Sternberg Report:Is It Too Late for the Amazon?

by Robert Sanders

In the 47 years he has explored and studied the Amazon, geographer Hilgard O'Reilly Sternberg has seen large tracts of lush, biologically diverse forest reduced to grassland, only to be abandoned later as unfit even to graze cattle.

Sternberg's assessment of the Amazon today finds little cause to hope this destruction will slow.

"During my latest field season in 1994 I was impressed once more how, even at great distances from newly opened roads, the forest was destroyed," says Sternberg, professor emeritus of geography.

"The cleared land was not being used, but had been taken over by second growth, which will long remain unproductive. The people had moved on to open up other land."

His 67-page report, entitled "Waters and Wetlands of Brazilian Amazonia: An Uncertain Future," appears in the newly published book "The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments." It is a publication of the United Nations through United Nations University in Tokyo.

Sternberg, 77, a native of Brazil, writes from a lifetime's immersion in all aspects of the Amazon, ranging from its physical geography, ecology and anthropology to its history and politics. He has written and lectured worldwide on deforestation and other ecological problems in the Amazon, many of which he has documented in photographs.

A former chair of the geography department at the University of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, where he founded the Center for Research in the Geography of Brazil, Sternberg is a recipient of Brazil's highest honor, the National Order of Merit.

His report emphasizes the impossibility of predicting what will happen in the Amazon, given scientific as well as political uncertainties. An underlying issue, however, is that the situation will not improve without agrarian reform to put land in the hands of the people.

"By agrarian reform," he says, "I don't mean merely parceling up of the land, but the forging of an infrastructure--schools, hospitals, roads--to keep the people on the land.

"Reform, buttressed by financial and technical assistance, would also create internal markets for other sectors of the economy."

Sternberg reviews the history of the Amazon waters and wetlands from the time when a large population of Indians--perhaps millions--held stewardship of the area and managed the resources in a way that generally tended to preserve them for future generations. As these Indian tribes died out because of introduced diseases, became impoverished through loss of cultural know-how, or were deliberately killed off or pushed off the land, their place was taken by groups with no connection to the environment or understanding of it.

Some of these are squatters who destroy the land through slash-and-burn in the context of inefficient market-oriented farming. Others are speculators subsidized by tax moneys, who invest in opening up large cattle ranches.

"They end up owning most of the land either by acquiring it when the squatters move on or converting it directly to pasture in a brutal, well financed rape of the forests," Sternberg says.

The influx of poor landless farmers is a direct result of new roads, which allow easy access to formerly pristine land. Sternberg notes, however, that these roads could be beneficial if combined with nationwide legislation to promote effective control of the land by those who work it. Because of the uncertainty surrounding such legislation, a controversial road proposed to link western Amazonia with the Pacific coast of Peru could be a boon or a disaster.

The forest also disappears as it is cut to supply innumerable charcoal kilns that feed local pig iron smelters. New and unexpected threats arise too, such as the threat to lowland forests from Andean coca farmers dislodged from their mountain fields by drug eradication efforts.

Other dangers can be insidious, such as those associated with gold mining operations that pollute streams and rivers with mercury. The limpid and seemingly pure water of the Tapajós River downstream from the gold mining center of Itaituba already poses a serious health hazard because of mercury contamination, Sternberg points out. Several types of locally consumed fish have been found with mercury levels exceeding safety limits for human consumption.

Pressure to provide hydroelectric power by damming various tributaries of the Amazon also can be disastrous, disrupting downstream ecosystems and the lives of people dependent on the river.

While domestic and foreign environmental organizations have long voiced concern about the destruction of the Amazon, all too often it is met by extreme Brazilian sensitivity to outside pressure. This is a legacy of centuries of attempted intervention by Europeans and North Americans intent on exploiting Amazonian resources, Sternberg says.

On the positive side, Brazil has in recent years seen a flowering of grass-roots environmental awareness, as evidenced by the number of non-governmental organizations active during the 1992 Earth Summit. The country has perhaps the world's "greenest" constitution, one which also contains unprecedented guarantees protecting Amerindian tribal lands. Sternberg hopes that such recent successes, now under attack, will not be rolled back.

Increasingly, too, Brazilians are recognizing the value of their forests--that "... the financial benefits from continued harvest of non-wood resources exceed by far those that would accrue from logging the tract, converting it to pasture, or planting it ... for the production of pulp," Sternberg writes.

Other opportunities to preserve the Amazon have arisen, including a "dollars-for-diversity" program like that first used in Costa Rica to set aside environmentally sensitive land as a source of new drugs. Sternberg continues to look for other hopeful signs on the political landscape.

Though he retired from teaching at Berkeley in 1988, Sternberg has continued to work on problems affecting Amazonia, most recently biogeographic issues involving the difference between short-term climatic variability and long-term climatic change.

"The Amazon is something that grabs you," Sternberg says, as he prepares to spend another field season in the region this summer.

A key component in his approach to geography is the study of the interface between human societies and their environment. This includes the observation of dysfunctions along that interface, such as improper use of soil, water, flora and fauna, or the concentration of resources in the hands of a few people.

"I don't think Brazil is going to solve its problems until the little people can attain a better standard of living," he says.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
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