Amazon Deforestation: Turning of the Tide?

Nature has offered up handsome praise for the Brazilian government’s efforts to protect the Amazon from deforestation, in a series of reports that chart the downward spiral illegal of forest clearance in the official statistics.

In an editorial entitled “Tree Cheers”, Nature says that deforestation is not an unstoppable process and that: “Brazil proved the sceptics wrong, and in doing so it changed the global conversation on forests, food and rural development.” Now, says Nature, “The world must follow Brazil’s lead and do more to protect and restore forests.”

The April 2nd edition is supported by an article from reporter Jeff Tollefson who spent two months travelling in Amazonia during 2014,  and cites data to show that reducing deforestation has allowed Brazil to emerge at the top of the league of nations attempting to reduce carbon emissions.

Satellite view of Amazonia. Brazil tops the carbon emission reduction charts

Satellite view of Amazonia. Brazil tops the carbon emission reduction charts

And although Brazil is unlikely to meet its target of reducing the current rate of deforestation by 80% before 2020, the magazine says both ranching culture and farming practice are changing as a result of a string of legal changes and increased enforcement. And though the goal of “zero deforestation by 2015” announced  seven years ago by a consortium of NGOs, is unachievable, these organisations do acknowledge progress has been made.

The right direction: Amazon deforestation dwindles. Source Nature

The right direction: Amazon deforestation dwindles. Source Nature

The Nature article provides important  and very welcome collateral for the re-elected government of President Dilma Rousseff, that has been battling increasingly adverse public opinion. Continued controversy has focused on hydroelectric dam building in the Amazon and the appointment of Kátia Regina de Abreu, the leader of the cattle rancher’s lobby group, to the post of  federal agriculture minister.

Supporters of ecological movements were convinced that the appointment of Abreu – nicknamed ‘the Chainsaw Queen’ – indicated that big agribusiness would complete the job of deforestation started 45 years ago by landless peasants moved into the region by former military rulers who saw the Amazon as “a land without men for men without land.”

Now, at least, comes corroboration that policy – backed by satellite tracking and fines that can top US$250,000 for the average farmer – are having their effect. While other first hand reports of deforestation containment policy are less enthusiastic about Brazil’s efforts, the general direction of travel – at least prior to the upcoming burning season – had been generally positive. That said, Nature’s article seems to have been prepared before the latest estimates of deforestion released by National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in March 2015, which are sharply on the rise.

In a series of sidebars on green investments, the Nature article also shows how sustainable alternatives to ranching or aggressive agribusiness practices are now springing up in the Amazon, based on traditional extractivism – but with a hi-tech twist. Case in point is the use of latex from rubber trees in the border state of Acre, to produce condoms at a new factory. Likewise, Acre is also home to new Amazonian aquaculture initiatives to produce both fish and fish-food.

In parallel, NGOs have learned to exert pressure on Brazilian agribusiness firms  sourcing meat from unsustainable pastures or areas of illegal logging in the Amazon, by taking the issue to international consumers and encouraging boycotts of such products. In 2009 Greenpeace  locked horns with Brazil’s  JBS – now the world’s largest meat  producer – and acheived partial success in getting  its products withdrawn by UK supermarket chains Tesco, ASDA and Marks & Spencer.

Such campaigns have  contributed to significant downward pressures through the supply chain, to enforce responsible practices in the rural sector.

Better beef: responsible ranching practices on the rise. Photo  Wikimedia

Better beef: responsible ranching practices on the rise. Photo Wikimedia

Domestically, the issue of Amazon deforestation has long offered something of a litmus test of political and social attitudes among Brazilians. A significant “glass half empty” middle class group comprised of ecologists and left-leaning voters in the southern conurbations, tend to view Amazon development as a source of national shame and are skeptical about evidence the tide is beginning to turn.

But in national terms, rural communities and those population groups  and business sectors who have benefitted from Brazil’s dramatic increase in food production, have traditionally viewed development of the Amazon and more particularly its Cerrado fringes, as a necessary evil.

Likewise, scientists have sparred over the real significance of deforestation statistics for decades – and there have been a number of embarrassing “mea culpa” admissions by researchers and publications (including Nature itself) forced to admit their optimistic assumptions were false. You can read an article about some of the confusion researchers have generated about Amazonia and the health of the forest with their published papers by clicking here. To get an idea of just how divisive the issue of Amazonia’s contribution to  global climate change can be,  click here to  review an article on the 2014 “forest fistfight” between scientists.

Amazonia: time to reassess the destruction? (foto Wikimedia)

Amazonia: time to reassess the destruction? (foto Wikimedia)

However, if Nature is finally right and finally there is emerging evidence that development can go side by side with Amazon forest protection, the skeptics may be forced to reassess.

But not quite yet: Brazil’s dramatic economic slowdown, which is reducing domestic demand for Amazon ranch sourced meat products as unemployment rises,  and above all the sharp fall in  demand from China for soybeans, is likely to do more to halt deforestation  than any policy ibitiatives created in Brasilia. The scientists will surely keep on arguing — even about the reasons to celebrate.

Portuguese readers can read a review of the latest Amazon deforestation debate by clicking here  to view an article.

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