Amazon Deforestation Slows

BRASILIA, Brazil, October 27, 2006 (ENS) - The rate of deforestation in the Amazon has slowed down according to figures released by the Brazilian government today.

About 13,000 square kilometers (5,019 square miles) of rainforest were destroyed in the 12 months between August 2005 and 2006. This is about half the rate reported during the same period between 2003 and 2004, and the second lowest rate since recordkeeping began in 1988.

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Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has made Amazon rainforest protection a priority. (Photo courtesy Government of Brazil)
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the figures prove it is possible to develop the Amazon with care. "A cleaner development is possible," he said.

Environment Minister Marina Silva pointed out the importance of work accomplished by 13 ministries, under the coordination of the Civil House, in response to new Amazon development policies announced in 2004. "All the ministries have worked together to give account of this challenge. To fight the most immediate vectors of deforestation, we can create a better process of protecting the Amazon by changing the development model of the region," she said.

Global conservation group WWF said the figures are encouraging. "The rates are a positive result of the governmentís efforts to address deforestation," said Denise Hamu of WWF-Brazil.

"Nonetheless, it is important to guarantee conditions for the consolidation and sustainability of these reduction levels," she said.

The Amazon rainforest represents about one half of the world's remaining rainforest and has been described as the lungs of our planet because its dense vegetation continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen. Expert consensus suggests one-fifth of the forest has been logged or cleared for farming and development, although precise estimates vary - NASA puts the figure at 16 percent while WWF cites 17 percent.

The region is inhabited by about 2.5 million insect species, tens of thousands of plants, and some 2,000 birds and mammals. But aside from protecting the rainforest's rich biodiversity, curbing deforestation is also important in the fight against emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which are linked to climate change.

Around 75 percent of all Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions are a result of forest fires, which are set to clear large tracts of rainforest for agriculture. As a result, Brazil ranks fourth in the list of countries that contribute to global warming.

According to WWF-Brazil, several factors may explain the current decrease in deforestation, including a reduction in the price of soy, Brazilís most important agricultural commodity, which may have reduced the incentive to cut down the Amazon forest to make way for new plantations.

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Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is slowing. (Photo courtesy Adventure Discoveries International/NASA)
Brazilian deforestation tends to mirror the economic health of the country. A decline in deforestation from 1988 to 1991 paralleled the economic slowdown during the same period. A surging rate of deforestation from 1993 to 1998 matched Brazil's period of rapid economic growth.

Ranchers and developers cannot afford to rapidly expand pasturelands and operations during tough economic times, while the government lacks funds to sponsor highways and grant tax breaks and subsidies to forest companies.

"We canít continue to be held hostage by such isolated actions to conserve the Amazon," Hamu said. "We need to strengthen the national plan to combat deforestation."

WWF-Brazil says that will only happen when clear, public forest policies are implemented and financial resources are made available to tackle deforestation, stimulate sustainable forestry activities, and encourage state governments in the Amazon region to better cooperate when tackling environmental issues.

A Brazilian proposal to create a global fund to help contain rainforest destruction and slash carbon emissions will be introduced next month at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, November 6-17.

Another global environmental group, Conservation International, is helping to educate a new generation of Brazilian conservationists.

Based in Washington, DC, Conservation International has helped establish a two year graduate program at the Federal University of Amapa. Located in Amapa state at the mouth of the Amazon River, and surrounded by tropical forests, mangrove swamps, savannahs, and wetlands, the school could hardly be better situated for this program.

Conservation International scientists want the graduate program to become internationally recognized within six years for ecology, conservation, and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The group also has helped create a chain of protected areas that stretches from one end of Amapa state to the other. The latest link in that chain was established last month, with the creation of a 5.7 million acre (2.3 million hectares) state forest.