Amazon deforestation rate falls to lowest on record
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
August 10, 2007





Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon for the previous year were the lowest on record, according to figures released by INPE, Brazil's National Institute of Space Research.

Preliminary estimates show that between August 1, 2006 and July 30, 2007, some 3,707 square miles (9,600 square kilometers) of rainforest were cleared, a 31 percent drop from 2006 when 5,419 sq ml (14,040 sq km) were lost (2006 figures were recently revised from 13,100 sq km). Deforestation rates have fallen sharply -- 65 percent -- since 2004 when 10,590 sq mi (27,429 sq km) were destroyed.

"INPE's preliminary estimate that deforestation in Amazonia in 2007 is 9,600 km2 plus or minus 10 percent. This estimate will be confirmed by the official PRODES figures from 2007, which we hope to announce in late November, before the Bali [climate] conference," INPE's Director General, Dr.Gilberto Camara, told mongabay.com. "These estimates are a cause of rejoice to us all. This is the lowest deforestation rate since mid-70s."

The latest figures are based on analysis of 213 images of LANDSAT satellite and 90 CBERS images. Brazil's satellite monitoring system is among the most sophisticated in the world.

Analysts say the drop in deforestation rate is due to economic trends, mainly lower prices for grains and beef, while the Brazilian government credits its own aggressive law enforcement efforts for cracking down on illegal forest clearing. Brazil has also dramatically expanded its network of protected areas in recent years, setting aside more than 100 million hectares of the Amazon basin from development since 2002.

    Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by more than 60 percent between 2004 and 2007.
A turning point in Brazil's law enforcement efforts in the Amazon may have been the 2005 slaying of American nun Dorothy Stang who was gunned down by thugs hired by development interests. Stang had fought for the rights of the rural poor, making her an adversary of loggers and ranchers in the Brazilian state of Para. Following her assassination, the government sent in troops to restore order and announced the establishment of several giant rainforest reserves. Stang's killers were eventually charged with the crime and imprisoned.

Brazil now has some 173 million hectares of forest, an area nearly three times the size of France, under some form of protection, giving it the largest protected areas system in the world. Nevertheless some scientists believe the Amazon may be approaching a critical tipping point, with climate change putting the basin at risk of significant shifts in rainfall and temperatures. Some models project that temperatures in the Amazon could climb by as much as 8 degrees Celsius by 2100, spurring forest fires and drought while exacerbating "savannization ", whereby rainforest is replaced by savanna.


Clear-cutting in the Amazon. The Amazon is Earth's biggest rainforest, but since the early 1970s about 650,00 square kilometers (250,000 square miles), or 18 percent of the forest area -- have been destroyed. In recent years road construction, clearing for agriculture (especially soybeans) and cattle pasture, and logging have been responsible for most forest loss.
"There are several other factors that are pushing the Amazon towards a drier future, including fresh evidence that cattle ranches and pastures are less capable of generating rain than the forests they replace because they put less water vapor into the air--soy fields are even worse," said Dr. Daniel Nepstad, director of the Woods Hole Research Center's Amazon program and a leading expert on the Amazon, in an interview with mongabay.com. "On top of these changes in the vegetation itself we have rainfall-inhibiting smoke and the prospect of sea temperature changes--not just el Niño... but the North Atlantic tropical anomaly like we saw in 2005 when we had record drought and record fires in the Amazon. The likelihood of that type of anomaly will increase with global warming."

"When we put all this together we come up with a very bleak outlook for the Amazon rainforest. I don't have the final numbers, we're running these right now, but it's not out of the question to think that half of the basin will be either cleared or severely impoverished just 20 years from now."

The above pie chart showing deforestation in the Amazon by cause is based on the median figures for estimate ranges. Please note the low estimate for large-scale agriculture. Between 2000-2005 soybean cultivation reesulted in a small overall percentage of direct deforestation. Nevertheless the role of soy is quite significant in the Amazon. As explained by Dr. Philip Fearnside, "Soybean farms cause some forest clearing directly. But they have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier. Soybean farming also provides a key economic and political impetus for new highways and infrastructure projects, which accelerate deforestation by other actors."
While Nepstad's projections are dire, he, like some other scientists are conservationists are hopeful that the tide is turning in the Amazon. Nepstad believes that increasing international pressure for sustainbly-produced products could help drive better management of the Amazon and other forests.

"One very recent development is that commodity markets are demanding greater legality and greater stewardship for the entire production chain." Nepstad continued. "Meanwhile the international finance corporation (IFC), ABN Amro, Rabobank, and several other creditors are beginning to attach environmental conditions to their loans."

These shifts could ultimately determine the fate of the Amazon, the planet's largest and most biodiverse rainforest.

"It is very important not to succumb to the fatalism that so often affects discussions of Amazonia," said Dr. Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Research in the Amazon. "What happens depends on human decisions."


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CITATION:
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (August 10, 2007).

Amazon deforestation rate falls to lowest on record.

http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0810-amazon_deforestation.html