Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

The future, a cascade of uncertainties

The foregoing pages have touched upon some of the complex physico-biotic phenomena inherent to Amazonian waters and wetlands, and have briefly exemplified the many human activities that impact on such ecosystems. The future of these remains obscure, determined as it is by the interplay of a myriad factors - some not even identified.

Incertitudes regarding the destiny of Amazonian aquatic and wetland ecosystems increase in an exponential-like manner as forecasts extend deeper into the future. An appropriate metaphor for this progression might be that of a cascade of cause and effect (Roberts et al., 1980), a succession involving natural processes, human disruptions of them, and attempts to mitigate, prevent, or reverse the resulting environmental dysfunctions.

The uncertainties may be grouped into three, frequently intertwined, categories. First, those properly addressed by the natural sciences. Second, those of a cognitive and behavioural nature, involving human perception of, and conduct toward, the environment. Finally, those that stem most directly from the dynamic of political life.

The scientific context

There is much uncertainty even in the establishment of a natural, undisturbed base line from which to assess anthropic influences on Amazonia.23 Not enough is known, for instance, regarding the circulation of the atmosphere, including the El Niño (ENSO), as it affects the region's climate; or regarding the dissimilar proportions of rain which, falling on different plant covers (e.g. rain forest, savanna), are returned to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration.

The possible role of humans in deflecting the evolution of ecosystems of which they are part should never be overlooked. One example of a chain of events in which people are believed to play an initiatory role relates to the issue of sealevel rise, with its sequence of incertitudes vis-á-vis the future of Amazonian waters and wetlands. The hypothetical sequence starts with an anthropogenic buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases, or GHGs, which increase mean surface air temperature, leading, in turn, to an eustatic rise of sealevel.

The upturn in atmospheric CO2 is well established by measure meets such as those taken at Mauna Loa. It is ascribed mainly to the use of fossil fuels, but also to deforestation, especially in the tropics. The extent to which removal of the selva contributes to a gain in CO2 is a question fraught with incertitudes. Yet the answer is essential to determine whether potential damage to Amazonia by rising sealevel can be exacerbated by activities within the region.

In the second stage of the progression, although GHGs are widely believed to elevate the global temperature, there is disagreement as to the extent of the warming. Note, further, that some scholars even question whether the observed increase is not, in part at least, due to the location of weather stations in "urban heat islands," or simply to increased solar activity.

Although the first two stages in the postulated enchainment of cause and effect might impact on Amazonian ecosystems, e.g. through disruption of weather patterns, or plant responses to CO2 enrichment,24 it is the third stage that relates with greatest specificity to Amazonia's most productive ecosystems. Global warming, leading to the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, combined with the thermal expansion of oceanic waters, is generally predicted to bring about a perceptible rise in mean sealevel. Again, however, there is no consensus as to the amount and timing of the postulated change. Various scenarios recently proposed for the rise that might be expected by the end of next century are generally lower than those advanced in the mid1980s. Changes then considered within the realm of possibility ranged, for example, from a conservative 56.2 cm to a very high 345.0 cm, as in Hoffman (1984). By contrast, most projections now under discussion suggest a rise of less than one metre by the year 2100. Although the forecasts are more subdued, projected rates of sealevel rise are "still very large," being, in fact roughly four times that estimated for the past century (Wigley and Raper, 1992). Moreover, it has been pointed out that, in the light of the many incertitudes woven into the projections, one may not exclude the possibility of a substantially greater rise. Given the minimal slope of the Amazon River valley, even a relatively modest sealevel rise would impact some low-lying wetlands, in terms of exacerbated flooding, while several coastal areas might experience saltwater intrusion.

A number of secondary effects may be anticipated. Waterlogging of soils, for instance, would favour anaerobic decay and thus contribute to an increase in atmospheric methane, the Amazon Basin already being responsible, it is said, for one-tenth of the world output of this gas (Devol et al., 1988; Mayer et al., 1982). Since methane is thought to be even more effective than CO2 in producing the greenhouse effect, there is the possibility here of a positive feedback.

The postulated chain that starts with CO2 emissions illustrates, simultaneously, scientific uncertainties and the importance of appropriate programmatic decisions (e.g. clean air legislation), combined with the political resolve to have these implemented.

