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Ask the locals, and they’ll say that God must be Brazilian. Gazing down at Rio de Janeiro from the open arms of the Corcovado, it’s easy to see why. The city is nestled improbably among majestic rock formations, an imposing fresh water lake and the world renowned crescent-shaped beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

An hour's drive inland and the city gives way to pine-covered cliffs that tower above lushly carpeted valleys, a nod to the good sense of King John VI of Portugal, who in the early 19th century, chose the mountains behind Rio for his courtly home.

But behind Rio’s striking beauty lies a cautionary tale of epic proportions. It began not long after the last Brazilian monarch abandoned his throne near the turn of the last century, when a growing population began to cut down the country’s forests to make way for agriculture. That practice continues virtually unabated today. The State of Rio de Janeiro used to be 97 percent covered in natural forest. Today, less than 20 percent remains.

As Brazil goes, Earth goes
Similar destruction appears throughout a plant- and animal-rich ecosystem that once covered 800,000 square miles of Brazil’s coastline. Now, only about 7 percent of the original Mata remains, 171 species are threatened with extinction, and conservationists say that the survival of the ecosystem is unlikely.

“The Mata Atlantica has a terminal illness,” said Mario Mantovani, director of Sao Paulo-based SOS Mata Atlantica. “It no longer has the ability to resist. If there were 20 or 30 percent of the Mata left, it might be possible revert the damage. Today no.”

In a struggle between man and nature that has echoes around the planet, massive environmental concerns have reared up throughout Brazil as the government attempts to meet the needs of its growing population. On the western border near Bolivia, the huge Pantanal wetlands are being drained to make way for hydroelectric projects, eliminating an entire habitat.

Image: Deforestation of Brazil's rainforest
Deforestation in Brazil's interior rain forest is eating away at a region environmentalists call "the lungs of the planet."
The worst drought in almost 200 years in the arid northeast is turning about 110,000 square miles of once fertile land into desert. Overcrowding in Sao Paulo and Rio, with populations of 18 million and 7 million respectively, has polluted water sources, denuded mountainsides and spawned outbreaks of disease and unmanageable criminal violence. Because the country is so large, and the variations in climate so broad, Brazilians are being forced to find solutions to virtually all of the world’s environmental problems within their own borders.

The pressure put on Brazil by environmentalists and politicians in the developed world to curb these trends has often spawned resentment. After all, ask Brazilians, Egyptians, Chinese and Indians alike, were not Europe and North America once covered by forest? Should developing countries put their dreams of prosperity on hold on the evidence offered by foreign scientists?

“Brazil has a huge tropical rainforest that includes a large percentage of the world’s biological diversity, and the population is growing rapidly and is becoming progressively more affluent,” said Lester Brown, an environmental authority at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. “The possibility of a quarter of a billion relatively affluent consumers in the future in Brazil means a lot of additional pressure on world resources.

“If the Brazilian Amazon goes, the rest of the Amazon will go with it. How this would affect the climate, no one really knows,” he said.

Resources to burn
Further complicating the debate in Brazil is the misconception here that the nation is a bottomless reserve of natural resources. Flying over the Amazon, it is hard to envision that the solid block of green below is being destroyed at a rate of 5,000 football fields a day, as conservative figures estimate. Or that an area between up to four times the size of California has already been stripped of vegetation in recent decades by “clear cutting,” a process by which ranchers and developers cut or burn down huge swaths of forest to make way for grazing lands and other agriculture.

InsertArt(398976)The sheer immensity of the Amazon, the largest tropical rainforest in the world covering an area more than half the size of the continental United States, means that until recently locals have treated the forest as if its bounty would never end. Now, it may be too late to save.

“If we can’t find a path to sustainable development in the next 10 to 20 years, it is very likely that by the year 2050 there will be very little forest left,” said Carlos Nobre, head of Brazil’s Center for Weather and Climate Research.

Worldwide impact
The majority of the world’s scientists believe that the loss of the Amazon rainforest would be devastating to the globe’s environment. There is an active debate over how quickly and dramatically the results will show themselves, but few now argue that such devastation will pass unnoticed. Among the more catastrophic forecasts: enormous decreases in air quality and resulting increases in lung diseases and cancer; the melting of polar ice caps and the submergence of many of the Earth’s inhabited coastlands - among them, large parts of New York, Hong Kong, London and Shanghai.

Back in the Amazon, Nobre leads a group of international scientists who recently launched an ambitious project to discover just how the rainforest fits into the global environmental cycle. Working from a neatly manicured compound at Kilometer 40 of a lonely stretch of halfway between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Nobre’s small group directs a larger, global effort involving over 200 researchers funded by NASA, the Brazilian government, universities and European donors. Ultimately, Nobre said, they hope to pinpoint exactly how crucial a role the rainforest plays in cleansing the Earth’s air of carbon dioxide, and in turn, controlling the build up of greenhouse gas.

From there, the group hopes to apply its knowledge to devise sustainable solutions for the Amazon, as well as tropical rainforests in Africa and Asia.

The Amazon has a long history of defeating grand efforts to tame it, to develop it and, more recently, to save it. One of the most spectacular failures occurred in the 1920s, when Henry Ford began buying up tracts of land for development as a rubber plantation. A combination of factors, including the mistaken planting of Ford’s trees too close together, led to a blight that wiped out the entire project.

“All of the efforts to develop the forest have not been based on a solid knowledge of the functioning of the ecosystem,” Nobre said. “If you start with Henry Ford and the rubber plantations in the ’20s and ’30s to the cattle ranches today, all have been failures. We know why these things fail, but we don’t know how to make them work.”

Creating an incentive
Several hundred non-governmental groups also are working in Brazil to find alternatives to clear cutting and other environmental degradation. Many point to Brazil’s rich biodiversity, which includes 55,000 different types of plants or 22 percent of the world’s known species, as a means to profit off of the growing market for medicinal herbs. Others, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and U.S. Vice President Al Gore, have advocated the use of “matching funds” that would create an incentive for Brazil to spend on the environment.

Image: logging
Logging on the western fringes of the Amazon.
So far, however, those efforts which have progressed beyond talk have failed to make a major impact. Any successful assault on the problems of Brazil would need to count on the full support of the government. To date, Brazilian governments have been notoriously lax in making the environment a priority, preferring to concentrate on economic growth and - some critics would say - patronage and corruption.

Even in the face of catastrophe, inaction often prevails. Despite the fact that more than 12 percent of the Amazonian state of Roraima burned to the ground last year from uncontrollable wildfires during the February to April dry season, environmentalists say the government has failed to take preventive measures this year.

“The major problem with the environment in Brazil is that we are not forward looking,” said Garo Batmanian, Director of the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Brazil. “We usually come in after the problem has already happened and spend billions of dollars to try and fix it.”

The fiscal crisis and near economic collapse earlier this year set efforts back even further. Acting to quell the market and meet International Monetary Fund strictures, the Brazilian government has had to drastically cut its budget. Invariably, was Brazil’s environmental agency and related programs.

“What the government seems to forget,” said SOS’s Mantovani, “is that you can’t stop drinking water. You can’t stop breathing. You can’t buy biodiversity. These are issues that are basic for the country, but we tend to live hand to mouth, without any plan for the future.”

In any other country on this planet, that might be a local or at most a regional problem. But Brazil’s problems, scientists say, are everybody’s problems.

Jennifer L. Rich is MSNBC’s Sao Paulo correspondent.

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