O forest! They cut out your verdant heart.
The grasses, the Brazil nut trees,
the wild beasts already scent the
smell of prison. This we say:
People yearn to be free, so
Who will then be the masters of our
history?

Samba do Quinze

SH: If the Amazon Basin were in the United States it would begin in the Californian Sierras and end in New York. It is the largest expanse of tropical rain forest in the world. Last year the Brazilian Space Institute indicated some 12 million acres were on fire and some 50 million acres had been cleared. Clearing rates are now approaching the exponential. The problem is that these forests are not being replaced by any kind of stable land use, since sooner or later these lands end up as pasture in the hands of a small number of landowners. So you have processes of destruction that are quite sharp, but also processes of concentration that are extremely sharp.

The crucial thing to realize is that you can’t just say, ‘Oh the poor trees—if only we could get a better policy to stop it.’ There’s real money being made, real people displaced, and real resistance movements are opposing what’s going on. It’s a frontier area, and things are worked out under the law of the strongest, or, if you will, the law of the jungle.

None, really. A mature forest respires—that is, uses oxygen—and also produces it, so production and consumption of oxygen are more or less in equilibrium. If you cut the forest down and permit younger growth, you actually get more oxygen, since its rate of production of oxygen is greater than its consumption. So the ‘oxygen loss’ theory is wrong, and people should drop it. What is true is something worse. Take last year, when sixteen million acres were deliberately burned. An extraordinary amount of carbon was released into the atmosphere, and what that can result in, of course, is the greenhouse effect. The magnitude of carbon-dioxide increase, just from what’s been going on in the Amazon, is almost twentyfive per cent of global additions.