How Climate Change in South America Affects the Entire Planet: An Interview With Nikolas Kozloff

Wednesday, 14 July 2010 09:02 By Joshua Frank, t r u t h o u t | Interview | name.

How Climate Change in South America Affects the Entire Planet: An Interview With Nikolas Kozloff
A NASA satellite image of the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo: NASA)

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of "Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the US and Revolution," a Financial Times Best Book in 2008. An expert on South America, Kozloff is a former fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC. He recently spoke to Joshua Frank about his new book,"No Rain in the Amazon." His writings can be found on the web.

Joshua Frank: Your book "No Rain in the Amazon" draws dire attention to climate change's impact on South America's and the world's largest and most ecologically important rainforest. Would you talk a bit about global warming's immediate impact on the species that reside there, the indigenous peoples that inhabit these great forests and the fresh water that makes all this life possible?

Nikolas Kozloff: First off, I think it's important to note the actual scale of what we're dealing with here, which is truly off the charts. The Amazon is the world's largest rainforest - it's as large as the 48 contiguous United States and represents about 40% of the South American land mass touching on eight countries. The Amazon River is the world's second longest after the Nile, the first in terms of overall discharge, and carries sediment all the way from the Andes in the west down to the Atlantic in the east. Global warming is a threat to local wildlife as well as the Amazonian population. But, when we talk about the rainforest we have to be careful to avoid the usual clichés: While the Amazon is home to many indigenous tribes, the area also has large cities such as Manaus and has a total population of about 25 million.

Researchers have grown concerned that the El Nino effect, a meteorological phenomenon associated with the Pacific Ocean, may be increasing in frequency and intensity. In the Amazon, El Nino results in drought and affects everyone - not just Indians. What is even scarier is that warming sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic - the same waters that unleashed Hurricane Katrina - are now thought to be contributing to Amazonian drought as well. In 2005, an Atlantic-linked drought actually led to water shortages in the Peruvian city of Iquitos as the water level of the nearby Nanay River had gone down. The drought meanwhile resulted in wildfires, smoke pollution and dried up streams. Residents were greeted to a surreal sight as thousands of rotting fish lay exposed along dry banks, which were promptly consumed by ravenous vultures.

The drought affected all kinds of local wildlife, but to my mind one animal stands out: the manatee. One of the most outlandish creatures on the planet, the shy and retiring manatee, which gets its name from an American Indian word meaning "Lady of the Water," was first described as a cross between a seal and hippo. The manatee, which incidentally has also been placed at great risk as a result of the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has a wonderfully round body the shape of a sweet potato, mostly black skin the texture of vinyl, a bright pink belly, a diamond-shaped tail and a cleft lip. In 2005 observers were saddened by the sight of dying manatees lying in local rivers. According to the Brazilian environmental agency, more than one hundred of the rare aquatic mammals may have died as a result of the drought. It's impossible to say how many manatees are left, perhaps fewer than 10,000 in the Amazon region.

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JF: It seems that a lot of people living here in the United States do not realize that our country's contribution to climate change is having very real impacts on those living down in the Amazon. You write about a number of these effects in your book, but what are some that stand out in your mind as the most startling?

NK: The US has been affecting the Amazon for some time through its own carbon emissions. As I stated before, researchers are very concerned that El Nino may be increasing in both frequency and intensity as a result of global warming. That in turn could give rise to more consecutive droughts in the Amazon and a carbon death spiral to the bottom. What Americans don't realize is that the Amazon acts as a great climate insurance policy. In the best of times, the forest absorbs tons of carbon in living and decaying vegetation. But in the event of drought and forest fires, this carbon gets released into the atmosphere and exacerbates global warming.

The US also plays a direct role when it comes to environmental boondoggles in the Amazon which in turn affect climate change. For years, large financial institutions have been playing an environmentally unfriendly role in the rainforest. The US exercises significant leverage over these institutions. For instance, the US is the main shareholder of the Inter American Development Bank or IADB, with 30 percent of voting power. When it comes to electing the president of the IADB, member countries with the most capital, like the United States, have a lot more power than poor countries. Activists say that the IADB does not promote open dialogue about its projects. That's a problem, since it looks as if the IADB will be funding destructive hydropower projects in the Amazon. Hydropower is destructive not only because it displaces indigenous peoples and floods wide areas of rainforest, but also because it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as a result of rotting vegetation lying in reservoirs. To his credit, "Avatar" director James Cameron has been speaking out about these projects and drawing the attention of the mainstream media. It's a start, but in general this issue has fallen completely under the radar screen.

