LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The conservation of Brazil's Amazon is threatened by the poor social conditions of its 24 million inhabitants, the first comprehensive study measuring the situation found on Saturday.
Lack of access to clean water, violence, illiteracy and limited opportunities to pursue a better life are among the problems highlighted in the Social Progress Index (SPI) for the Amazon, one of the world's most important ecosystems.
The study paints a picture of social injustice and inequality by charting data from all but one of the region's 773 municipalities and nine states. Researchers hope it will become a tool for improving development policy as Brazil elects a new president in October.
Beto Verissimo, one of the study's authors and lead researcher at the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (Imazon), said the findings raise the question of whether the biodiversity of the Amazon can be protected if the people living there continue to struggle on the very basic measures.
"From access to clean water and basic education to personal choice and rights, the citizens of this region, on average, experience significantly lower social progress compared to people living in the rest of Brazil," Verissimo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
The Amazon SPI studied more than 40 indicators, including maternal mortality, access to piped water, secondary school enrolment, deforestation, malaria incidence, child and teenage pregnancies and violence against indigenous people and women.
Nearly all of the Amazon municipalities have a social progress score below the national average, according to the index examined in the study that was published in partnership with non-profit Social Progress Imperative.
"It is almost like two different countries when you look at the Amazon region and at Brazil as a whole," said Verissimo. "Despite some government efforts to close the gap, progress in the rest of the country has been faster than in the Amazon. It would take 10 to 15 years of social investment to change this."
The study follows the release of the 2014 global SPI, developed by Social Progress Imperative, which ranked Brazil 46th out of 132 countries. It measures social and environmental performance rather than economic output in a drive to make social progress a priority for politicians and businesses.
Brazil's score of 67.7 compared to more than 88 for the top ranking New Zealand, mostly due to problems with personal safety and lack of access to advanced education.
The country has also faced social unrest as Amazon tribes protest against what they see as the steady undermining of their rights to ancestral lands by farmers. The rainforest is threatened by unsustainable logging, infrastructure development and agricultural expansion.
SOCIAL PROBLEMS ACROSS THE AMAZON
The Amazon scored most poorly in the category "opportunity", which includes personal rights, freedom and choice as well as tolerance, inclusion and access to advanced education. The region scored 48.3, compared to 61.2 for the country as a whole.
Acre, on the border with Peru and Bolivia, had the lowest score of the Amazon's nine states. Only 39 percent of its 760,000 population has access to clean water, 24 percent is illiterate and it recorded twice the average rate of violence against women.
In Amazonas, Brazil's biggest state with a population of almost 4 million, some 15 percent of 10-14 year olds have to work to survive and 15 percent of girls aged 15 to 17 years are mothers. Only 37 percent of women complete a basic education.
Even areas that rank above the Amazonian average face formidable social challenges.
The city of Manaus, for example, has a rate of 56.5 homicides per 100,000 residents, more than twice the national average. Violence against women is double the average of the Amazon at 160 cases per 100,000 residents.
The next survey is due in 2016, Verissimo said. "It will be a powerful tool to track progress," he added.
(Editing by Ros Russell)