Latin America, Nature

Chop and change

Jenny-Leonard

Amazonian deforestation has been greatly reduced in recent years, but changes to Brazil’s legislation on natural protection areas have filled conservation groups with skepticism.

Everyone wants a piece of the Amazon. Last year, the Brazilian government made changes to the forest code, an old law that determines how large an area Amazonian land owners are required to leave untouched. The farmers, represented by the powerful agri-business sector, demanded the legislation be relaxed, so they could develop more land, produce more goods and expand their business. Environmental NGOs argued that more deforestation would further threaten the rainforest’s biodiversity. In the end, the changes appeared to be a compromise between the two sectors. But conservationists were not happy.

The Amazon, as we know, is no small matter. The largest rainforest on earth, of 5.5 million square kilometres (2.1 million square miles), is home to thousands of endemic and endangered species: plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles. It spreads into nine countries, with roughly 60 per cent located in Brazil. It also stores 80 to 120 billion tonnes of carbon, which helps regulate the global climate. Chop it down, and the consequences will be disastrous.

The threats to the Amazon have been many. NGOs say water damns have been built in areas of high conservation value, disrupting life for aquatic species and interfering with fisheries. Two major droughts have recently hit the rainforest, in 2005 and 2010. But most visible of all is deforestation: around 17 per cent of the original rainforest is estimated to have vanished over the past 50 years. The main offender, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is unsustainable cattle ranching, which they say accounts for 80 per cent of the losses.

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The clampdown on deforestation is, in historic terms, quite recent. Since annual aerial rainforest losses started to be measured in 1988 by the National Institute For Space Research (INPE), figures showed a steady increase up until 2004. In that year, 27,000 square kilometres (10,000 square miles) of trees were chopped down. The same year, the Brazilian government launched an action plan to coordinate anti-deforestation efforts across federal, state and municipal governments, as well as civil organisations. They managed to turn the trend: in 2005, the deforested area was 19,000 square kilometres (seven square miles); a decrease of roughly 30 per cent. It continued to drop in the following years and, in 2011, the figure was as low as 6,418 square kilometres (2,400 square miles).

The progress prompted promises to be made. In 2009, the government announced a mission to reduce deforestation by 80 per cent within 2020, based on levels from 1990. Only last year, it could announce a further decline from 2011; the lowest level of deforestation in 24 years. The new numbers also amounted to a reduction of 76.26 per cent from 1990 levels, placing the government in a comfortable position with regard to its promise.

Some saw the figures as evidence that an expanding economy and conservation efforts could go hand in hand. “The numbers disprove the argument that deforestation is necessary for the country’s economy to grow,” Adalberto Veríssimo, a senior researcher at Imazon, an environmental watchdog agency, said at the time. “Deforestation has been dropping steadily for the past four years while the economy has grown. But the war is far from over. We still have a lot of battles to fight and win.”

Dr.-Morley-Read

And so in this context, the forest code was altered. It loosened the legislation around the Permanent Protection Areas – known as ‘APP’ in Portuguese – which in the Amazon can be as high as 80 per cent of a given property. Conservation groups such as the WWF and Greenpeace were left furious, arguing the changes would encourage further deforestation. They were not alone. “If the definition of APP is changed; this will ultimately impact the country’s economy, and the population will bear the high costs to recuperate the areas destroyed; and the biodiversity lost,” said Robert Pasley-Tyler, managing trustee of the Amazon Charitable Trust.

The most dramatic alteration related to the measurement of river margins, which is used to size up the protection areas. The new rules will allow development closer to the river banks; key areas for biodiversity. “That in itself implies deforestation; not to mention that it is virtually impossible to establish the exact areas to be changed and controlled,” says Pasley-Tyler. “It is a shame to think this new code could possibly reverse the positive trend of declining deforestation rates since 2004.”

Academics remain more cautious about what the forest code will imply. “I think it is something that will become clearer in the next year or two,” says Anthony Hall, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.I wouldn’t say there are major reasons to be seriously concerned at the moment. The major trend in deforestation has dropped quite significantly, so in the general context, that is favourable and promising.” Whether deforestation levels will increase in 2013 remains to be seen. 

Photos: Dr. Morley Read, Frontpage, Jenny Leonard [all via Shutterstock.com].

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