By Stuart Grudgings
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 14 (Reuters) - An international fund to protect the Amazon forest launched by Brazil this month marks an important step in harnessing the forest’s wealth in less destructive ways, a leading Amazon expert said on Thursday.
The $100 million initially pledged by Norway would only have a marginal impact on deforestation even if it was repeated for 20 years, said Carlos Nobre, a senior scientist at the National Institute for Space Research.
But by setting a precedent for alternative investments in the Amazon, the fund could stimulate sustainable industries such as rubber and latex that are potentially many times more lucrative than the now-dominant cattle and timber industries.
"That kind of money is not going to change anything. However, I see these initial funds as important elements to create a new economic paradigm for the Amazon," Nobre said.
"It is much more important they (the funds) are used to develop alternatives, not only for law enforcement," he said. "Otherwise, it will be very difficult even with large inflows of money to protect the forest because you almost need a police state, you almost need the army deployed all over the Amazon.
"It just postpones deforestation but it’s not a final solution. The final fix is to create a new economy that can give jobs to several million people."
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a decree establishing the new fund, which aims to raise $21 billion over 13 years to finance conservation and sustainable development.
Nobre said the Amazon could create a market for 50 to 100 sustainable products from only a handful now.
"The Amazon lacks badly entrepreneurs, perhaps that’s the thing it lacks the most, to go there with good ideas and translate biodiversity wealth into economic wealth," he said.
Deforestation of the Amazon almost certainly rose for the first time in three years in the 12 months through July, despite a government crackdown on illegal logging.
A higher annual figure is likely to raise pressure on Brazil’s government to control cattle ranchers and loggers who are seen as the main drivers of deforestation. Many experts say higher global food prices are behind the spike in monthly deforestation rates seen since last year.
In response to the higher trend, the government launched the "Arc of Fire" in February, its biggest operation yet against illegal logging, but experts say its effect has been limited by a lack of resources and lax enforcement of fines.
Nobre said the environmental agency, IBAMA, appeared to have taken a more urgent approach to deforestation this year, with officials frequently using his institute’s satellite data to raid areas where deforestation was in progress.
He also said that new legislation blocking bank lending to those found to be destroying forest illegally was of "tremendous importance" in fighting deforestation.
"You can even think now of a system in which using the satellite you will spot the deforestation and a couple of months later, that person if he is unable to explain that was legal, immediately that person is blacklisted for loans," he said.
"That will have a tremendous impact because most of the operations ... they depend on those loans."
Nobre is a leading researcher in assessing when the Amazon will reach a "tipping point" — the point at which deforestation and climate change combine to trigger self-sustaining desertification. At current deforestation rates, that point could be reached in 50-60 years, he said.
But that prediction does not take into account the growing frequency of forest fires and the widely varying Amazon policies of Latin American governments, Nobre said.
"Even if all countries stop deforestation tomorrow and then within 100 years global warming changes 4-5 degrees further, then forget it, the tipping point will have been reached." (Editing by Bill Trott)