Biodiversity, Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

CLIMATE CHANGE: Amazon Destruction Undermines Brazil’s Leadership

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 3 2009 (IPS) - The Brazilian government, and its Environment Ministry in particular, accepted a risky bet by agreeing to voluntary goals for curbing deforestation in the Amazon, giving the country greater weight in the global talks on fighting climate change.

Soy crops advance, forcing forests into retreat.  Credit: Greenpeace

Soy crops advance, forcing forests into retreat. Credit: Greenpeace

In the annual period under way (August 2008 to July 2009), Brazil should cut deforestation by 22.5 percent of the total recorded in the previous period, which totalled 11,968 square kilometres, according to the national space research institute, INPE.

The annual deforested area has already seen a sharp reduction from the record-breaking 29,059 square kilometres in 1995-1996, but the recent awareness of the tragic effects of climate change has intensified pressure to stop deforestation.

The loss of forest coverage is the source of 75 percent of Brazil’s emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases, according to a 1994 inventory.

Meeting this year’s goal is vital for strengthening Brazil in the negotiation of the new global pact for cutting carbon emissions beginning in 2013, replacing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and will be determined at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to take place in December in Copenhagen.

It will be difficult, but is possible, to prevent deforestation from surpassing 9,200 sq km this year, says Nazaré Soares, coordinator of the Environment Ministry’s tropical forest protection programme.

Her confidence is based on the results of the measures adopted last year, including more rigorous control in the 36 most deforested municipalities, and restriction on credits for ranches and companies that have records of agricultural or environmental irregularities.

Brazil’s climate plan establishes four-year goals and the average at the end of this year should be 40 percent less than the average of 1996 to 2005, which was 19,533 sq km of forest lost in the Amazon. After that, the goal will be 30 percent less deforestation in each four-year period with respect to the previous period.

By 2017, Environment Minister Carlos Minc likes to point out, Brazil will have avoided 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emission, more than the total that industrialised countries were to have cut in the 2008-2012 period under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, whose goals most countries will fail to meet.

The policies that came out last year, and the global economic crisis, which have slowed Brazil’s farm and mining exports, also favour a decline in deforestation, says Carlos Souza Junior, head of the Amazon environmental group Imazon.

But heavy monitoring will be needed between May and June, when logging activities are most likely, and more efforts required to prevent takeovers of public lands, for which the existing policies are too weak, he told Tierramérica.

Furthermore, “the dynamic of deforestation has changed” in the Amazon, noted the Environment Ministry’s Soares. Instead of clearing huge swaths of land, it has shifted to deforestation of smaller areas, which requires a new strategy to fight it, she said. This means that the large landowners disperse the destruction of forest and finance logging by smaller owners, who otherwise lack the “logistic capacity”, explained the tropical forest protection expert.

The new challenges prompted the Environment Ministry to revise its Amazon plans, in coordination with other government ministries, identifying “seven large nerve centres” where deforestation is concentrated, said Soares.

The targets of the new strategy are: illegal economic activities in the Amazon, the lack of monitoring of public lands, expansion of pastureland for livestock, and the fragility of the National Environmental System.

In addition, efforts are under way for improving environmental management, combining the efforts of the national government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with the plans of the nine Amazonian states for more efficient sustainable production and promotion of economic activities that “keep the forests standing”, added Soares.

The Sustainable Amazon Fund, to which Norway contributed one billion dollars over the course of the next six years, will allow more reimbursements for environmental services, aimed at landowners who keep their forested lands intact.

Forest management as an immediate priority and, in the longer term, the use of biodiversity, which requires greater scientific and technological investment, are other paths Brazil is pursuing, said the environment official.

An additional concern, related to the Amazon goals, is that last year the INPE found a 66-percent increase in the area of “degraded” land, areas that had suffered loss of vegetation. There were 24,932 square kilometres under that description, compared to 14,915 in 2007.

The figures were made known last month, which the revised plan will have to incorporate so that “degraded” does not turn into de facto deforestation, Soares noted.

That changes the notion that the Amazon only “has forest and deforested areas, with no degree in between,” and does not mean a sharp increase in deforestation, said Imazon’s Souza Junior.

Some research has shown that the advance is slow. The INPE itself found that just 13 percent of the area degraded in 2007 became fully deforested in 2008.

But reducing deforestation in the Amazon is insufficient as a goal for curbing national carbon emissions, criticises Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth/Brazilian Amazon.

Three deforested hectares in the Cerrado (the savannah that extends across a large portion of central Brazil) is equivalent to three deforested hectares in the Amazon in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, Smeraldi explained to Tierramérica.

Because deforestation of the Cerrado has historically been greater than that of the Amazon, an increase in that region could offset any emissions progress made in fighting deforestation in the Amazon, he warned.

A serious plan for combating climate change demands truly national goals that encompass all ecosystems as well as the energy matrix, said Smeraldi, noting that the official plan for the energy sector includes building dozens of fossil-fuel-powered electrical plants over the next 10 years, which would also roll back progress in carbon emissions reductions.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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