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The Tragedy of the Amazon
Jul 1, 1993

The Amazon tropical rainforest is the largest in the world, spanning nine Latin American countries-Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guinea and Surinam -and covering 5.5 million square kilometers (550 million hectares), an area nearly six times the size of Turkey (Goldenberg and Durham, 1990, p.25). It catches an average annual rainfall of more than 100 inches and is the home of literally millions of species of plants and animals, most of them unique to the region. One hectare of Amazon rainforest may hold as many as 230 different species of trees, compared to the 10 or 15 species in the equivalent area of any other rainforest (see The Ecologist 1989, special issue on the Amazon). One report estimated, for a typical 4 sq. mile patch, approximately 750 species of trees, 125 of mammals, 400 of birds, 100 of reptiles and 60 of amphibians, while a single tree might be the habitat of more than 400 insect species, 80.000 plant species (including 600 kinds of palm alone) and some 30 million animal species inhabit the Amazon forest (Linden, 1988, p.45).

For that reason, the region constitutes a vast, natural pharmacopoeia. Plant and animal tissues obtained from the rain forest are used in the production of chemicals of known medicinal potency. (The ingredients for the best known drugs are extracted from the tropical plants.) So far less than one percent of the Amazon’s plant species have been studied for their possible curative properties (McGee, 1990, pp.516-17).

In contrast to the wealth of its flora and fauna, the soil of the Amazon is poor, so poor that, when large areas are cleared up, the regeneration process may take as long as 300, in some places even 1000 years (Giamo, 1988, p.539). But, the forest is rich in various natural resources: deposits of manganese, aluminium, copper, tin, nickel, iron, gold and natural gas have been found. Annual production of these minerals is worth about 1.5 billion dollars (McGee, 1990, p.515).

The region as a whole is vital to the maintenance of the world ecological order; it is an important factor in world weather patterns; nearly half of the world’s oxygen atmosphere is released from its vegetation; and approximately two-thirds of the world’s fresh water is stored in the Amazon basin.


Today, one of the most serious problems facing the international community is the uncontrolled destruction of this unique environment. Deforestation of the Amazon region is being done by all nine states sharing the region, though Brazil, 59% of whose territory is located in the Amazon basin, is the most active. Over the last three decades, the scale of destruction has become intolerable. There are no precise figures; the estimate is a loss of 13.000 sq. km. of forest annually. The total destruction of the Brazilian Amazon so far amounts to 415.000 sq. km., an area about the size of Iraq (Cerrill, 1992, p.44). Pessimists expect the Brazilian rainforest to have been largely destroyed by the first decades of the next century, despite a fall in the rate of destruction (ibid).

In a global perspective, the destruction of the earth’s lungs (for that is what the rainforests are) raises two problems. First, the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere. In 1988 an estimated 12,000 sq. miles of Brazilian forest, an area larger than Belgium, was set alight to clear land for agricultural use. Excessive CO2 emission from such fires is among the main causes of the so-called greenhouse effect: Amazon deforestation contributes nearly five percent of the total CO2 emissions worldwide; the region as a whole stores in its flora 0.75 billion tons of carbon (Linden, 1989, p.46). The increase in the temperature of the earth’s surface will bring about climatic chaos, threatening the future of the global ecosystem including mankind. Second, deforestation goes hand in hand with the destruction of fauna and flora. It is estimated that every day one species becomes extinct (Goldenberg and Durham, 1990, p.26). If the Amazon rainforests vanish, more than a million species, a significant portion of the earth’s biological diversity and genetic heritage, will become extinct (Linden, 1989, p.45). The scale of the danger can be simply illustrated: 900 species of fig provide essential nutrition for spider monkeys, peccaries (a variety of pig) and toucans, for over three months of every year; the figs themselves depend on pollination by wasps–if the wasps go, all species higher up on the food chain go also: the monkeys and jaguars would disappear.

The well-being of the generations to come is dependent upon the preservation of biological diversity. Failure means that our children will be deprived of the opportunity to discover or modify pharmaceutical compounds from the genetic diversity that is now available but would then not be. And that lack would be felt also in the agricultural sector where genes taken from wild species are used to interbreed with domesticated varieties to enrich and strengthen them. For example, the California barley crop, with an estimated annual value of $160 million, was rendered immune to the lethal yellow dwarf virus by a gene from a barley plant found in Ethiopia (Dobson, 1992, p.282). That is why even Westerners agree that ‘Brazil is very important to the international community because of its biological diversity’ (Cerrill, 1992, p.46).

The Brazilians are accused of constructing highways, colonizing the region through large-scale migration, ranching, mining and lumbering. In fact, all the Latin American countries who share it also share in the destruction of the rainforest. In some of these countries, the forest is cleared to grow coca for cocaine production. Many endangered plants and animal species are caught for export to the West’s pet shops. The local governments are unable or reluctant to enforce international agreements to protect the fauna and flora threatened with extinction.

