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Author Nikolas Kozloff on “No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet”

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Environmentalists and indigenous communities along the Amazon celebrated an important victory Thursday after a Brazilian judge suspended bidding on the construction of what is slated to be the third largest dam in the world. We speak to Nikolas Kozloff, author of the new book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet. Kozloff argues that protecting the rainforests of the Amazon from environmental damage is not just crucial for the populations that live in and around it, but is a global necessity. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Environmentalists and indigenous communities along the Amazon celebrated an important victory Thursday after a Brazilian judge suspended bidding on the construction of what is slated to be the largest dam in the world. The decision came shortly after Avatar director and Hollywood icon James Cameron made a brief visit to the area threatened by the huge Belo Monte Dam and wrote a letter to Brazilian President Lula da Silva, urging him to consider the ecological and human costs of the project.

The homes and livelihoods of some 40,000 people are threatened by the dam. But supporters of the project, including the President of Brazil, say it is essential to meet the skyrocketing electricity demands of Brazil’s population. In a recent speech in São Paulo, Lula said, quote, “No one worries more about taking care of the Amazon and our Indians than we do.”


Well, our next guest argues that protecting the rainforests of the Amazon from environmental damage is not just crucial for the populations that live in and around it, but a global necessity. Nikolas Kozloff writes, quote, “Acting as the planet’s air conditioner, the Amazon absorbs millions of tons of greenhouse gases that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. Yet every year thousands of square miles of this rainforest are destroyed — thus unleashing a catastrophic bomb of stored carbon that only adds to the world’s deteriorating climate conditions.”

Nik Kozloff’s latest book is called No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet. His previous books are Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left and Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the United States.

Well, Nik Kozloff, you’re joining us here in New York as Democracy Now! heads off to Cochabamba, Bolivia for the peoples’ climate summit that we’ll be broadcasting from all next week. And at the same time, there’ll be a number of people who won’t be going to Bolivia, though they had plans to, because they’re in airports, like in London and Iceland, all throughout Europe. This volcano that’s erupted in Iceland has led to an ash cloud that is closing down the airports of Europe. It is astounding.

But talk about why the climate, as you put it, of South America affects the entire planet?


Well, the Amazon is just a vast region. Just to give you an idea, we’re talking about an area the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States. It’s 40 percent of South America’s landmass. And, you know, in my book, I concentrated on the two largest Amazonian countries, Brazil and Peru, but it borders on many countries throughout the Andean region, including Venezuela, Colombia, and then down even into Bolivia.

In the best of times, you know, the Amazon absorbs the carbon, which serves a good — which helps, you know, mitigate the effects of climate change. On the other hand, when you have deforestation, that carbon that’s stored in the vegetation and the trees gets released. And we’re talking about billions and billions of tons of carbon. And I think when people think about global warming, they tend to think about the transport sector, tailpipe emissions. But this other problem has kind of fallen beneath the radar screen.

And it’s not just a problem of carbon. You know, carbon is the most abundant greenhouse gas, but there’s also nitrous oxide emissions and methane emissions, which are not as abundant, but they’re very powerful. They’re much more potent than CO2. And hydropower is associated with the methane emissions, because you have rotting vegetation in the reservoir of these hydroelectric power stations in Brazil. And that methane is now becoming a big problem. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just said that the hydroelectric power stations and methane is now a big part of our problem.

So it’s getting a bit more attention, but I think more attention needs to be paid to this issue. And I’m glad to see that, you know, organizations like Amazon Watch are organizing trips to facilitate, you know, the trip of James Cameron, the Hollywood blockbuster director who just went down to the Amazon and who’s drawn attention to the Belo Monte Dam, which is going to flood — which would have flooded the wider region and would have displaced indigenous peoples and others. But my point is that in addition to that, there’s also this methane connection, which has impacts for us all.


What about the statement of President Lula da Silva that nobody cares about this issue more than he does? What’s been the record of his government over the past few years in terms of stopping the deforestation of the Amazon?


Well, it’s been pretty mixed. On the one hand, he did promote Marina Silva to head his Environmental Ministry, who’s an incredible woman. I mean, she was a rubber tapper, and she was a colleague of Chico Mendes, who was martyred, you know, was killed, in his struggle to defend the rainforest many years ago. So you have to give him credit for that. But I think the problem in Brazil is that even though you have an ostensibly leftist president, Lula da Silva, he’s closely allied to agribusiness, the soy barons, you know, the cattle ranchers and hydropower.