The programmatic context

The yardstick by which the "success" of a given undertaking is measured reflects community understanding of, and values relative to, the environment. A giant hydroplant, possibly an outstanding civil engineering feat, may be a failure when assessed from the perspective of this paper, if it compromises the health of waters and wetlands. Or, take the promise seen in the application of biotechnology to crop plants as a means to increase the world's food supplies. Janzen (1988) has some sobering thoughts on this score. He conjectures whether genetic engineering, by producing crops capable of coping with environmental handicaps (such as are found on oligotrophic soils of Amazonian watersheds), might not provide the incentive to clear lands today "protected," as it were, by their very poverty. "Agroecosystem inviability," he submits, is "the most powerful conservation force in the tropics."

And so, misgivings and uncertainties are generated, not only by the stated goals of a programme, but also by the often unintentional effects of its implementation - assuming it is implemented. Certainly, there exists in Amazonia a conspicuous legacy of failed programmes that either came to naught or have produced results bearing no resemblance to announced objectives. A few examples may be mentioned.

The most tragic failure in Amazonia has been that of the government's "Indianist" policy. In the wake of a centuries-long history of ethnocide, the Indian Protection Service, set up in 1910, left a record of corruption and mismanagement that made a mockery of the agency's name. It was replaced in 1968 by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), whose annals are hardly more inspiring. To give a current example, consider the delay in demarcating Brazil's portion of the tribal lands belonging to the Yanomami, which straddle the Brazilian-Venezuelan frontier. FUNAI has been incapable of protecting this nation against invading miners, guaranteeing the Indians their territory, their culture, their livelihood, indeed, their very lives. Only recently, Brazilian garimpeiros murdered a number of Yanomami tribespeople,25 a crime that brought forth a powerful international outcry. As a consequence, President Itamar Franco was driven to institute an extraordinary ministry for the coordination of action in Amazonia, the Ministry of the Environment and Amazonia Legal.

In addition to being an outrageous violation of moral principles, the elimination or demoralization of Indian peoples has been accompanied by the replacement of sustainable land use with destructive exploitation. The forfeiture of know-how acquired in the course of millennia is a loss of no small consequence in the management of Amazonian watersheds.

Another unsuccessful government policy was mandated by the 1946 Constitution. This instrument ordained that, for at least 20 consecutive years, three per cent of tributary revenues be allocated to the implementation of a plan for economic "valorização" (increase in value) of Amazonia. However, it was only in 1953 that the operational area, Amazonia Legal, was defined, a blueprint for development adopted, and the Superintendency for the Plan for Economic Valorization of Amazonia (SPVEA) created. A balance-sheet of this agency's activities, drawn up more than a decade later by the then Superintendent, describes a "chaotic" situation that had prevailed since its institution, a "vast field of illicit deals and irresponsibilities under the most varied forms that resulted in the complete discredit of the organism" (Cavalcanti, 1967).

Extinguished in 1966, SPVEA was replaced by the Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia (SUDAM). This entity became identified with the use of fiscal incentives to promote cattle ranching in Amazonia, with a view to the export of beef. The ease with which big business, mostly based in São Paulo, was able to reduce federal tax liabilities by investing the corresponding savings in projects approved by SUDAM resulted in deforestation at an unprecedented scale. The tax incentive programme (see, for instance, Mahar, 1989) has been the single most important cause of watershed degradation. Forests were felled, burned, put into pasture, and, only too often, abandoned, leaving millions of hectares of debased and unproductive soils.

During the 1970s, the government mounted an all-out effort to integrate Amazonia into the Brazilian body politic. This was the Programme for National Integration, of which the Transamazônica and Cuiabá-Santarém highways were to be the cornerstone. Construc tion of a transportation network intensified deforestation of watersheds by land-seekers, notably large-scale ranchers or would-be ranchers (Fearnside, 1993; Smith, 1982), and directly affected the streams intersected by the roads.

A further instance of failed strategy is the so-called "Polamazônia programme," established in 1974 to promote "Poles of growth," for instance polos agropecuários, polos agrominerais (MINTER, 1976) a concept already applied to Brazil in the 1950s (see, e.g., Boudeville, 1957, 1973). No more than lip service was paid to the cultivation of land connoted by the first part (agro) of each paired modifier. Meanwhile, the region's alleged vocation for pecuária, i.e. to be a major producer of beef cattle, has been disproved.26 As to the polos agrominerais, impressive ore bodies were viewed less as levers for longterm, sustainable development of neighbouring areas than as assets to confront a massive foreign debt.

