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Brazil’s targets

For the very first time, the government has agreed to set limits to control the devastation in the Amazon Region

JF DIORIO/AESoybean plantation and the forest in Sinop (State of Mato Grosso): favorable terrainJF DIORIO/AE

In a pioneering decision, the Brazilian government has accepted to establish goals to reduce deforestation – which is responsible for one half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Based on the annual average deforestation of the Amazon Region in the period from 1996 to 2005, corresponding to 19 thousand square kilometers (km²), the National Plan for Climate Changes/ PNMC has agreed to a 40% reduction in the period from 2006 to 2009. From 2010 to 2013, the goal is to reduce deforestation by 30% in comparison to the previous period. From 2014 to 2017, the desired reduction corresponds to 30% in comparison to the percentage in the four previous years. If these goals are achieved, deforestation will drop to 72% until 2017, totaling 5 thousand km² a year. This is equivalent to 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) that will not be launched into the atmosphere. “This is more than the efforts of all the developed countries. England, for instance, wants to cut down by 80%, but by 2050”, said Carlos Minc, the Minister of the Environment. “We have goals that some people might find modest. But a great change has happened – until a few months ago, the government was against establishing any goals,” Minc said.

Environmentalists feel that these goals are modest indeed. “Illegal deforesting should always be equal to zero,” says Sérgio Leitão, director of public policies at Greenpeace, who also criticized a clause established in the PNMC, which conditions the achievement of the goals to international funds to be invested in conservation. “In a time of international crisis, this condition provides justification for the government to fail to comply with the established goals.”

It is also possible to feel optimistic about the government’s plan. Meteorologist Carlos Nobre, coordinator of the Programa FAPESP de Pesquisa sobre Mudanças Climáticas Globais , a research program for climate change, states that the fact that this is the first time Brazil has taken on a commitment to achieve goals is very positive. “It would be desirable if the goal were more ambitious. But excessively radical goals are unrealistic,” he said. Nobre emphasizes that there is no economic justification to continue deforestation. “70000 km² have already been cleared in the Amazon Region, which is three times the area of farmland in the State of São Paulo. And São Paulo State’s agricultural GDP is more than ten times higher than that of the Amazon Region. This is an economically unfeasible model,” says the researcher. However, he points out some positive data: the government has been able to reduce the rate of deforestation. In 2004, the deforestation rate in the Amazon Region corresponded to 27 thousand km², the second highest rate since the Amazon Rain Forest started being monitored by the National Institute for Space Research/ Inpe. The rate began to drop from 2004 onwards. In 2005, 19 thousand km² were cleared; in 2006, 14 thousand km²; in 2007, 11.532 km². And in 2008, according to preliminary data, 11.968 km² were cleared. This year, Nobre points out, a significant increase is expected, because of the boom in agricultural commodity prices and because of the repressed demand of the past two years. But the increase has been surprisingly small. “Something happened and researchers will have to pore over the phenomenon to understand what happened. This might mean another deforestation dynamic, on a lower level. This generates confidence and shows that the goals can be achieved,” says the researcher.

In the government’s opinion, the reduced deforesting is the direct result of monitoring policies implemented in 2004. “The goals are not based only on intentions; they are based on achievements accomplished over the last few years,” says Mauro Pires, director of policies for the control of deforesting at the Ministry of the Environment.

Illegal cattle
Demographer Roberto Luiz do Carmo, a professor at the Department of Demography and a researcher at the Center for Population Studies, both of the State University of Campinas/Unicamp, states that closer monitoring has indeed helped curb slashing and burning. However, he insists that the conditions that determine the devastation of the forest remain unchanged. He says that there are various reasons that put pressure on the Amazon Region: the expansion of soybean plantations, spurred on by the big soybean farmers; cattle raising by small ranchers who view herds of cattle as a form of “savings,” and by big ranchers, who raise “illegal cattle” on deforested areas; and gold and diamond prospecting, responsible for the appearance of  “demographic bubbles” in the region, which go bust when the mines are depleted.

“The Amazon Region is inserted in the international context. When soybean prices go up, the big producers amass capital and look for new land. Brazil is the world’s largest soybean exporter and one of the biggest beef exporters. The Amazon Region suffers the impact of global dynamics,” he states. Carmo does not believe that the international crisis will curb deforesting. “The drop in exports can be offset by the dollar’s appreciation, which will allow producers to earn more”, he says. A factor to be taken into consideration in regard to the drop in deforestation, according to the demographer, is that the inventory of land on the appropriate terrain is running out. “The terrain is very rugged in the north of the State of Mato Grosso and the south of the State of Pará, and therefore is more appropriate for cattle ranching than for soybean planting,” he states. This, however, does not mean that the terrain is an insurmountable barrier.

Carmo points out that the region of Santarém, in the State of Pará, is being taken up by soybean plantations, which contradicts the general opinion that the rainfall index in the region is not compatible with soybean planting. “The biggest issue is to create an economic alternative for the population,” says the researcher. In his opinion, the Amazon Region attracts immigrants in search of economic insertion, and who view nature as an obstacle to be overcome and not as a potential ally. “So far, experiments in the sense of exploiting the forest without destroying it have been very few. Slashing trees to sell timber provides immediate profit”, he states.

The initiative of establishing deforestation targets strengthened Brazil’s position at the 14th United Nations Conference on Climate/COP-14, held in the city of Poznan, Poland, last month. The Brazilian negotiators unanimously joined those who were opposing the proposal of the US’s recently elected President, Barack Obama, who had proposed that the country’s emissions be reduced to 1990 levels only in 2020. “This is a weak proposal, far worse than the one established in the Kyoto Protocol. Many developed countries have established distant targets, for 2040, 2050. We want intermediary targets, for 2020, 2030”, stated Brazil’s Minister of the Environment Carlos Minc. The COP-14 was called in order to prepare for the Climate Conference to be held in Copenhagen at the end 2009 to review the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.