Rethinking Amazon Conservation

By Carin Zissis

Brazil announced repercussions for illegal land use in the Amazon following reports of a jump in deforestation rates, fueled by surging food prices. Yet rising costs present an opportunity for responsible land use incentives.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva opened September’s UN General Assembly debate with a call (PDF) to bump up efforts to combat climate change. He pointed to Brazil’s environmental efforts, citing a three-year decrease of deforestation levels in the Amazon as an example. But, last week, the Brazilian government announced that deforestation levels experienced a marked increase in the last five months of 2007.

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, as many as 2,700 square miles (7,000 square kilometers) of rainforest, or two-thirds the annual rate, was destroyed between August and December. As Nature magazine’s blog notes, the deforestation rate increased rapidly over the five-month period, from 243 square kilometers in August to 948 in December.

The government followed news of the rise of deforestation—attributed rising food prices, soy planting, and cattle farming—with warnings of repercussions. Brazil plans to step up policing in areas of illegal logged as well as new measures that will target and fine farmers operating on illegally cleared land. Lula also pledged to cut farm credits for the 36 municipalities with the highest rate of deforestation. Defending the new legislation, the president argued that Brazil already had enough available land for soy, sugarcane, and cattle.  

However, some warn that the new laws may do little to stop the rising degradation. Roberto Smeraldi, who directs Friends of the Earth in Brazil, told Reuters’ AlertNet that penalizing areas where deforestation has already occurred could simply push loggers and farmers into adjacent municipalities. Others say environmental laws are rarely implemented in the Amazon region.

With global meat consumption growing and an increased ethanol demand fueled by U.S. maize subsidies, food prices rose sharply in 2007; some Brazilian farmers have taken advantage of the price jump by farming in the Amazon. Yet, Dr. Daniel Nepstad, an expert on the Amazon rainforest based at the Woods Hole Research Center, explain in an interview, rising prices could provide opportunities for conservation through incentives for responsible land use. Ranchers and soy farmers could “increase their access to expanding domestic and international markets and to credit, and lower the risk of losing their land to agrarian reform” if they engage in legal land-use practices, he says. An essay published by the Social Science Research Network examines top publicly-traded Brazilian companies and their role in promoting sustainable practices in the Amazon rainforest. 

The latest issue of Americas Quarterly, hitting newsstands February 6, focuses on corporate social responsibility in the Western Hemisphere and includes a feature article by Regina Scharf about why Brazil leads the region in terms of corporate social responsibility. Learn more about Americas Quarterly by visiting the journal’s website.