A final example of nugatory government plans is one created in 1988 and aimed specifically at environmental issues: the Nossa Natureza ("Our Nature") programme. The title is reminiscent of the nationalist slogan, "The petroleum is ours." Indeed, the agenda was hurriedly crafted to silence foreign denunciations of Brazil's handling of the environment, particularly in Amazonia, by demonstrating the country's determination to confront the issue on its own terms. But, when the National Environmental Council reviewed the Nossa Natureza package, it pointed out several flaws, such as "technical and juridical inappropriatenesses," "hurried elaboration," "conceptual confusion," and the "inadmissibly centralised cast of some of the projects" (Folha de São Paulo, 1989).

The political context

Domestic programmes that affect the quality of Amazonian waters and wetlands have, of course, been decided rather less often in the arena of scientific ideas than in the political market place.27Despite the volatility of politics, certain lines of force have persisted in Brazil. One is a pervasive sensitivity in relation to sovereignty over an isolated and sparsely settled backwater. As a consequence, policy has often been reactive to real or perceived moves by international players (Sternberg, 1987b). Even after independence in 1822, substantial portions of Brazilian Amazonia were unsuccessfully claimed by France and England. Among other nineteenthcentury territorial ambitions focused on the region28 was one that obsessed Matthew Fontaine Maury, Superintendent of the US Observatory and Hydrographic Office (Sternberg, 1987b). Such foreign designs upon Amazonia, a legitimate concern of Brazilians in the past, are used to justify today's unceasingly invoked apprehensions - whether genuine or feigned.

With the Amazon problematic seen through the prism of national security, the role of the military looms large. Thus, the 1985 "North Trough Project" proposed additional military outposts in the 150-km wide frontier zone or belt, Faixa de Fronteiras, that hugs the international boundary from the point where the Amazon River enters Brazil to the Atlantic, a distance of some 6,500 km (Sternberg, 1987b). The rhetoric can be fevered: Jose Sarney, when president, was quoted as exhorting the armed forces to defend Amazonia, so as to prevent it from being transformed by long-existing covetousness "into an internationalized Persian Gulf" (Teixeira, 1989). And General Antenor de Santa Cruz Abreu, one-time military commandant of Amazonia, reportedly declared that, in the event of the region's internationalization, the army would transform it into a new Viet Nam. At this, Governor Gilberto Mestrinho of Amazonas state is quoted as announcing that he would be the first to take up arms and enlist in the general's forces (O Liberal, 1991).

One of the more intemperate voices among officials in the region has been that of Mestrinho, who would like to roll back all legislation protecting the environment and indigenous populations. His proposed "Amazonian Code," after expressing respect for the environment "in which we all live," was designed to repeal the entire federal legislation involving parks, ecological stations, and Indian reservations.

Nothing illustrates better the unpredictability of Amazonia's future, given its dependence on domestic politics, than the mercurial administration of President Fernando Collor de Mello. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate to external critics that Brazil's handling of the environment would be different in his administration, he appointed as secretary for the environment Jose Lutzenberger, "one of Brazil's ... most vociferous environmentalists" (Bonalume, 1990). Collor did take several praiseworthy measures, but the news that he had invited Mestrinho to be his personal advisor in environmental matters was commented on with irony by the latter's political opponents in Manaus (Jornal do Comercio, 1991). Then, less than three months prior to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Collor dismissed both Lutzenberger and the head of the environmental agency. Within months, Collor himself was indicted on the charges of corruption that led to his impeachment.

Uncertainties of political origin regarding Amazonian ecology do not stem from domestic vagaries alone. They also may be related to the internal politics of other countries, when these impact on global ecosystems individually, or when, as members of the world community, they support or oppose international environmental agreements. Furthermore, the outcome of domestic politics in nations who are major contributors to multilateral funding agencies can influence the priorities set by such bodies.

Observe, for instance, the result of the 1992 elections in the United States. As an aftermath, the White House, in an action that could conceivably affect Amazonian ecosystems, reversed the position of the preceding chief executive and gave its full support to two recently-drawn-up international treaties. One was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide (the United States being the largest emitter); the other, to protect biological diversity. It would be consistent with the positions embraced by the current administration vis-á-vis the environment if it were to urge the World Bank and other multilateral lending agencies to finance only ecologically sound projects. Although the performance of such institutions in respect to environment and native rights has improved, past policies bear considerable blame for the breakdown of ecosystems and human communities in Amazonia. A notable example is the Polonoroeste programme, financed by the World Bank. Had it been preceded by, or combined with, an agrarian reform capable of anchoring Brazil's destitute and drifting rural population (see, e.g., CEM, 1986) the outcome might have been different. But in the absence of such an undertaking, this "pole of growth" was an arrant failure. The reconstruction and paving of the Cuiabá-Porto Velho road merely opened up the state of Rondônia and adjacent areas in Mato Grosso to an unprecedented and devastating land rush (Coy, 1988).29

Extraregional linkages

The issue of agrarian reform is an example of the many ties between Amazonian concerns and those of Brazil as a whole. A more equitable access to land, nationwide,30 would tend to relieve the pressure on the area's ecosystems.

