13 November, 2009

The Brazilian government celebrates the lowest ever level of deforestation in the Amazon

Preliminary satellite data points to the smaller amount of logging since measurement began. But can it be sustained?

Sergio Abranches

INPE – The National Space Research Agency reports a major reduction of deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon. Preliminary satellite data shows that total deforestation from August 2008 to July 2009 reached the lowest level since measurement began: 7,008 sq. km. Although the government, in full electoral drive, attributes this sharp drop in logging activity to policies of land property regularization, it has other causes.

The government is also celebrating these figures as a durable achievement, which is unlikely to be true. The major factor behind such a low number was the recession, that has dramatically reduced housing activities, the major source of demand for Amazon timber – both legal and illegal. The world economic crisis has also substantially reduced foreign demand for agricultural commodities, at the same time their prices fell significantly. There is a historic correlation between agricultural commodities prices and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Deforestation has been, nevertheless, on a downward trend since 2005. The two major economic drivers of deforestation in Brazil, soybean plantation and cattle ranching are under relative control due to successful action from Greenpeace. First the NGO has targeted soybean production, and led major consumers such as MacDonald’s, and its major supplier, Cargill, to join other large companies on a soy moratorium that is now 3 years old. Earlier this year, Greenpeace targeted cattle retailers, and as a result the larger supermarket chains Wal-Mart, Pão de Açúcar and Carrefour announced a ban on beef from ranchers and slaughterhouses accused of deforestation by state prosecutors. The government became a part of these initiatives after they were already in force.

This downward trend has also resulted from policies the of the command and control introduced by former Environment Minister Marina Silva, and maintained by the present minister Carlos Minc. Minc has also increased Federal Police and Environmental Agents’ raids against cattle ranchers and illegal loggers in the Amazon that began with so-called Operation Arch of Fire created by Marina Silva.

Among the most effective actions taken by the former minister was the resolution by the Monetary Authority prohibiting financing of farms and companies found to be illegally logging.

But it is clear that deforestation will only drop on a sustained way after a whole new development policy for the region is implemented.

Although this lower level of deforestation is good news, it is still too high. According to Warren Dean (With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest) it took 150 years for the sugar cane producers to destroy 7,500 sq. km of the Atlantic Rainforest, between 1700 to 1850. In other words the government celebrates as a great achievement the fact that we are logging in one year the same amount of trees that were cut from the Atlantic Rainforest over 150 years. (Thanks to @claudioangelo for reminding us).

The government has been sounding its trumpets at every opportunity regarding the environmental agenda, since former Environment Minister, Marina Silva, quit Lula’s party, PT, to join the Green Party – PV on a bid to the Presidency in 2010. Suddenly a government that has always been aloof to environmental and climate change issues moved them to the center of its political marketing agenda.

This newly found concern for the environment will likely influence the government’s decision to commit to a quantifiable action aiming at curbing carbon emissions in Copenhagen. A good sign of this propensity for a shift on Brazil’s traditional diplomatic state of denial is that Lula has appointed his minister Dilma Roussef as head of the Brazilian delegation. Dilma Roussef, Lula’s Chief of Staff has been personally picked by the president as his party’s presidential candidate. This decision is likely to be announced later today. Tomorrow president Lula leaves for a visit to France, and minister Roussef goes from Paris to Copenhagen for preparatory talks on the way to COP15.

These are all incremental improvements that will require further work to become truly meaningful. The good news is that inertia has been broken. Underneath a heavy clutter of green washing and political marketeering there is some progress that may prove useful in the future, after politics gives room to sound policy.

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