humidity from the Atlantic Ocean. Part of this humidity falls over the forest, perpetuating it, whereas the balance forms the sky-rivers, a massive aerial flow of water that irrigates South America.

The biotic pumping model expands the scale of the climatic services originally attributed to the forest and connects the future of biomes, populations and economies of South American countries with the fate of the forest. Its desertification or savannization, very likely if destruction continues at any pace, will provoke continent wide drastic losses. Recovery, although possible, will not happen without improvements, particularly in the enforcement of existing laws that already contain the elements to proper regulate the agribusiness locally; cattle grazing and the production of grains, for example, can occur as long as 80% of the original forest is preserved in the property under use. However, any law alone cannot guarantee the protection the forest needs without capable people, intelligence and an adequate apparatus to properly monitor and police a vast area, and without an expeditious state able to detect problems and act promptly.

The monitoring has been intensified by engaging the local habitants in the task; many good projects funded by the government run Fundo Amazônia that look to promote the sustainable exploration of the forest transform the benefitted population into motivated watchers. However, the expansion of surveillance cannot rely solely on the creation of an army of volunteers; the scale of the task requires the intensification of satellite and aerial monitoring and a state able to act promptly once illegal activities are detected. The ability to detect and act expeditiously is a prerequisite for controlling and reverting the pace of the destruction that the existing infrastructure lacks; creating it requires strong political will and money, two scarce ingredients in Brazil at the moment.

The climatic changes combined with the pressure from individuals, groups and nations can help inflate the political will. Assuming that other countries want to contribute with funds to rescue and protect the Amazon, financing the augmented monitoring and control infrastructure should not be a problem. However, Brazil can exhaust its domestic alternatives before circulating the hat for money. The adequate infrastructure can be financed by a tax, for example, levied on farm and mineral goods and energy produced in the forest. New taxes are never the politicians’ preferred options, but in this case, a tax can internalize the gigantic hidden costs unveiled by the biotic pumping model, originated in the replacement of the forest and its climatic services by the benefits of beef, grains, biofuels, power dams and minerals.

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