Another type of extraregional articulation is created by programmes intended to recruit Amazonian ecosystems as suppliers to outside markets, both domestic and foreign. Given the possibility of changes in demand, they introduce further uncertainties into the environmental equation.

An example is the drive for energy. Part of the hydroelectric power produced in Amazonia, at considerable social and environmental cost to local inhabitants, is destined for densely populated areas such as Brazil's northeast and south-east (Sternberg, 1986b, 1988b). A national energy-conserving policy would favour the environment of Amazonia by decreasing the call for energy of whatever kind (e.g. hydroelectric, petroleum, biofuels) generated there.

Moreover, several regions envisaged as recipients of Amazonian power are capable of producing substantial amounts themselves, in ways that would reduce their need to import. To illustrate: preliminary studies show that the highest potential windpower in the country exists along the east-west section of the Nordeste coast (Fundacao Padre Leonel Franca, 1988; Picanço, 1993). Primitive windmills made from carnauba palm stems have long been employed in pumping sea water in the area's salterns. Now, it is believed that wind plants using the new variable-speed, computerized turbines may prove cost-effective in the near future. Furthermore, favoured by a relatively modest cloud cover and a high number of hours of sunshine, the Nordeste receives abundant solar radiant energy and is also a candidate for solarthermal and photovoltaic technologies (Eletrobrás, 1992).

Since conversion to pasture, designed to promote beef production for extraregional consumers, has been the major cause of deforestation, shifting dietary patterns in putative markets may be of direct significance to the future of Amazonian ecosystems. Generated by medical concerns, there has been a trend in the developed countries away from red meat,31 accompanied by a sharp rise in the consumption of poultry products (Brown, 1993). Greater use of native animal species that provided the Amerinds with a bountiful source of protein and probably are more efficient converters of the natural vegetation may represent an additional disincentive to deforestation. A form of rational cropping of wildlife, or game ranching perhaps as a supplement to the raising of water buffalo, fish, and turtle would seem particularly promising in floodplain environments. The drive for artificially established grasslands also would be weakened by a partial turning away from animal protein itself, on the part of prospective consumers of Amazonian beef. Along these lines, McDonald's, with its world-wide franchises, is testing a vegetable hamburger that is a mix of potato, peas, carrots, corn, onion, and spices.

Among the extraregional linkages that stem from Amazonia's actual or potential role as supplier to the outside, one commodity is central to this paper, and deserves some additional comments.

The primordial element

Water has been treated here as the habitat for aquatic lifeforms and as an essential component of wetland ecosystems. However, it must also be considered as a substance detached from its ecosystemic relationships - a separate resource in its own right, vital for human consumption, for irrigated agriculture, and as industrial raw material. Water is an increasingly scarce and disputed commodity, and not only in arid and semi-arid regions.32 For some time it has been reasonably assumed that "water will become an item in foreign trade" (L'vovich, 1979). In fact, one geographer wondered if the "capacity [of Brazil's Amazonia] to sell great quantities of fresh water" should not be listed among the region's resources (Gourou, 1982). In conjectures such as these, even contiguity of donor and recipient no longer appears as a necessary condition for the transfer. Thus, according to a hydrologist who spoke off the record, one oil company has inquired about the chemical quality of the Amazon River water near Santarem, with the idea of transporting it by tanker to Aruba (Anon., 1984).33

Actually, there are areas adjacent to the Amazon Basin where water is already at a premium, for example the Peruvian coast and the Nordeste of Brazil. For such regions, derivation of Amazonian waters has, in fact, been effected (Peru), or is being contemplated (Nordeste). A plan to import water into the latter drought-prone region has surfaced at intervals since the early nineteenth century (Sternberg, 1967). Traditionally, the proposed donor has been the São Francisco River, draining an area of 650,000 Km² in eastern Brazil. With the implementation of major hydroelectric and irrigation projects, and a growing urban, rural, and industrial demand for water within this basin, the idea seemed increasingly unrealistic (Pessoa, 1989).34 In fact, some recent proposals envisaged a transfusion from eastern Amazonia (fig. 6.14), specifically from the basin of the Tocantins (Budweg, 1981; DNAEE/DCRH, 1983) - despite the fact that the energy establishment has slated this river to become a stairway of reservoirs and hydroelectric plants (Sternberg, 1981).

