Amazon Facing New Threat: Agent Orange
Ranchers use Herbicide as a Stealthy Way to Clear the Rainforest
Agent Orange was as deadly as guns in the Vietnam War, killing or injuring an estimated 400,000 people. Decades later, the herbicide is being used to kill again — this time, on the Amazon rainforest.
In recent weeks, authorities have discovered ranchers spraying the highly-toxic chemical on sections of the forest in an attempt to clear the land without officials noticing. The herbicide is much harder to detect than traditional methods of deforestation, which usually involve less stealthy tools like tractors and chainsaws.
Photo by Daniele Gidsick
Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or IBAMA, was first alerted to the use of Agent Orange in the Amazon by satellite photos, which showed thousands of trees that had turned the color of ash and lost all their leaves. IBAMA officials said it is probable that the poison was dropped on the trees from an aircraft, though they do not yet know whose aircraft.
According to the photos, about 440 acres have already been poisoned. However, in a rainforest as rich in animal life as the Amazon, thousands of trees are not the only casualties of the practice — animals, too, have been killed. There is no estimate yet of how many or which species were affected, but unlike manual logging, there is little opportunity to escape from Agent Orange, so the damage that is done may last for generations as entire pland and animal communities are wiped out.
"They have changed their strategy because, in a short time, more areas of forest can be destroyed with herbicides,” says Jefferson Lobato, an IBAMA official told reporters. “Thus, they don't need to mobilize tree-cutting teams and can therefore bypass the supervision of IBAMA."
In a recent raid, IBAMA officials discovered approximately four tons of the chemical waiting to be dispersed — if it had been, the herbicide could have destroyed 7,500 acres of rainforest and contaminated groundwater. But in this case, the rancher responsible was apprehended and is facing a fine of about $1.3 million.
The switch to a more covert deforestation technique comes as the Brazilian government makes a concerted effort to stop illegal logging. In 2008, after a 3.8 percent increase in deforestation compared to the previous year, the Brazilian government announced a plan to reduce deforestation by 70 percent over the next ten years, or about 6,000 square kilometers per year.
"Just in terms of avoided deforestation in the Amazon, the plan foresees a reduction of 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide that won't be emitted up to 2018, which is more than the reduction efforts fixed by all the rich countries," says Carlos Minc, Brazil's Environment Minister.
But the use of Agent Orange — the effects of which are still visible in Vietnam, where one million people have disabilities directly associated with the chemical — makes deforestation of the Amazon an even more urgent problem.