As reported by the BBC last week, Brazilian authorities have dismantled a criminal organization believed to be the “biggest destroyer” of the Amazon rainforest. The gang stands accused of invading, logging and burning large areas of public land to put up for sale for farming and grazing. Their crimes, said to be worth more than $220 million, could land them up to 50 years of jail time if found guilty on all charges of invading public land, theft, environmental crimes, forgery, conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering.
Representing more than half of the world’s rainforests the Amazon is the largest and most biologically diverse tropical rainforest on the planet. Its millions of square miles are home to the largest collection of living plants and animal species in the world. While the Amazon is largely contained within Brazil, its 2.1 million miles span a total of nine countries from Peru on the Pacific side of the continent to French Guiana on the east coast. Given the vast size of the area it is little wonder that some (illicit) activity goes unnoticed. In the case of the Amazon, however, there is a major contributing factor.
One of the aforementioned charges likely to catch a libertarian’s eye is invasion of public land. The real underlying problem, then, becomes readily apparent: no one owns the Amazon! Even the BBC’s correspondent in Brazil is quick to point out that political and police corruption coupled with the federal government’s ineptitude allows loggers and illegal miners “to operate with impunity”. So here we have a situation in which a lack of real ownership of land predictably leads to poor conservation of the area and its natural beauty. The solution, then, should be equally obvious. And it is.
Contrary to mainstream environmentalist thinking examples of successful private management of nature reserves abound. A recent National Geographic article for instance, details how the Lapa Rios private reserve in Costa Rica plays a critical role in sustaining a connected and healthy population of large cats. Funded by low-impact ecotourism these reserves are not dependent on the whims of politicians and offer more reliable protection from illegal hunting and forest degradation.
Much closer to the Amazon region is an area known as the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland area. Located mostly in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul it is almost entirely in private hands, namely those of indigenous cattle herders. Though much less famous than the Amazon the Pantanal is known as a must for any and all who like to see wildlife up close – better than the Amazon according to many a traveler. The same sort of ecotourism commonly seen in Costa Rica enables the highly successful preservation of natural flora and fauna.
The objections commonly voiced against the private ownership of parks and reserves can be easily refuted using basic economic laws of supply and demand and the profit motive. In addition we can point to plenty of successful real-world examples to build a convincing pro-liberty case. Besides, if everyone is so worried about preserving the environment and maintaining biodiversity, how much more successful will voluntary action aimed at doing just those things be?
The key to proper management and preservation of our beautiful planet is nothing more or less than good old-fashioned property rights. Absent the recognition of those rights and the incentives inherent therein we can only expect environmental degradation.