Running Out of Breath : Tax the Air to Save the Amazon, Earth’s ‘Lungs’

<i> Bill Manson is a San Diego-based feature writer specializing in Third World issues. He has traveled extensively in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and is at work on a novel, "The Borderlords," set in Cambodia. </i>

The vision! You can just see it.

Last month, Steven Spielberg, David Puttnam and Ted Turner all had their boys go down to deepest Amazonia, checkbooks twitching, desperate to pay a poor rubber-tapper’s widow millions for rights to her husband’s story. Why? He had tried to stop bulldozers. He wanted to save the Earth’s last virgin rain forest. If Hollywood has its way, Chico Mendes is to become the Amazon’s first eco-martyr.

One thing you know for sure: When Hollywood’s moguls tramp the Amazonian jungle path to Mendes’ widow’s door, their eyes damp with crocodile tears and their pockets large with the persuasive power of dollars, saving the Amazon is IN.

Even George Bush and the Group of Seven brought the Amazon to the top of their list last Sunday. Ten pages of their 22-page communique were devoted to the environment. And they singled out Brazil as the ideal place to experiment on their newest idea: Swap debt relief for an end to deforestation.


Forget it, Mr. President.

The Amazon--and its problem--is bigger than its host country’s temporary international debts. And when the Amazon Basin and its ecosystem fail, the tragedy will be bigger and more dangerous for all life on Earth than even a Hollywood blockbuster could envision.

The Brazilian jungle, if it is to continue to be “the lungs of the planet,” has to be left alone--forever. And the Brazilians have to want to leave it alone. It must be, as the saying goes, worth Brazil’s while. The condescension of the Big Seven’s debt-relief “offer” is opportunistic, somehow offensive, and--as usual with our quick-fix Western minds--short-term. The Third World is littered with the debris of such thinking.

So what can we do?


First, we have to figure where we stand in this problem. It is the (deforested) First World that has for years been encouraging the Brazilians to ravish their jungles. International banks have contributed handsomely to half of the corridors carved through Brazil’s interior--private transportation systems for multinational corporations growing and exporting cash crops such as soybeans and beef.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization as long ago as 1973 sponsored missions to Amazonia to assess its development potential. It was “the world’s test case for humid tropics area development . . . the largest underdeveloped area in the world,” which, it was hoped, would “be translated into . . . marketing realities, possibly faster than any other major developing area.”

Soon, the multinationals had moved in to clear millions of acres, encouraged by giant tax breaks.

Sixteen years down the line, the destruction is in full flood. The forest that provides 50% of the world’s oxygen is already 25% down. Even though much of the land proves infertile, price rises make acquisitions just great investments. A million new settlers are there and more are following. The Brazilian government wants to build hydroelectric schemes that would flood vast areas of the Amazon Basin. The Japanese want a trans-Amazon-Andean highway to the Pacific so they can ship all that hardwood direct to Japan. Minerals are being discovered. This is a movement no less vast and unstoppable than the United States’ own “taming of the West.”


No temporary forgiveness of external debt is going to stop that.

But for planet Earth’s sake, stop it must. This is no cuddly seal-pup issue. We can survive without a few Harp seals. We can’t survive without oxygen. The trouble is, as we did with oil, pre-OPEC, we still regard oxygen as an inexhaustible resource that we have by right.

Well, that’s no longer the case. It’s not inexhaustible and it’s no longer something we can take for granted. And only a few places on Earth have the right resources to make it. The Amazon Basin happens to be oxygen’s prime nursery, the Brazilian jungle its principal manufacturer.

Like oil, oxygen is a fuel. Our fuel. The only difference between oxygen and oil is that you can see oil, as Alaskans will testify. But, as any foreigner in Mexico City will also testify, you can certainly feel the lack of oxygen. As such, it can be argued that its producers may have a right to join the markets for coffee, grains, oil and metals--on the commodity exchanges.


That’s how we should treat it. As a commodity.

So let’s make the Brazilians an offer. We’re talking a permanent international oxygen tax here. Equitably collected from those who use it most. Certainly, complicated formulas for arriving at fairly sharing the tax would be necessary. But clearly, industrial countries with their edge on polluting industry and oil and coal use--prime oxygen consumption--would be the big payers.

And we wouldn’t be paying Brazil to do nothing: We’d be paying Brazil to rejigger its economy and reorient millions of its people to forgo the instant riches of macro-development. To refrain from developing an area the equivalent of the ninth-biggest country in the world. A vast treasure-house, in the short term.

To forgo that forever, Brazil deserves more than a one-shot “forgiveness” of debt.


Of course it might already be too late to stop the powerful impetus of exploitation under way in Amazonia. At the present rate of destruction, the last virgin rain forest will be gone in 25 to 30 years.

This offer, in other words, is valid for a limited time only.