Battle for the Amazon: we’re playing our last cards

As a child in primary school many years ago I remember my teacher holding up a big map of South America (no PowerPoint in those days) and telling us about the mighty Amazon River and the enormous swathe of deep forest covering the continent. She told us about ambitious plans to open up the Amazon by creating a new city named Brasilia, reached by new roads and supported by new industries like logging. The project was cast as an exciting opportunity to further the economic development of Brazil, a country which back then lay firmly in the category of underdeveloped. My memory might be a bit hazy on the details, but I don’t remember much being said about the plight of indigenous peoples, and there was definitely no mention of climate change. Economic development was the name of the game, and no-one questioned it.

Fast forward my life almost six decades and everything about the subtext of that lesson has changed. I think my teacher would be amazed, and horrified, by some of the events that have unfolded. After a period in which the rate of deforestation slowed, the Amazon is under greater threat than ever. Illegal logging is increasing along with cattle grazing. Economic “development” is gnawing away at the flesh of one of our planet’s greatest natural assets, not just in terms of biodiversity but its ability to suck carbon dioxide from the air. Unless action is taken, one day the forest will be a skeleton of its former self.

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our planet is heating up and carbon emissions are the main cause, so it’s vitally important that the Amazon forest (and others)  are saved from the chainsaw. Fortunately a scheme is emerging to create the largest environmental reserve in the world, an area of Amazon forest more than twice the size of France. It won’t bring back the chunks of forest that have been hacked away and lost forever, but it might give us all a better chance to stop more global warming.  But Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela need to act in concert if the scheme is to have any chance of success.

Of course, the devil is in the detail, and the idea of a reserve has met with criticism, even from environmentalists. But the eyes of the world will be focused on the climate talks in Paris late this year, so there is cautious optimism that public pressure will drag the scheme from the drawing board to implementation. We don’t have many cards left to play in the high stakes battle against global warming, but saving the Amazon forest from obliteration is surely one of them.