Deforestation surge fuels call for policy overhaul


A dizzying spike in the Amazon deforestation rate during the last five months of 2007 has prompted the Brazilian government to issue emergency measures to curb the cutting. But green groups argue that the rainforest destruction, being driven largely by high commodity prices and a resulting expansion of the agricultural frontier, cannot be stopped without a far better capitalized and more coherent forest-conservation program.

“Amazon deforestation closely follows commodity price fluctuations,” says Paulo Adário, coordinator of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign. “When soy and beef prices were low from 2004 to 2006, so was deforestation. Now that they’ve risen, encouraging farmers and ranchers to slash and burn, it’ll be much harder for the government to reduce deforestation. The [new] measures are too little too late.”

The state-run National Institute for Space Research (INPE) said in January that in the previous five months, Amazon deforestation consumed 1,249 square miles (3,235 sq kms), an area larger than Rhode Island. INPE, which used an analysis of low-resolution satellite images, says that once higher-resolution images are studied, the figure will likely more than double. It adds that land clearing for the 12-month period ending in August 2008 could reach 5,800 square miles (15,000 sq kms), an area larger than Connecticut.

If that forecast proves correct, the rate of forest destruction for that period will have increased 33.6%, a major reversal after three consecutive years of double-digit declines. Officials say an unusually dry rainy season exacerbated the problem, since it made land clearing easier. (Most Amazon clearing typically occurs during the May-to-October dry season.) Deforestation was heaviest in Mato Grosso, Pará and Rondônia, the Brazilian Amazon’s biggest soy and beef states. Brazil ranks second in world soy exports and first in beef exports.

Though the deforestation spike surprised the government, it was not totally unexpected. Last year, authorities announced deforestation from June through September was 8% higher than during the same four-month period a year earlier. (See “Farm prices, Amazon deforestation on rise”—EcoAméricas, Nov. ’07.)

In response, the government issued a decree in December aimed at requiring many Amazon landowners to register or reregister their property—a process that establishes whether they have valid title to the land. Last month’s emergency measures include implementation of that decree in 36 municipalities hard-hit by deforestation, 31 of which are in Mato Grosso and Pará states.

In the 36 municipalities, landowners must register or reregister their property by March 15. They also must include geo-referential data so authorities can check by satellite for deforestation. Those who fail to register will not be permitted to sell or rent the land in question or secure government loans to work it.

Fine increases on way

The emergency package also bans the sale of farm products from illegally deforested areas and assigns 800 federal policemen to the Amazon to help Ibama, the Environment Ministry’s enforcement arm, combat illegal logging. Another, yet-to-be-announced emergency measure will be a “significant increase” in fines for illegal cutting, says Flávio Montiel, head of Ibama’s environmental protection division.

Montiel adds that government plans to auction concessions over the next decade to sustainable-forestry operators on 28.9 million acres (11.7 million has) of public land, or nearly 3% of the Amazon, also should help. He asserts the concessionaires, who will engage in low-impact activities such as selective logging, rubber tapping and nut gathering, will have “a vested interest” in protecting this land.

But green advocates argue such efforts will fail without a more coherent Amazon policy—for example, one that stops low-interest government financing of Amazon farmers and ranchers. “This pro-development government gives Amazon farmers and ranchers loans with interest rates of under 4% a year, way below the 11% annual market rates,” says Mario Menezes of Friends of the Earth, Brazilian Amazon. “This encourages them to slash and burn their land, often illegally. Without a change in policy, and with soy and beef commodity prices rising, the Amazon deforestation rate will only go up.”

Last October, international and Brazilian environmental groups proposed that R$1 billion (US$555 million) a year be spent through 2014 to end Amazon deforestation. That’s over five times Brazil’s current annual forest-conservation budget. They suggested a fund be created with voluntary contributions from the Brazilian government, foreign governments, multilateral donors and corporations. The fund would subsidize Amazon landowners who refrain from cutting more than the legal limit of 20% of their forested property; finance sustainable economic activities in forests; and tighten enforcement against illegal cutting.

Brazil wary of targets

Disbursements would be contingent on Brazil meeting progressively tighter annual targets designed to stop Amazon deforestation completely by the end of 2014. The government hasn’t adopted the plan. Experts say that’s because it fears achieving such targets might require adopting policies that slow economic growth, and might put it at odds with economic forces—commodity prices, for instance—over which it has no control.

At December’s UN-sponsored climate-change conference in Bali, Brazilian officials floated the idea of a global fund that would help countries which show verifiable reductions in deforestation rates. But prospective donor governments rejected the idea, arguing such reductions might simply be followed by increases in deforestation, erasing the gains.

Says Friends of the Earth’s Menezes: “Many foreign governments want targets as a condition for funding so if they aren’t met, funding can be withheld.”

Marc Dourojeanni, a consultant and former head of the Inter-American Development Bank’s environmental department, believes a compromise is possible under which annual deforestation declines would prompt international contributions to a privately administered forest-conservation fund. If the deforestation rate were to increase in a given year, future contributions would be reduced accordingly.

Says Dourojeanni: “Such a system puts no pressure on Brazil to meet targets, but provides an economic incentive to avoid deforestation.”

- Michael Kepp

Paulo Adário
Amazon campaign
Greenpeace Brazil
Manaus, Brazil
Tel: +(55 92) 4009-8001
Fax: +(55 92) 4009-8003
Pedro Bara Neto
Amazon Policy Director
World Wildlife Fund
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (202) 495-4457
Fax: (202) 296-5348
Marc Dourojeanni
Environmental Consultant
Florianópolis, Brazil
Tel: +(55 48) 3236-1700
Peter May
Professor of Environmental Economics
Federal Rural University
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Mário Menezes
Assistant Director
Friends of the Earth, Brazilian Amazon
São Paulo, Brazil
Flávio Montiel
Environmental Protection Division
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 4009-1334
Fax: +(55 61) 3226-4991
John Terborgh
Research Professor
Center for Tropical Conservation
Duke University
Durham, NC, United States
Tel: (919) 490-9081
Fax: (919) 493-3695