The US must also do more to halt other destructive industries such as cattle. In Brazil, the cattle industry pushes poor farmers into the rainforest where they cut down trees and increase carbon emissions. In addition, cattle burps and farts - I'm sorry to sound so crude but there is no other way to state it - give rise to methane emissions. The US needs to exercise more pressure over the International Financial Institution (IFC), which forms part of the World Bank. In recent years, the IFC has funneled millions of dollars to the Brazilian cattle industry. Though the IFC pledged to halt its funding of one giant Brazilian cattle giant, it needs to promise that it won't fund such ventures in future. If we are ever to get serious about combating climate change in the tropics, we're going to have to reform institutions like the World Bank and IADB so they support the environment and veer away from damaging boondoggles.

Such a strategy on its own, however, won't be sufficient - we also need to be paying attention to the role of private corporations. There are plenty of US companies linked up with the Brazilian cattle industry - take for example Kraft, Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson. These companies purchase leather, beef and other products from Brazil. What's more, Burger King is supplied by a large Brazilian cattle company linked to deforestation. So, one concrete step that Americans can take to address climate change is to reduce their consumption of meat.

JF: One of the truly fascinating chapters in your book is on soy production in Brazil. A lot of people don't associate soy beans with global warming, but you write that there is a very real, direct connection between the two. Tell us about the debate that is heating up in Brazil over this problem as well as why this is such a grave issue in the first place.

NK: Think about soy and the first thing that may come to mind is tofu, a common staple in many Asian cuisines. Yet soy can also be used to enable the Global North’s voracious demand for meat and that is where the world gets into even greater climate troubles. On Brazil’s agricultural frontier it is ranching and soy that are driving deforestation— they go hand in hand. In the wake of the mad cow disease scare, rich countries increasingly demanded meat from cows that thrive on a soy meal diet as opposed to animal-based feed, thus benefiting Brazilian farmers. To date, the Chinese and Europeans have become voracious consumers of Brazilian soy, catapulting the South American nation to agribusiness giant status. For many Chinese, consuming meat and dairy products symbolizes wealth, status, modernity, and escape from rough rural life.

Though the soy planters cut down some forests, their influence is often more indirect. Once ranchers have cleared land in the Amazon the soy planters buy up property and move in. But as they take up cleared land, savannah, and transitional forests, the soy magnates push others such as slash-and-burn farmers even further into the forest. Soy then acts as a significant push factor and catalyst of climate change. And yet, putting a brake on the soy lobby has proven to be very challenging due to the latter’s vast political and economic muscle.

Take for example Blairo Maggi, the head of the world’s largest soy producer and is known as “O rei da soja”—the soya king. After serving as a senator for Mato Grosso, he successfully ran for governor in 2002. As governor, his key goal was to triple agricultural production in the state within ten years and to develop agro-industry. In a mad rush to plant soy, planters cleared vast areas of land, and during Maggi’s first year in office Mato Grosso’s deforestation increased by about 30 percent.

Of particular concern is the so-called “soy highway,” which is currently being paved from Mato Grosso’s capital of Cuiabá near the Bolivian border to the deep-water Amazon River city of Santarém in the state of Pará. Over the past twenty years or so, soy plantations here have sprung up in the vicinity of the highway and now dominate the landscape. At times, you’d swear you were in Iowa or the American Midwest, and there’s no wildlife to be seen for miles. At harvest time, fleets of green and yellow combines crisscross local fields lining the highway. John Deere dealerships are proliferating.

Other newcomers have found that while land is plentiful in Mato Grosso, virtually none of it is theirs to settle. Wealthy farmers, with the assistance of faked title deeds, corrupt local officials, and private armies have claimed vast areas. Though much of the land is federal property, farmers have cleared it and carpeted the ground with soy. The influx of newcomers has encouraged a kind of Wild West frontier lawlessness. The federal government, meanwhile, has done nothing to halt powerful interests, and those who denounce land grabbers for evicting poor farmers sometimes wind up dead.

It certainly doesn't seem that people living in the South are accepting all of this. What kind of resistance is building in the areas you cover in your book?