The principal excuse for the ongoing destruction is widespread poverty, even hunger, in the countries concerned. One Brazilian president said ‘we cannot discuss the environment issue without taking into account the situation of poverty and misery in which three-quarters of humanity lives’ (Cerrill, 1992, p.46). We should ask ourselves why such poverty arises in a region which Allah has endowed with so much natural wealth and beauty.


We should seek the reason for the tragedy of the Amazon region in the brutality of the international economic order, based on the crudest laissez-faire economic attitudes and a usurious financial system. Without doubt, it is the foreign debts of Brazil and other Latin American countries that are the immediate reason for the deforestation policy. Brazil is now staggering under a foreign debt of $120 billion.

As Umar Vadillo rightly says: ‘the problems of the usurious economy are becoming day by day more apparent and more pressing since they are connected to the very survival of man and the ecological equilibrium of the planet. Today no one has any doubts that the reasons for starvation in the world and the serious deforestation of the tropical forests lie primarily in the debts of those countries’ (Vadillo, 1991).

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have financed enormous highway and hydroelectric plants and other construction projects with the specific aim of exploiting the revenues from the destruction of the Amazon (Goldenberg and Durham, 1990, p.31). The policies of such institutions are meant to divert the natural resources of developing countries from serving the needs of their populations to financing usurious loans taken out for projects that benefit only particular groups (Mc Clearly, 1991, p.707). The loans do not help the mass of the people to develop sustainable economic projects. Instead, they oblige them to set aside their best lands to grow crops for exports (where prices are beyond their control) in order to earn the foreign currency to service the national debt. It is a vicious circle systematically used by the world’s financiers to grind down the poor so that they continue to be forced to invest, through Western banks, in the affluence of the West: for every one dollar invested by the Western countries in the Third World (whether as aid or as loans) ten dollars are repaid in interest.

The cost of this debt slavery is horrific. In Brazil, for example, three-quarters of the population are living in the cities, more than half of them without adequate water supplies or sewage systems (Cerrill, 1992, p.47). Even some Westerners are coming to accept that the developed world cannot continue its exploitation of underdeveloped countries with the cruel intensity of the past half century–such an attitude is unsustainable, as well as being morally repulsive (Mc Clearly, 1991, p.707).

As long as the Western banks press the Brazilian governments to repay loans and interests, the Brazilian people will be forced to exploit the rainforest to barely survive as debt-slaves: but this has repercussions on the global climate and eco-system we all share. One cannot help agree with a Brazilian Congressman who said: ‘The green area of Amazonia should be totally devastated ... because the forest represents the paralyzation of the country’s development’ [quoted from O Globo (Oct. 19, 1977) in Giamo, 1988, p.537]. Recently, Western banks have come to understand the consequences of their policies and the danger they put themselves in: one official tries to clear himself of blame in this way: ‘Deforestation may be with our money, but it is very much against our philosophy’ (Timberlake, 1987, p.23). It is beginning to dawn on the decision-makers that the agony imposed on the South by the North will lead to a catastrophe that will certainly engulf the North too. This confession arises from the understanding, in the aftermath of the catastrophic events of the 1980s, that due to the delicate ecological balance of the global environment, the South and the North share the same destiny. One’s loss will certainly be the other’s.

The Qur’an categorically prohibits usury; for example, in al-Baqarah: O you who believe! Have fear of Allah and give up what is still due from usury. If you do not, then be warned of war from Allah and His Messenger (2.278). Also, the Qur’an reiterates many times the interdependence of the creation, its fundamental interconnectedness and unity. As a single example of this, consider the following verse from al-An’am: No creature is there crawling on the earth, no bird flying with its wings, but they are nations like yourselves (6.38).

The respect for other creatures required by this verse (Hamid, 1989, p.159) is well-illustrated in the report that the Prophet, upon him be peace, following his own reasoning, once ordered dogs to be killed, but then changed his position to harmonize with the verse. He explained: ‘If the dogs were not nations in themselves I would command them to be killed’ (Sahin, 1992, p.7). The care and compassion of this attitude, its patient refusal to exercise the power human beings do have, is surely an example of a sensitivity to the hidden purposes of Allah’s creation, its as-yet unrealized potential, that we find echoed in the pleas, now growing desperate in their urgency, that we respect and save ‘the bio-diversity’ of our planet.

Certainly, the All-Merciful and All-Powerful created this universe with a harmony and balance among its many, different elements: And the firmament He raised up high and, He set up the balance in order that ye may not transgress (due) balance (7.9).

It is an aspect of human civilization, gravely neglected in the West, that human beings should learn to hear that harmony, to feel that balance, and to seek to live in tune with the Creator’s purpose rather than in arrogant disregard of it. Man’s dominion is conditional on his being a steward of nature, not a ruthless, self-indulgent tyrant. To prefer the role of tyrant to that of steward is in reality, to prefer our self-destruction biological as well as moral. 


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