Figure 6.14 Suggested diversion of waters from the Tocantins basin into Brazil's semi-arid Nordeste.

The idea of transporting water from the São River, which rises in the humid eastern highlands of Brazil, into the dry north-east was put forward in the early nineteenth century. However, with the implementation of mayor hydroelectric and irrigation projects and the general growth of water demand in the valley of the proposed donor, some planners have been turning further afield for a source, namely to the Tocantins - although it too is slated for extensive hydropower development (Sternberg, 1981). Several schemes have been advanced that involve a combination of impoundments, pumping, and gravity flow through canals, tunnels, and river beds. One plan would carry water from the Tocantins drainage through a reversed Sono River to the Preto, an affluent of the São Francisco, and into the So. bradinho Reservoir (34 billion m³), thus boosting the volume that could be diverted from the São Francisco. Water derived from this river would be distributed through so-called peripheral canals to the headwaters of streams in the draughty backlands, such as the Poti, the Jaguaribe, or the Piranhas. Another plan would tap the Tocantins drainage by reversing the direction of the Manoel Alves and leading the diverted How into the catchment area of the Boa Esperança Reservoir (5 billion m³) on the Parnaíba River. Part of the Tocantins water thus diverted might also be relayed to the Sobradinho Reservoir (Budweg, 1981; DNAEE/DCRH, 1983).

The intercourse of ideas

To conclude these examples of uncertainties resulting from extraregional influences, one might speculate whether adoption of, or changes in, environmental management practices elsewhere could inspire emulation in Amazonia. Take the recent case of a remarkable turnabout in the Netherlands, the country most closely identified with the drainage of wetlands. Concerns raised by a decline in plant and animal species led to a 1990 government plan aimed at increasing nature areas by 250,000 hectares in 30 years, when they are to exceed 20 per cent of the national territory. Where people have been dyking and draining for centuries, substantial areas of impoverished farmland will be converted to wetlands (Netherlands, 1990, 1993a, 1993b). Will such a remarkable reversal prompt second thoughts relative to schemes for Amazonia's wetlands?

The health of Amazonian waters and wetlands might also be favoured by borrowing from an idea now being tested in Costa Rica (Janzen, 1991). In what has been called a "dollars-for-diversity" transaction, Merck & Co. Inc. pays the Central American country for the opportunity to search out promising natural compounds in its forests. Should a marketable product result, the host country will benefit from royalties and the transfer of pertinent technology (Joyce, 1991; Roberts, 1992). This procedure is in line with the Biodiversity Convention that resulted from the 1992 Earth Summit, recognizing the rights of a country to its genetic resources (Simpson and Sedjo, 1992), and thus supporting such types of arrangements.

A broader picture: environmental perspectives in Brazil

Some uncertainties specific to the future of Amazonian waters and wetlands embody, to a degree, uncertainties regarding Brazil's overall approach to the environment and indigenous people. Actually, there are no monolithic views on these issues, only a number of unresolved contradictions.

Integrity of ecosystems: Economic and ecological evaluations

For their health, waters and wetlands require, in addition to the soundness of related ecosystems, workable societal institutions, since dysfunctions along the human/environment interface (e.g. inequitable land tenure) often lead to a breakdown of natural systems.

The benefits offered by a forested catchment area in Amazonia derive from its substance and from its function. The former may be exemplified by a supply of lumber; the latter, by the damping of runoff. It is through its functioning that the selva, in its wholeness and diversity, contributes to the quality of waters and wetlands. Commonly, however, the forest is appraised on the basis of a narrowly defined economic use - and this is often synonymous with its demise. An evaluation that considers the system's more comprehensive worth - for example as repository of germplasm or as producer of marketable non-timber products argues more forcefully in favour of appropriate safeguards. Sampling a species-rich forest near Iquitos, Peters, Gentry, and Mendelsohn (1989) are among students who maintain that the financial benefits from the continued harvest of non-wood resources exceed by far those that would accrue from logging the tract, converting it to pasture, or planting it to Gmelina arborea for the production of pulp, as was done in the Jari project.

