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Deforestation drops in the Brazilian Amazon (again)

The numbers just keep going down: deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen 23% over the past year, according to an initial — and highly uncertain — analysis released Thursday by the Brazilian government.

Although the preliminary figures are based on coarse satellite data that are also subject to huge variability owing to cloud cover, they serve as an initial indicator that deforestation is likely to hit a fourth consecutive record low in the season that ran from August 2011 through July 2012. The latest official figures, released in December, show deforestation dropping to 6,238 square kilometres last year.

It is impossible to say how well the 2012 estimate will hold up once the detailed analysis is released later this year. In 2010, the final tally came in substantially higher than the initial estimate, and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which runs the monitoring programme, specifically recommends against comparing different years when it comes to this particular data. But it’s so tempting…

Just as a thought experiment: if these numbers were to hold up, it would represent a 75% drop below Brazil’s official baseline of 19,500 square kilometres annually (the average from 1996–2005). Again, for perspective, Brazil has committed to reducing deforestation by 80% — by 2020. Which helps to explain why environmentalists have been pushing the government to adopt an even stronger target (zero deforestation, for instance).

But, as always, a note of caution: although the numbers keep going down, there are some troubling signs as well. A backlash among rural and agricultural interests has already spurred the Brazilian Congress to scale back the country’s forestry law. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff vetoed the most extreme pieces of that legislation in May, but the battle goes on. And although Rousseff has so far maintained Brazil’s pledge on deforestation, environmentalists have criticized her administration for, among other things, ignoring environmental and social concerns in a larger push to develop the Amazon (for the latest on that, see our post on a new government regulation that would give the government carte blanche to act in the name of national security).

After releasing the new deforestation numbers, the Ministry of Science and Technology also announced plans to disperse around US$48 million from the Amazon Fund in the coming weeks. This money will go to sustainable development projects that are intended to help shift the frontier economics and reward landowners who maintain standing forest on their property. “Lasting reduction in deforestation requires more than enforcement and control,” said Carlos Nobre, secretary for research-and-development policies and programmes at the Ministry of Science and Technology in Brasilia. Nobre said that the ministry is partnering with agricultural scientists on new standards for agriculture and is more generally working to develop “a new economic model for the Amazon”.

Given earlier delays in implementing the Amazon Fund as well as the slow pace of international efforts under the United Nations climate treaty, many will surely welcome the new funding as yet another small sign of progress.

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