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Brazil: Amazon deforestation declines to record low

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell yet again and hit a record low for the third straight year, Brazilian scientists reported Tuesday, providing the world with a pleasant surprise that runs counter to reports of localized spikes in land clearing earlier this year.

The estimate for deforestation from August 2010 to July of 2011 came in at 6,238 square kilometres, which is 78 percent below the recent high in 2004. It is also 68 percent below the baseline that Brazil uses to measure its Copenhagen commitment to reduce deforestation by 80 percent by 2020. As discussed in an earlier post, these numbers also translate into significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are on the scale of commitments by the United States and Europe.

The news, available in Portuguese now but soon to be released in English, comes courtesy of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The agency reported significant increases in deforestation that many linked to the ongoing debate over Brazil’s forest protection code earlier this year, but those reports were based on less-detailed satellite imagery and were countered with significant enforcement action on the part of the Brazilian government.

To be sure, there is ample reason for continued concern, including rising demand for food as well as an ongoing rural backlash within Brazil.

As it happens, later today the Brazilian Senate is expected to approve legislation that would roll back parts of Brazil’s long-standing forest code. Environmentalists and many scientists are concerned that the legislation – driven by small landowners known as “ruralistas” as well as broader agricultural interests – will lead to new deforestation by reducing protections along rivers and other areas while letting landowners off the hook for illegal deforestation prior to 2008. Government officials say the legislation is not as bad as it could have been and will not prevent the country from meeting its commitments.

INPE director general Gilberto Camara points out that the legislation would still require landowners to restore illegally cut forest within five years. Roughly 20 percent of cleared areas in the Amazon is today regrowing as secondary vegetation, and this provision is intended to bolster that trend and ensure that those areas are not cleared yet again in the years to come. Under a scenario in which 40% of all clear-cut areas is allowed to regrow without being cut again, Camara adds, the Amazon could become a net carbon sink by 2015.

Carlos Rittl, who tracks the issue for the conservation group WWF in Brazil, argues that the requirement for reforestation does not apply universally and is more than offset by relaxed protections on some 79 million hectares of forest. “Brazil is showing that it’s possible to reduce deforestation under the current law,” he says. The new proposal would lower the bar, Rittl adds, without providing any new instruments to avoid further deforestation in the years to come.

Continued success will be neither easy nor cheap given the economic forces that drive agriculture and deforestation. As it happens, people working on this issue here at the United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa, are busy trying to identify resources and policies that will alter the economics driving land use in the Amazon and beyond.

For his part, Camara says there is reason to rejoice and worry about trends in the Amazon. “So far, the Brazilian government has made good on its promise to reduce deforestation,” he says, but the job will only get more difficult. “Given the political strength of the ruralistas, Brazil is in for a tough internal fight.”


  1. Report this comment

    Lou Gold said:

    Please consider the following:

    1. The data are limited to total clearing (clear-cutting) of more than 15.4 acres which hardly captures the total ongoing damage to the Amazon forest. For example, a 10 acre unit with a road, 30 large trees removed and a tangled mess left behind would not register as “deforestation” under PRODES.

    2. Tree removal — not only clear-cutting — is especially important in connection with the threat of climate change. The occurrence and length of drought is related to the warming of tropical North Atlantic waters and many factors generated outside of Amazonia. But the severity of drought is related to the amount of water vapor that is generated during the dry hot season from within the forest through trans-evaporation. The occasional and drought-mitigating rains during the dry season are what allow the forest to survive. According to the research of Antônio Nobre and his colleagues at INPE a single large tree can pump as much as 1,000 liters of water into the air DAILY during hot dry weather. The Amazon forest has 600 billion “tree geysers” pumping into a “river in the sky.” This is what makes the difference between a killer-drought and a stressful dry season.

    3. One implication of the “deforestation-is-falling” government spin is that government action has played a major role in reducing the damage. However, Phillip Fearnside (a leading Amazonian researcher) argues persuasively that the drop in deforestation has been more related to macro factors in the global economy and that the threats to the biome are in fact on the increase.

    Please don’t play into the false sense of security often promoted in government releases from Brazil.

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