In order to publicise the existence of non-wood products from the Amazon forest and simultaneously provide income for forest dwellers, some effort has been made to promote the use abroad of such resources (e.g. Pará nuts, in confectionery; and Pará nut oil, in cosmetics).35 A recent bid was also made to showcase the assets of Amazonia's aquatic domain. Fish such as the already mentioned tambaqui, the tucunaré (Cichla spp.), and the pescada (Plagioscion spp.), were flown frozen to the United States. Here, they were prepared by renowned chefs for a benefit in favour of an organization dedicated to the conservation of tropical rain forests. The rationale behind the exercise was that a larger market would lead to the development of fish farms in Amazonia (Fabricant, 1993). Laudable intentions, but caution is called for: when new roads linked Amazonian rivers to several major cities in Brazil, thus opening a domestic market for the region's piscifauna, gross overfishing resulted.

Environmental quality and economic growth: Opposition or opportunity?

Does this inauspicious outcome of making riverine resources accessible to markets demonstrate, one more time, an irreconcilable conflict? From the Greek word oikos, house, have come, on the one hand, ecology, and on the other, economics. It is ironic that knowledge and management of the habitat should have become almost antithetical. However, where some see opposition, others see opportunity. The idea is beginning to sink in that environmental activities can, in themselves, bring financial benefits and create jobs. Carneiro (1993), writing in Brazil's most prestigious economic monthly, hails the "perfect marriage" between ecology and economy, and envisions the opening up, to joint-venture companies, of promising new markets in other developing countries. He concludes that economic development not only is compatible with strict environmental standards but could actually benefit from them, while the resultant business opportunities may even reveal an unexplored source of foreign exchange. Simultaneously, one of Brazil's ten largest conglomerates, with world-girdling engineering operations, has launched a subsidiary entirely devoted to environmental technology, targeting an international market (Odebrecht Informa, 1993). Such fresh viewpoints should be placed in the context of often contradictory and evolving - mindsets in Brazil regarding the environment.

Evolution of environmental awareness in Brazil

The last decades have witnessed mounting concern among many Brazilians regarding the deterioration of the environment.36 At first, attention focused on those insults to the habitat that offended the senses. In the eighties, concepts such as "biodiversity" and "ozone layer" came into their own. Belching smokestacks, formerly featured as a metaphor for progress, inviting investment in industry, became in due course a symbol for degradation of the milieu.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, June 1972, and the UN Conference on Environment and Development, convened in Rio de Janeiro twenty years later, provide two points of reference to gauge the unfolding of Brazil's official position on the environment.

During the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 1972 Conference, the Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations claimed that his government had always followed policies "consistent with ... a safe and ecologically balanced human environment for present and future generations" (Brasil, 1972).

A Brazilian geographer, invited to represent his country on the Preparatory Committee, in a report to the Minister of External Relations, stressed the need "to leave aside [such] frivolous and ... complacent pronouncements." He argued that they "do not resist the evidence of the facts [and] must give way to a realistic diagnosis and to a serene account of what has been done and what is left to do ... for the environment" (Sternberg, 1970). The tenor of government statements remained unchanged, however, before, during, and after the 1972 Conference. One of many made by the aforementioned Permanent Representative was typical. Addressing the United Nations, he cautioned against using "the environment ... to enforce economic stagnation, and 'hands-off' measures designed [sic] to perpetuate a situation of economic and social injustice, to the detriment of the developing countries" (Brasil, 1972).

At the opening of the Conference, Brazil's Minister of the Interior, speaking as Head of Delegation, made light of environmental hazards: "solutions will arrive in time to avoid dangers in some remote future. A sensible and objective attitude will prevent us from seriously believing in threats to humanity presented in an exaggerated and emotional manner." Then, a warning against restrictions to unimpeded sovereignty over natural resources: "international cooperation ... should not ... be hampered by ... mechanisms that ... limit and dilute the ... sovereignty and independence of States" (Cavalcanti, 1972).

During the Stockholm Conference and related meetings, few if any specifics regarding Brazil's numerous ecological problems were discussed. The accent was on denial and sovereignty.

The different attitude with which the government prepared for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro evidences progress in the willingness of at least certain sectors of government to face up to ecological deterioration. This time, 45,000 copies of a 172-page publication containing draft reports were circulated a year in advance for comments (Brasil, 1991). Although of unequal quality, it contains several candid assessments of environmental problems.

