Amazon Deforestation Drops 25 Percent, Brazil Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 14, 2007
The pace of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by 25 percent in a recent 12-month period, according to recently released government figures.

Even so, some conservation groups claim the decrease is due to lower demand for crops that grow on cleared forest land, and not successful environmental policies.

Between July 2005 and July 2006, the amount of cleared forest fell to about 5,400 square miles (14,000 square kilometers), as compared to 11,681 miles (18,800 kilometers) cut in the same period between 2004 and 2005, according to government figures. (Related: "World's Forests Rebounding, Study Suggests" [November 13, 2006].)

In his weekly radio address Monday, President Luiz Inácio da Silva said he expected further declines for the 2006 to 2007 period—drops that he said will not crimp economic growth, the Associated Press reported.

Preliminary figures for the July 2006 to July 2007 period suggest the amount of forest cut down has dropped to 3,700 square miles (9,600 square kilometers). The Brazilian economy grew by 3.7 percent last year.

"I am plainly convinced that it is possible to grow while preserving the environment," da Silva said in the address.

"The challenge we face now is how to use the forest and environmental preservation to improve the lives of people."

Brazil's environment minister Marina Silva joined the radio address. She attributed the falling rates to a government crackdown on illegal logging.

Economic Factors

Denise Hamú is chief executive officer of the conservation organization WWF-Brazil in Brasília.

She told National Geographic News the dropping deforestation rates are important but result from market forces, not enforcement of environmental policies.

"Soy and several other commodities from the Amazon region are very low in the market, so [farmers] are not clearing more space for planting," she said.

Claudia Stickler, a graduate fellow at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, agreed the falling deforestation rates are mostly due to economic factors.

"But the scary thing is that this year and next year [the market] could certainly go up again, and there could be new clearing," she said.

For example, increasing demand for ethanol is causing U.S. farmers to abandon soy in favor of corn, which increases demand for Brazilian soy.

And in Brazil, demand for ethanol from sugarcane is also rising.

"That means that more land is going into sugarcane, which means that soy is being displaced in Brazil too," Stickler said.

"[Soy farming] needs to go somewhere, and mostly it is expanding north into the Amazon."

Soy is also a major source for biodiesel. As demand for the plant-based fuel increases, that demand could put even more pressure on the forests, she added. (See rain forest photos and video.)

Different Policies

WWF-Brazil's Hamú said environmental and economic policies in Brazil are misaligned.

For example, a government program to accelerate growth this year relies heavily on infrastructure projects like roads and dams, which aid deforestation, she said.

"What we are advocating is that nature should be seen as an asset and not as a barrier," she said.

The Brazilian government needs to invest in intensified agriculture—for instance, making the most of already cultivated land—to continue to curb deforestation and simultaneously grow the economy, Stickler said.

"If the decline in deforestation could be maintained, that would be fantastic," she said.

"Right now, carbon emissions from land-use change—which includes forest conversion—contributes about a quarter of annual global carbon emissions."

(Learn how greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.)

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