NK: There is plenty of resistance - it's just that the issue falls under the radar screen of the media. The resistance takes many forms and varies depending on the country, and I wouldn't say that people are primarily motivated by the issue of climate change per se. However, to the extent that local residents want to protect lands from development then there is an indirect connection. In Brazil, indigenous people have protested hydropower in the rainforest and, with the help of excellent environmental groups such as Amazon Watch, have brought some visibility to this issue. Elsewhere in the country, Indians are doing their utmost to resist the encroachment of soy barons and agribusiness. Then there are the landless squatters who carry out land occupations and who see agribusiness as well as sugarcane production for bio-fuels as a threat.

In Peru, the issue has been territorial rights in the face of oil development, with Indians facing off against the authorities in Lima. I think people fail to realize, however, that protesting in the US is not the same as in South America. The Amazon is still a pretty lawless place, and activists face intimidation or even death at the hands of hired guns or pistoleiros. Such was the sorry case of American nun Dorothy Stang, whose story I retell in the book. When Stang took up the cause of sustainable development in the Brazilian Amazon, cattle ranchers had her killed. Because Stang was American, the story got some media press.

There have been much greater atrocities, however: last year Amazonian Indians in Peru were massacred by the security forces when they protested the government's business-friendly land decrees opening up the rainforest to development. Descending on a group of indigenous people who were sleeping at a local roadside blockade, Peruvian Special Forces and helicopters dispersed the crowd with live ammunition and tear gas grenades. In the ensuing violence, twenty-five civilians and nine policemen died and more than one hundred people were wounded. The chief of police later claimed that the Indians were armed and fired first, but eyewitnesses said the indigenous peoples only had traditional spears and did not provoke the hostilities. Amazon Watch says the police came with orders to shoot.

JF: So what can we do about all of this? If those living in the United States impacting the environment, and ultimately the climate in South America what are some concrete things people can do to positively affect the situation?

NK: In the late 1990s and early 2000s activists pushed for reform of large financial institutions, but then got distracted during the Bush years by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to be getting back to that previous agenda now and make sure that such entities as the World Bank and IADB fund environmentally sustainable enterprises in the Amazon while disbanding support for agribusiness and the like.

I also believe however that we must start thinking about this problem in much more ambitious terms. It's not enough for the US to tell Brazil and Peru to save the rainforest - we have got to start providing real resources to South America so that people have an incentive not to increase deforestation. Since the US had a great hand in creating global warming in the first place, it is not unreasonable for the Global South to expect assistance. One initiative that is now being piloted throughout the world is the so-called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD program.

Though REDD can take many forms, the central notion is that businesses or governments in the Global North compensate poor countries for preserving their forests and not releasing carbon through deforestation, either by paying into a fund or by buying credits on carbon markets. The US has just pledged $4 billion to kick start REDD, which may sound like a lot but that's just a drop in the bucket. If we're really going to get serious about deforestation, Americans must start pressing Washington for a commitment of tens of billions per year.

Many questions remain about REDD and who might benefit from an Amazonian windfall. It would be a horrible travesty if REDD wound up bailing out soy barons and the likes of Maggi without benefiting poor people. In order to be effective, REDD negotiations must incorporate indigenous peoples in high level meetings. In light of the World Bank's horrible past in the tropics, REDD funding can't be allocated via large financial institutions but instead through the United Nations climate convention. Another sore sticking issue has to do with corruption - we're going to have to ensure good governance and accountability through REDD, otherwise the people who need the assistance most won't receive it and we won't stem deforestation.

If that was not ambitious enough, Americans must also demand greater scientific and technological innovation which could in turn benefit tropical countries. As horrible as the recent BP disaster in the Gulf has been, my hope is that Americans will now be more motivated to demand the switch to alternative energies which we most urgently need. We need massive, clean energy transfer from the Global North to South so as to get away from hydro power and bio-fuels for sugarcane.

Admittedly, solving all these problems might seem like a tall order. But, what is the alternative: a carbon death spiral to the bottom? I believe that we must start looking at the Amazon as a hemispheric-wide issue. In order to save the rainforest and insure our collective climate destiny, we must radically redesign the way the Amazon works from a social and environmental standpoint. Future negotiations on the fate of the rainforest, which necessarily must involve not just governments but also a wide cross section of civil society groups from the US and South America, could prove to be extremely complex. With so many vexing environmental and political problems to deal with at home, Americans might want to put off the rainforest dilemma - but that's not an option we can afford anymore.

Joshua Frank

Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (AK Press, 2008). Frank is also the co-author with St. Clair of the forthcoming Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism (Haymarket Books, 2010)

Last modified on Friday, 16 July 2010 15:35