A career foreign service officer, then Secretary General for Foreign Policy (Ministry of External Relations), went on record regarding Brazil's position on environment and development: the international community has a right to be concerned by the violation of human rights and by the damage done to the environment, wherever such may occur. In dealing with these and other issues, Brazil no longer resorts to allegations of sovereignty to deflect criticism. Instead, it shoulders its responsibilities, conscious that its actions have repercussions for the whole planet. (Azambuja, 1990)

Significantly, in the period between the two international conferences, elected representatives of the Brazilian people in 1988 enacted what may be the world's "greenest" constitution. This affirmed that "all persons have the right to an ecologically-balanced environment, it being the duty of the public power and the community to defend it and preserve it for present and future generations." According to article 5, "any citizen is a legitimate party in bringing ... suit to annul ... actions detrimental ... to the environment." Such litigation was facilitated by the stipulation that, "except in case of proven bad faith, the plaintiff shall be exempt from court costs and other burdens of a losing litigant" (Brasil, 1993b).

Given the assumption that, by and large, traditional forms of land management practised by Indians in the areas they occupy are generally conducive to environmental integrity,37 it is relevant to note that the 1988 constitution guaranteed, to an unprecedented extent, the protection of Amerindian tribal lands.

However, with the new constitution, new and troubling uncertainties. Would there be the political will to stand up to the powerful interests that opposed its precepts regarding the environment and the indigenes?

It is axiomatic that legislation lacking grass-roots support is doomed to failure. The 1988 constitution's provision for citizen involvement in the protection of the environment could only remain a dead letter without informed, committed - and assertive - members of the public. Recent years did see a groundswell of green militancy develop across the country. In fact, impatient with accomplishments that remained on paper, ordinary people have shown anger at what they see as foot-dragging by the political establishment in terms of practical action. The denunciation displayed on the T-shirt of a young woman encountered in 1991 on a street in Itacoatiara, a small Amazon riverfront town, is an illustration (fig. 6.15).

The unpredictability of circumstances having the potential to affect Amazonia's environmental well-being was brought home once again by an event that occurred in June 1992, ironically during the Earth Summit. An alleged episode of debauchery involving an internationally known Native Brazilian activist received sensational coverage by the press. The population at large already had been exposed to the information that certain Indian groups were given to conspicuous consumption, paid for by selling off their reservations' natural resources. Something of a backlash against the rights of Native Brazilians was stirred up, serving the objectives of powerful interests that aspired to exploit the tribal lands: ranchers, loggers, hydropower developers, miners - not to mention all those who beat the drum of national security.

Appended to the 1988 constitution proper is an article providing for its revision five years after promulgation. This clause opened the way for a startling amount of political manoeuvring aimed at repealing or watering down the protection so recently enacted in favour of the environment and indigenous people. Among the 17,246 revisionary proposals presented by lawmakers in Brasilia, a number reflected such intentions, usually encrypted in high-minded concern for the "national good."

Take the attempt to deprive Native Brazilians of land officially recognized as theirs. It rested on three major contentions: that the reservations represented a disproportionally large area for a small number of Indians,38 that they prevented the economic use of resources vital to the nation, and that they imperilled Brazilian sovereignty over the Faixa de Fronteira. The then Minister for the Environment and Amazonia Legal, Rubens Ricupero, in an incisive piece on the op-ed page of the influential Jornal do Brasil, challenged these "unfounded argu meets" (Ricupero, 1994). The former ambassador to the United States disputed the claim that the land attributed to the Native Brazilians is unreasonably extensive, finding it "ironic, to say the least, in the country of the latifundio par excellence, where owners of ranches larger than European countries are not rare." And he asked: "Does anybody believe that if the reservations were extinguished, [their holdings] would be distributed to landless farm people?" Addressing the other allegations, Ambassador Ricupero pointed out that nothing in the constitution prevented the utilization of the reservations' natural resources, with Indians sharing in the benefits; and, regarding the issue of sovereignty, that the law had always allowed for intervention in the tribal lands, in the case of a foreign threat - something which, he noted, has never materialized.

The outcome of the constitutional revision in 1994 may itself serve here as the final illustration of unpredictability. Congress, shaken by hearings on corruption involving a number of legislators, frequently immobilised by lack of quorum, and driven by the politics of an election year, managed to approve, within the prescribed deadline, no more than six amendments, having essentially failed to carry through the announced overhaul.