So I think, personally, what is needed is a massive alternative reorientation of the Amazon. And so, that’s going to require social justice and environmental protection, and that’s a very ambitious agenda. I mean, you have to take care of all these landless peasants in the first place. You have to settle them outside of the Amazon. And then you have to do agraforestry and more sustainable pursuits in the Amazon. And then you have to take on some of these politically influential lobbying groups, like the hydropower and others. So that’s a tall order.

But I also think, you know, the United States is going to have to participate, as well, and give tropical countries an incentive to not deforest. And we’re going to — you know, we’re talking about probably tens of billions of dollars per year. And I think that is what is required, which is ambitious, but I think the alternative is this kind of death carbon spiral to the bottom that we’ve seen in recent years. And we have to get the problem under control.


Your chapter in No Rain in the Amazon on “Cattle and the ‘Carbon Bomb’” — what do you mean?


Well, what happens is that the cattle industry in Brazil is now increasingly internationalized. So we’re not talking about just a few ranchers here. We’re talking about international companies that are now exporting this Amazonian beef, and that makes its way into a lot of different products, from upholstery in cars, you know, to shoes, to hamburgers. So, what happens is, you know, there’s some ranching in the Amazon, but what happens often is that it acts as a push factor. So the cattle ranchers push landless people into the Amazon. They occupy land outside of the Amazon, and that pushes people into the rainforest.

And then, in conjunction with that, you have these soybean planters, who are very politically influential. And the two go hand in hand, because now you have to feed all of these cattle and livestock all over the world, and you have in China, people want a middle-class lifestyle just like the US, and one of the status symbols of that is being able to eat meat. And in order to feed all of that livestock, you have to have the soy meal. So the two are sort of acting in conjunction, and so agribusiness is very politically influential in Brazil.

I personally think that, inevitably, when you have a reducing emissions through deforestation scheme — I do believe that will go through eventually. This is the scheme that’s been discussed in Copenhagen and these climate summits. And when you do have that, you may have to sit down at the table with some of these politically influential actors, like the cattle ranchers and the soybean planters, and make — and try to work out, you know, an alternative scenario for the Amazon. But it’s going to require a lot of money from the affluent countries, you know, the United States and Europe, to the tune, I would say, of tens of billions of dollars, to give them an incentive to not pursue reckless agribusiness, to pursue other pursuits.


But doesn’t that run up against, still, a level of impunity or lawlessness that still exists in the region, where — it’s not just Chico Mendes. Periodically we hear of environmental advocates there beaten or killed, and that there seems to be no ability of the government to stop this kind of lawlessness?


Right. I think you’ve hit on one of the key ironies, because even as Brazil tries to present itself as this modern country that’s, you know, had fantastic economic growth rates, it’s going to host the Olympics, and so on, you have just vigilante justice and these pistolero-hired gangs that go out and kill people like Dorothy Stang, a US nun who was trying to defend the rainforest several years ago.

You know, I think that it’s a very complex problem. I think that any solution is going to have to take into account the indigenous people. They’re going to have to form a part of these negotiations in the reducing emissions through deforestation scheme. They’re going to have to be more incorporated than they have been. I think governance is going to be an issue. That may be an internal problem. But I think together, the United States and Brazil are going to have to get together. We’re going to have to provide the financial resources and then hammer out all these issues to provide social justice and environmental protection simultaneously.


Finally, we just have a minute, I wanted to get your take on the Bolivia climate summit that’s being convened by President Evo Morales, that Democracy Now! will be broadcasting from all next week, and also Defense Secretary Robert Gates continuing to visit Latin American militaries, just most recently in Colombia.


Well, I certainly applaud the alternative climate summit in Cochabamba. I think it’s a step in the right direction. And certainly, given that Copenhagen, according to many, you know, didn’t live up to its promises, I think that is what is needed. I think Evo Morales has been a slight Johnny-come-lately to the environment. I think, you know, despite his rhetoric, his progressive rhetoric, he’s been a classic economic nationalist, and he wants to export raw materials, such as —- and there’s been a lot of talk about the lithium deposits now in Bolivia. But, you know, that said, better late than never. And I think -—


We have ten seconds.


Oh, and I think — but he also has got to take on this contradiction of the coca leaf, which is also leading towards deforestation. It’s an anti-imperialist symbol for him, but I think that if he extends coca cultivation, it has to be done under environmentally suitable criteria.


Nik Kozloff, I want to thank you for being with us. Congratulations on your new book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.

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