Amazon Deforestation Rate Falls

BRASILIA, Brazil, September 7, 2006 (ENS) - For the second year in row the pace of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has declined, according to estimates released this week by Brazil's environment minister. Deforestation rates fell 11 percent from last year, giving Brazilian authorities hope that tougher enforcement of illegal logging may be working.

The preliminary figures show that 6,450 square miles of forest were cut legally and illegally from August 2005 to August 2006 - the official report will be released by the end of the year. Some 7,255 square miles were cleared in the preceding year.

"This shows it wasn't just a cyclical reduction," Brazil's Environment Minister Marina Silva told reporters a news conference Tuesday.

Environmentalists greeted the news with cautious optimism.

"The decline is encouraging, but we are not out of the woods yet," said WWF-Brazil's CEO Denise Hamú. "More concerted action is required to integrate the government's environmental and development policies in order to really crack down on illegal activities that are having an adverse effect on the forest. Encouraging policies that foster a sustainable forestry-based regional economy should be pursued."


The annoucement is a rare bit of good news for the world's largest rainforest. (Photo courtesy Rainforest Action Network)
WWF-Brazil is part of the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) initiative - a partnership between the Brazilian government, the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, German Development Bank and the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund - which has helped create more than 77,000 square miles of protected areas in the Amazon.

In June the partnership announced the protection of 7,335 square miles in the southern Amazon within the newly created Juruena National Park.

"Through ARPA we are creating parks and reserves in areas that risk being rapidly deforested," said Cláudio Maretti, head of WWF-Brazil's protected areas programme, which supports the ARPA initiative. "We are not only ensuring biodiversity conservation in perpetuity in these areas, but we are also bringing order to the land tenure chaos that leads to uncontrolled deforestation."

A considerable number of the world's plants and animals live in the Amazon, most of which remain undiscovered by scientists. To date, at least 40,000 plant species, 427 mammals, 1,294 birds, 378 reptiles, 427 amphibians, and some 3,000 fish species have been scientifically classified in the region.

Vast swaths of the world's largest rainforest have been destroyed by ranching, logging and agriculture activities.

A number of factors help explain the declining deforestation rate, including a reduction in the price of soy - Brazil's most important agriculture commodity. Soy prices reached a two-year low late last week. Higher soy prices have in the past created incentives to clear the forest to make way for new plantations.

But a new study released Wednesday shows that deforestation in the Amazon may be shifting from cattle ranching and small-plot farming to large-scale agriculture. The study focused on Mato Grosso, the Brazilian state with the highest rate of both deforestation and soybean production since 2001.

The research team combined deforestation maps, field surveys and satellite-based information to determine what happened to large plots - greater than 60 acres - of rainforest after they were cleared. Clear areas were characterized as cropland, cattle pasture, or re-growing forest in the years following initial clearing.

The study found that direct conversion of forest to cropland in the state totaled more than 2,000 square miles from 2001-2004, peaking in 2003 at 23 percent of all deforestation for the year.

Researchers report that clearings for cropland averaged twice the size of clearings for pasture and conversion occurred rapidly with more than 90 percent of clearings for cropland planted in the first year following deforestation.

Deforestation for large-scale cropland accounted for 17 percent of forest loss in large clearings.


A deforested floodplain with a diminished river marks human interference with the Amazon. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The study found that the area deforested for cropland and the mean annual soybean price in the year of forest clearing were directly correlated, suggesting that deforestation rates could return to higher levels seen in 2003-2004 with a rebound of crop prices in international markets.

"There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of large-scale agriculture in Amazon deforestation, said University of Maryland geographer Ruth DeFries, who led the study. "This study on one hand refutes the claim that agricultural intensification does not cause new deforestation. On the other hand, it shows that clearing for pasture rather than intensive mechanized agriculture remains the dominant cause of deforestation in the state of Mato Grosso."

The study was published this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.