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The Status of Conservation of the Amazon Basin
by Vasco von Roomsmalen and Mark Plotkin

saki For much of the past 15 years, the Amazon has been the subject of extraordinary attention by both the media and by environmental organizations. Many millions of dollars have been spent to "save" the Amazon. Yet this magnificent ecosystem -- the "greatest expression of life on Earth" according to Dr. Tom Lovejoy, an authority on Amazonia -- is still threatened. Why?

For the most part, the original threats to the forest remain in place: poverty, population growth, greed, short-term planning. Nonetheless, some successes have been achieved. National park systems are found in every tropical South American country, except Guyana. The environment is now discussed at most high-level meetings. And the growth (and projected growth) of ecotourism has been extremely encouraging.

On the other hand, two new threats to the forest are emerging. One is the advent of Asian timber companies who, despite a negative environmental record in their home countries, are showing enormous interest in South America. Two firms already have large concessions in Guyana and Suriname. The other factor is fire. The Amazon basin, once likened to an Inland Sea by Alfred Russell Wallace, is becoming dryer. Huge areas of primary forest, once too wet to ever be at risk of fires, have become susceptible because of selective logging and other human disturbances, less rainfall and more frequent El Nino's (the weather phenomenon popularized by the world press). We were lucky in 1998, when more than a tenth of the Brazilian state of Roraima burned, that the fires did not reach the main part of the Amazon forests. We cannot count on luck to keep events such as the fires that scalded much of Indonesia (and closed airports, roads, and caused enormous public health hazards and other economic damage) from happening in the Amazon basin. The medium- to long-term effects of these fires have yet to be calculated.

But what are we destroying? Do we really know?

marmoset Mammals exemplify how much we already know -- and how much we still have to learn. Scientists recently began working in an area the size of France where no investigator had done any serious research since Alfred Wallace 's studies in the 1880s. Because of its high biodiversity spread over many 'islands' isolated by large river systems, research in this area led Wallace to formulate his ideas of the theory of evolution. Yet we STILL know little about many of the animals that live there! Over eight new species of monkey, a new species of peccary and perhaps even a new species of jaguar have been discovered in the past three ears -- despite the fact that Amazonian mammals are much better known than any other group of organisms!

At the same time, we are discovering how little we know of the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon basin and their relationship with the Amazonian environment. The most sophisticated Amerindian civilizations were those based close to major rivers and were the first to disappear with the advent of the Conquistadors. For this reason, we know little about how these Indians managed their surrounding ecosystems, but there is much evidence that points to the sophisticated manner in which they worked the forests and the land.

Consider the high concentrations of Brazil nut trees found in certain corners of Amazonia. Many experts believe that these were planted by Amerindians who were no strangers to long-term planning (these trees typically take 15 to 20 years to mature and fruit). Such management schemes yielded highly quality fruits, edible oil, medicinal leaves, and fiber for backpacks -- all from a single species!

In many places of the Brazilian Amazon, special black soil ("terra preta") spots alternate with the usual poor, reddish clay or white sand that forms much of the ground on which the rainforest stands. These black soils are unusually fertile and highly valued by locals because these fields maintain their fertility, unlike other areas where farmers have to move every two years. Certain indigenous tribes still know how to create these enriched soils but that knowledge is scarce and not easily accessible. Yet few funds are available for research to gain a greater understanding and application of these ancient techniques of agroforestry. This form of soil management is a microcosm of the extraordinary wealth of ecological and medicinal knowledge of the local flora and fauna.

As this type of knowledge is better understood by the outside world, there is increased interest in documenting and utilizing it for conservation and development purposes. But the race to document and use this information is jeopardized by the disappearance of the knowledge and the traditional way of life.

dancing Sustainable development has received a lot of attention since the Rio '92 conference on the environment. For the rainforests this primarily entails the development of non-timber forest products which can be harvested without damaging the surrounding ecosystem. These efforts most often target indigenous and local communities and market the products in local and regional markets, although some headway has been made in the international markets. In this way, natural areas do not have to be "lost" to the market economies of the nations which contain them but their exploitation can be managed to sustainable levels.

Most of the knowledge needed to find potential products and set-up sustainable harvesting plans is held by local communities which have lived in these regions for generations or millennia, as is the case with indigenous peoples. Cultural reinforcement programs help indigenous communities strengthen their traditional cultures in the face of outside pressures. A key role in many indigenous cultures is played by the local shaman or medicine man. Project such as the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT)'s Shamans and Apprentices' programs help to preserve the traditional knowledge of indigenous cultures concerning medicinal plants but also a host of other knowledge about people's relationship with the forest.

The creation of nature reserves in the past very often involved little more than the drawing of lines on a map. Perhaps guards were assigned to the area and a few signs posted but little else was done. A relatively new approach to conservation promotes focuses on co-management of local lands: a partnership between indigenous peoples and other groups (government, NGO's, etc.). Given that these indigenous peoples often have both an ecological and spiritual tie to these lands, and that their partners can provide access to western know-how (legal issues, GPS, etc.), this type of partnership offers great hope in developing a new conservation paradigm.

The next decade will prove crucial for determining the fate of the Amazon forest. The factors that threaten the forest are still in place. Yet the growing awareness of the importance of the rain forest -both locally and globally- and the development of novel approaches to tropical forest management offer reasons for hope.

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