Some time ago I heard the astounding statistic that every DAY in Brazil, an area the size of Virginia was being cleared of trees. Virginia is not Texas, to be sure, but it's still an entire state and of course I was outraged and probably wrote a letter to the mayor or something (it was that long ago).
Of course, what I failed to appreciate at that time was that Brazil is big. Very big. You could probably cram two thousand Virginias into it. Although it doesn't ameliorate the budding panic I feel every time I think of a massive tree getting sawn down (I don't mean to be overly sentimental, but it doesn't take a math genius to figure out that if you're cutting down huge trees much faster than they can grow soon you won't have any huge trees, or any trees at all--just ask the Easter Islanders) for the sake of making a cabinet, or someone's slash-and-burn field, it does make the cavalier attitude about the rain forest a little easier to understand: if you're in the jungle, it's massive. During the right seasons, you can stand on one bank of the Amazon, and not see the other side. We see the rainforest as a precious resource. To the folks who live there, it's something that gets in the way of making a living.
Two factors mitigate the difficulty of preservation efforts. First is a vacuum of land use laws concerning the jungle, and second is poverty. According to the latest issue of The Economist, the jungle is taken over on a first-come, first-served basis. Stake your claim, shoot those who contest it, and when you've finished with it, sell to the highest bidder.
The solution seems simple--a bigger carrot. Commercialization of products derived from the rain forest, eco-tourism, and flat-out bribery (technically it's known as "subsidization for not cutting down trees") are all incentives to leave the forest be.
Well, maybe not. Eco-tourism, for instance, requires you to go into the forest with your group of tourists, show them around a bit, and then get them back out. Getting, say, exotic nuts or plants from the forest requires the same thing. Bribery--well, that works. The first two require roads. But it's been shown that roadways into the jungle are potentially more devastating than just cutting down a swath of trees.
But none of this will matter without Brazilian law extending its reach. Carrots are all very well and good, but without a suitable stick, there won't be enough incentive for people to change. Free market theory suggests that this will never work. The government, corrupt as it is (or will be, once enough money is involved) will somehow endeavor to screw it up.
I'm not sure I buy the idea that the best way to go about fixing the economy is necessarily to give people a stake in keeping the environment intact. People are notoriously bad at making decisions that involve delayed gratification (witness the credit crunch) and investment, and that is doubly true when there's no obvious benefit--for them--to keep the trees alive.