The countless imponderables, only briefly exemplified in this paper, that will determine the future of Amazonia's waters and wetlands, suggest the need for a conceptual framework within which to attempt the identification and evaluation of a whole spectrum of uncertainties. Such an analysis is a "critical component" of all risk assessments (Kimerle and Smith, 1993), and, therefore, basic to decision-making. The purpose of a prospective identification of hazards combined with a postmortem of past mistakes - is to assist in taking stock of potential problems before they balloon into fullfledged, unmanageable crises. Clearly, such a purpose would be defeated by a consistently optimistic "best-case scenario" approach, in which the expectation always is that "solutions will arrive in time" (Cavalcanti, 1972).

It is true that, sometimes, when uncertainties regarding the effects of a particular policy finally give way to observed facts, an unexpectedly favourable outcome is revealed.39 An example, of a physicobiotic kind, comes from an opencut bauxite mine near the Trombetas River. It would be hard to imagine a more discouraging site for re vegetation than the once-forested terrain, from which the ore has been stripmined. Yet different treatments, selected by trial and error, have been used in an attempt to establish native and exotic species. There is considerable spatial variation in the degree of success obtained, apparently a function of the methods used in removing the overburden, excavating the ore, and restoring the surface (Pereira and Knowles, 1985; Ferraz, 1991; Ruivo et al., 1991). Nevertheless, it has been surprising and encouraging to observe, in the course of successive visits, that deer and birds have returned to the revegetated area. Whether the closed nutrient cycling typical of the rain forest can be re-established in a reasonable length of time, once it has been broken, remains to be seen.

That public opinion concerning Amazonian environments and native peoples is divided and in a state of flux adds to the uncertainties regarding the region's waters and wetlands and leaves little ground for complacency. At this point, the unequivocal positions taken at a high level of career officialdom by Ambassadors Azambuja and Ricupero assume special significance. To the extent that reality catches up with, rather than falls further behind, their statesmanlike affirmations, prospects improve of a new stature for Brazil in terms of earth stewardship. And of more sanguine expectations for irreplaceable ecosystems.


The paper is part of a research project dealing with the Brazilian humid tropics. In the course of this long-term endeavour, financial support for various aspects of the study has been received from the National Science Foundation; the joint Committee on Latin American Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies; the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation; and the University of California at Berkeley (Center for Latin American Studies and Committee on Research).

I am indebted to Carlos A. Nobre, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, for the computation, at my request, of average rainfall over the Brazilian Amazon; to Marciana Leite Ribeiro, of the same Institute, for publications and references; to Ingrid Radkey, BioSciences Library, UCB, for help in the retrieval of pertinent literature; to Steve Schwartzman, Environmental Defense Fund, for sharing updated information on amendments to Brazil's 1988 Constitution; to John Cadman, Eduardo de F. Madeira, and co-workers, Eletronorte, Brasilia, as well as to E. G. M. Cesar, Projeto de Hidrologia e Climatologia da Amazonia, Belém, for hydrological, climatological, and other data; to Portobrás, Manaus, for successive updates of raw data from the stream gauge on the Rio Negro; to Geraldo de Macedo Pinheiro, for his help, over the years, in obtaining information from sources in Manaus; to the late Antonio Vizeu da Costa Lima and his family, for hospitality and assistance during many field seasons in Pará state; to Oliver H. Knowles, for his guidance during my visits to the Mineração Rio Norte, on the Trombetas River; to Tadeu Veiga, for his good offices in Brasília; to Zhong Gongfu, Guanzhou, for accompanying me on visits to the Zhu Jiang delta and for introducing me to the intricacies of the dyke-and-pond system; to Orman Granger, for giving me the benefit of his knowledge of meteorological and climatological literature. I thank Elmer Prata Salomão, Director of the Departamento Nacional da Produção Mineral, Brasilia and the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia, Manaus, for logistic support.

Very special thanks are due to David R. Brillinger, who has given generously of his time and statistical expertise in the trend analysis of the water stage data.

Finally, it is a pleasure to acknowledge my gratitude to my wife, Carolina da Sil veira Lobo Sternberg, for her untiring support and collaboration in all phases of the undertaking. The paper benefited stylistically from constructive comments by Herbert G. Baker and James J. Parsons.

Credit for the cartographic work goes to Adrienne Morgan and Tim Eisler.


Contents - Previous - Next