Another Large Drop in Deforestation in Brazil

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | November 27, 2012, 7:19 pm EDT
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Over the past several years, one of the few pieces of hopeful news about global warming has been the annual release of data from Brazil on its rate of Amazon deforestation. Since forests are immense storehouses of carbon, deforestation causes high levels of greenhouse gas emission. Brazil, which contains about 60% of the Amazon forest, is key to those emissions, and over the last six years it has made important progress in reducing its deforestation rate.

Today, the new data for 2011-2012 were released, and once again they are a ray of sunshine on an otherwise gloomy day. They show a decrease of deforestation to 4,656 square kilometersdown 27% from last year.

Here’s the graph of the data:

Graph of the decrease in Amazon deforestation in Brazil.

Deforestation in the Brazilan Amazon since 1988, in square kilometers. The latest year (2011-2012) is shown in orange. SOURCE: National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Brazil.

As you can see, the trend since 2004 is steadily downward. In fact, compared to the average from 1996 to 2005, which Brazil uses as its baseline, deforestation has now fallen by more than 75%. We’ll be looking at the new data in coming days to find out more about how and where this drop occurred – which states, what size of farms, etc. But based not only on the new numbers but also the trend over the past several years, there are already some important things to say about it. (Full disclosure/author’s confession: a good deal of the sentences that follow are “self-plagiarism” – text that I’ve modified from the summary of a forthcoming article of mine in the journal Tropical Conservation Science, entitled “Brazil’s Success in Reducing Deforestation”. I originally put this together as a talk at the January 2011 conference organized by the Yale chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters.)

Marina Silva, first Minister of the Environment in the Lula government, who led the effort to reduce deforestation in Brazil.

There’s no doubt that what Brazil has done is a major, indeed historic success. It has come despite economic pressure in the opposite direction, from high global prices for soybeans and beef, the two major drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, and from the increased demand brought about by urbanization in the region. It represents the largest reduction in global warming pollution achieved by any country so far, and the majority of its cost was paid for by Brazil itself. It came during a period in which the country substantially reduced poverty and hunger and in which the economy and its agricultural output, including that of the soy and beef industries, grew rapidly.

Lots of people deserve credit for this accomplishment. They include former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, and particularly his first Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva, as well as current President Dilma Rousseff. Important contributions came from strong enforcement of environmental laws by public prosecutors; from major steps taken by several state governments, and because of the incentive provided to Brazil by Norway via results-based funding through its forest-climate program. The actions of Brazilian civil society, in pushing both governments and the industries driving deforestation as well as changing the political dynamic, were a critical element. The pressure these actions exerted led to exporters adopting voluntary moratoria on buying soy and beef from deforested lands, which have greatly reduced the economic incentives that previously encouraged commercial farmers and ranchers to deforest.

As in past years, the announcement of Brazil’s success came during the annual climate negotiations of the UNFCCC, this year in Doha, Qatar. And also as in past years, the contrast between what Brazil has done, and what the climate negotiators haven’t done, is stark. But at least in one very important part of the world, people have taken climate change seriously, and are doing something about it.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming Tags: , , ,

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  • Thomas O. Nass’ Paraphrase and Enhancement of W.C. Lowdermilk , U.S. Dept of
    Agriculture 1948, from “Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years”

    This Holy Earth:
    Thou shall inherit this Holy Earth as a Faithful Steward, respecting, protecting and conserving its Environment, its Resources and its Productivity for future generations. Thou shall safeguard its Fields from erosion; its Soils and sub-Surface from Chemical Saturation; its ocean waters, its ground waters and its air from chemical pollution; its Oceans from over fishing; ITS FORESTS FROM DESOLATION; its Mineral Resources from depletion; its Hills from overgrazing by thy herds and its Creatures from extinction. ALL OF THIS SO THAT THY DESCENDANTS MAY ENJOY ITS ABUNDANCE AS ONCE DID THEE.
    As all Nations do share in the Ownership of this Holy Earth. Ergo, if any Nation or its leaders should fail in the responsibilities of their Stewardship, then all of thy crop land shall become dry and sterile ground with wasting gullies; thy waters unfit to drink; thy air too thick to breath; the meat of thy herds and thy flocks, as the spawn of thy waters and thy oceans, unfit to eat; and storms and rising ocean tides shall devastate thy landscape. If any of the above should come to pass, then thy descendants shall gradually diminish in their number and eventually depart in their entirety from off the face of this Holy Earth.
    Why? Because insatiable, sociopathic, corporate, GREED and ignorance of their ignorance of all things except their “Bottom Line” shall have decreed it so.
    Corporate “PROFITS” and a “Clean Environment” are not, and never will be, compatible. Corporate Credo -to which their sycophants subscribe: “Rather no Planet at all than a Planet where our insatiable, sociopathic GREED cannot be satisfied. Restrictions, Safety Regulations and the Environment be Damned!”
    Tom Nass
    5th Marine Division – WWII

  • richard

    What GREAT news about the progress being made in Brazil! The federal and state government officials, the public, corporations, and Norway deserve a hearty THANKS from the rest of us.

    Now, similar work needs to take place in Indonesia and other places around the world where tropical and other forests are still being decimated at alarming rates.

    What is being done/tried in those countries?

    What degree of success, or failure, are they having?

    What can we, as concerned citizens, continue to do to move things in a more positive direction?

    • Richard,

      Thanks very much for your comments. There are a number of other countries that have had good success in reducing deforestation, many through their REDD+ programs. The acronym stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus related pro-forest actions, and links together funding from developed countries with actions by tropical forest countries.

      Among the countries that have shown major reductions in deforestation are Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Gambia and Vietnam. Some have even reduced deforestation to zero and started to have net REforestation.

      As you point out, Indonesia is very important — with Brazil’s reductions, Indonesia is now the country where the most tropical forest is being lost. Its President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has committed to making major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and has implemented a deforestation moratorium. We’ve analyzed this moratorium in detail using GIS data; you can see some of the results at:

      The question about what individual citizens can do is a good one. We’ve written several reports about the drivers of deforestation and how they’re connected to our food consumption patterns. For example, our report “Grade A Choice?”, on the role of beef in deforestation and global warming (as well as its health effects) is at:

      Another important driver of deforestation, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, is palm oil. In relation to this, the campaign for deforestation-free Girl Scout cookies, led by two Michigan Girl Scouts, is very inspiring; it’s described at:

      Thanks again for your great questions!