Science in Society Archive

I-SIS Special Miniseries - Life of Gaia

This miniseries is dedicated to our planet earth, so we may better appreciate how she lives and sustains all creatures large and small, that we may learn to dance to the complex rhythms of her life music without stopping her in her tracks.

Space scientist and inventor Jim Lovelock first proposed in the 1970s that the entire earth is a self-organizing, self-regulating entity, rather like an organism. He named the earth Gaia, after the Greek earth goddess.

The idea that Gaia is alive and has a life of her own immediately caught fire. It inspired many earth scientists to look for the dynamic processes that organize and regulate the currents of the earth, to make a congenial home for all her inhabitants. These scientists are richly rewarded.

Records from ice and deep sea cores show detailed globally correlated changes going back at least 800 000 years, leaving us in no doubt that the earth behaves from moment to moment as one coherent whole, just like an organism.

Not only can we can read Gaia’s life-history from her deep memory stores, we can also tune in to her life-force pulsing as she is living today.

Gaia spinning in her perpetual dance around the sun, her mighty breath tumbling from hot belly to the poles, swirling across the continents, bringing welcome rain to forests, grasslands and crops, or torrential downpours, floods and hurricanes. Vast slow vortices of water connect her oceans from the furthest northern reaches to the southernmost haunts, from the shimmering sea surfaces to the dark deep beds, distributing warmth and nutrients, sustaining life with life.

Gaia’s breath is our breath, her water our water. Let Gaia live that we may live.

Soya Destroying Amazon

Brazil has been clearing vast stretches of virgin forests to make way for non-GM soya in order to capture world market. Will it stop under President Lula? Peter Bunyard reports.

It’s still early days for President Lula. With his country diving into economic recession, the division accelerating between the many poor and far fewer rich, Lula has declared that his first concern is not with Avança Brasil - massive investments in the Amazon region to advance the industrial and agricultural sectors into ‘virgin’ regions.

On the contrary, Lula has come to the presidency of Brazil determined to take on the campaign Fome Zero, or ‘Zero Hunger’ for Brazil’s diverse population, especially in areas, such as the Northeast, which traditionally have suffered from recurrent droughts and failing agriculture.

Avança Brasil is by no means dead, but it is clear from Lula’s choice of environmental minister, Marina Silva, that he is determined that policies affecting the future of Brazil’s Amazon Basin should necessarily take into account both ecological prerogatives and social needs. Silva is the daughter of a rubber tapper, whose family were close friends with Chico Mendes, all of whom were instrumental in the establishment of ‘Extractable Reserves’ in which the forest, with its rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) and Brazil nut trees would be protected. Meanwhile, Mary Alegretti, the minister with a special mandate for the Amazon, who also was associated with the Chico Mendes movement, continues in the job she first undertook under the Cardoso administration.

Perhaps, most revealing is the recent government statement ‘on the place of Amazonia in the development of Brazil’. There, undisguised criticism of past policies and their consequences must be seen against a new appraisal of how best the region can serve the long term interests of Brazilians. The old way of measuring success - gross national product (GNP)- is seen for what it is – a brute indicator that gives no idea of wealth distribution nor of environmental degradation. Between 1970 and 1996, the GNP in Brazil’s Legal Amazonia, jumped from US$8.5 billion to $53.5 billion, while the population in the region increased from 7.7 million to 18.7 million, a six-fold increase in ‘wealth’ compared with a 2.4 fold increase in population; but at what cost? In terms of indices of ‘human development’, all the Amazonian states had a much poorer showing than was found in the rest of the country, with a large proportion of the local population earning less than the minimal wage. All that can mean only one thing: the wealth generated in Brazil’s Amazonia had mostly been exported at the expense of the environment and people.

Avança Brasil to date has been concerned almost exclusively with establishing the infrastructure for the export of millions of tonnes of soya, as well as of minerals and wood. Through a mixture of private and public investment, the plan envisaged as much as US$228 billions being spent over 8 years, which would lead, according to INPA, the Institute of Amazonian Research, to a rate of forest clearing of between 269,000 and 506,000 hectares per year up until 2020. This ‘additional’ deforestation would give rise to an increase in carbon greenhouse gas emissions from 52.2 millions of tonnes a year to 98.2 million, equivalent to an annual cost of up to US$2 billion. Lula’s report claims that all that investment, plus its environmental costs, will result in few local benefits and in poor social participation.

Electricity projects of the past, such as the Tucuruí and Balbina hydroelectric schemes, come under heavy criticism for their failure to meet with expectations, while having a disastrous impact on the surroundings. Balbina, for instance, despite causing the flooding and destruction of around 3,000 square kilometres of forest is incapable of meeting the electricity needs of nearby Manaus during dry summer seasons. Far from being benign sources of energy with regard to carbon emissions, such hydroelectric plants bring about the release over their lifetimes of at least as much carbon greenhouse gases as from a coal-fired plant generating the same amount of electricity.

In essence, Lula and his ministers are using their mandate for social reform in Brazil to give Amazonia something of a breathing space. Nonetheless, the pressures for making a quick buck are ever present, thereby creating something of a schizophrenic situation. A few months back, a delegation from the Mato Grosso visited Europe to inform on new initiatives to regulate and curb deforestation in Amazonia’s most southern state. According to officials, the legislation, ‘Environmental Licensing System on Rural Properties’ brought the rate of deforestation down in the State by one-third in its first year. That achievement resulted from focussing on large rural enterprises - above 500 hectares - which, although accounting for less than 10 per cent of the total number of rural properties, have been responsible for over 85 per cent of total deforestation. The claim is that other benefits have resulted, such as a better partnership between government and civil society, more government revenue and of tying environmental concerns in with development agendas.

But how does all that square with 2002 being one of the worst years for forest destruction, and particularly in Mato Grosso? Some of the answers may lie with the governor of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi, who is one of the world’s biggest soya producers. He, it seems unilaterally, has been offering land at dirt-cheap prices to US farmers. Earlier this year, he told a visiting delegation from the American Soya Association that only 5 per cent of ‘agricultural land’ in the State was currently being used. He was looking to 40 per cent of that land being developed over the next few years.

Some farmers have taken up the offer of land at US$20 per hectare in the North of the State, compared with $300 in Goias and $1,215 in the United States. Three years ago, Douglas Ferrell bought 10,000 hectares. He has started cutting back the forest. "This year, (2002)" he said, "we cleared 500 hectares and we will open up a further 500 hectares next year."

Current legislation in Brazil demands that rainforest deforestation must first be authorized by IBAMA, the Ministry of the Environment. Just how the governor’s plans to expand the agricultural base in Mato Grosso will comply with government jurisdiction on environmental grounds remains to be seen.

We will have to see how environmental protection of Amazonia will fare in a region where frontier politics have so far largely held sway. It took just 13 years for more than half of all the forests to be eradicated in Southern Pará. In recent years, a similar process of deforestation and degradation has been taking place in other States of Amazonia, such as Rondonia. There will need to be some dramatic changes in the rate of deforestation if we are going to see significant reductions from the tally of more than 2 million hectares a year of forest destruction over the Legal Amazon of Brazil.

Article first published 08/10/03


  1. Programa de Governo 2002, Coligacao, Lula Presidente. O lugar da Amazonia no desenvolvimento do Brasil. Indicadores, pp13-16. December 2002.
  2. Raquel Ulhoa. Precisamos de ajuda na Amazonia, diz Marina Silva. Folha on Line – Brasil. 16 dec, 2002.
  3. Pronunciamento da Ministra do Meio Ambiente. 3rd January, 2003.
  4. Soya. Di rio de Cuib. 25 February, 2002.

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