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U.S. farms and forests report draws ire in Brazil; cutting down the Amazon does not mean lower food prices

Not surprisingly, a US report released last week which argued that saving forests abroad will help US agricultural producers by reducing international competition has raised hackles in tropical forest counties. The report, commissioned by Avoided Deforestation Partners, a US group pushing for including tropical forest conservation in US climate policy, and the National Farmers Union, a farmers’ group, has threatened to erode support for stopping deforestation in places like Brazil. However, two rebuttals have been issued, one from international environmental organizations and the other from Brazilian NGOs, that counter findings in the US report and urge unity in stopping deforestation, not for the economic betterment of US producers, but for everyone.

“The study has been used in recent days by several Brazilian parliamentarians and rural leaders to defend the idea that forest protection in Brazil is something that runs counter to the national interest,” explains a letter from 10 Brazilian NGOs. “With that, they want to justify the need for approving a bill that dramatically changes the Brazilian forest legislation. In this story, however, are American and Brazilian rural leaders are both mistaken.”

Clearing for pasture in the Amazon borders a legal forest reserve. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

While the report, entitled “Farms Here, Forests There: Tropical Deforestation and U.S. Competitiveness in Agriculture and Timber” argues that US agricultural producers could save $49 billion between 2012 and 2030 simply by complying with climate change legislation, it pushes revenue from stopping deforestation abroad as the real cache. According to the report, US farmers could gain $141-$221 billion during the same time period from less competition abroad due to decreases in illegal forest clearing.

But according to the Brazilian NGOs the US report “ignores the Brazilian reality”.

“It is wrong to assume that an end to deforestation around here would stop the expansion of production of agricultural commodities at competitive prices. According to data from University of São Paulo/ESALQ, we have at least 61 million hectares of high potential agricultural land currently occupied by low productivity of livestock and can be quickly converted into areas of agricultural expansion,” the rebuttal states, adding that “we could double our production of food without having to bring down new forest and still recovering those areas where reforestation is done needed for their potential to provide ecosystem services.”

The Brazilian NGOs, including Conservation International-Brazil and the Institute of Man and Environment in the Amazon (IMAZON), further argue that halting deforestation in the Amazon is for the benefit not of US agricultural producers, but of the Brazilian public.

“The supply of forest products, regulation of water and climate, maintenance of biodiversity, environmental services are all provided exclusively by forests and essential to support national agriculture,” the rebuttal reads. In fact, Brazilian business leaders participating in the Sustainable Amazon Fórum (Fórum Amazônia Sustentável) recently voiced support for a national plan to reduce deforestation in order to preserve these ecological services, while leveraging best environmental practices to become competitive in the international marketplace. Their coalition was a key reason why Brazil called for strong action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions during last December’s climate talks in Copenhagen.

According to the letter, some Brazilian politicians are undermining greenhouse gas emission pledges by using the US report to support deforestation throughout the Amazon.

But it’s not just Brazilians that found the report misleading at best. Large international and US environmental groups have also released a rebuttal to the report, where they “reject the hypothesis that conservation of tropical forest can provide a competitive advantage for U.S. agriculture against competition from developing countries in agricultural commodities”.

According to the rebuttal, signed by Conservation International (CI), Environmental Defense Fund, The National Wildlife Federation, and the Nature Conservancy (TNC), “the report is based on the assumption, totally unfounded, that deforestation in tropical countries can be easily interrupted, and its conclusions are therefore also unrealistic.” However, the report follows the same timeline as the REDD program assumes: achieving a 50 percent drop by 2020 and a complete end to deforestation by 2030.

The rebuttal further argues that for deforestation to be slowed or stopped cannot mean that one nation (the US) will win out against others, but must “provide economic incentives for developing countries, including the producers, to maintain the native forest”. In fact, the strategy currently in place in the UN of paying tropical nations to keep their forests in tact known as REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) proposes to do just this.

In addition the rebuttal agrees with Brazilian NGOs that production need not decrease in tropical forests nations if deforestation is stopped.

“Several scientific studies show that to reduce deforestation it is necessary to increase the competitiveness of agricultural production outside the forest frontier. Large tropical countries have large rural areas where underutilized whether to increase the productivity of agriculture without increasing deforestation.”

The environmental organizations also chided the US report for failing to point out the nation’s own responsibility (long the largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world until superseded by China in 2006) in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“This effort only makes sense when the United States—and developed countries as a whole—begin to substantially reduce emissions from all sectors of its economy. It is for this reason that these organizations support the establishment of a U.S. legislation on climate change with ambitious targets for reducing emissions,” the environmental groups write. They note that paying tropical nations to sustain forest cover must be a part of any plan to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

The US report was largely aimed at convincing US Republicans and wary rural Democrats to throw their support behind an energy and climate bill, but it has probably provoked a bigger reaction outside US borders. NGOs in Brazil, the US, and worldwide hope that by pointing out the report’s gaps abroad, they can re-focus the debate on the importance of saving forests, regardless of US farmers thousands of miles away.

While there has yet to be much reaction to the report in Asia, developers in Indonesia and Malaysia aren’t likely to be happy with its denigration of palm oil. The report calls for replacing palm oil use in the U.S. with domestic vegetable oil substitutes, which have a substantially lower yield, and therefore require more land, than the widely grown oil palm. Palm oil has drawn criticism from environmentalists however when rainforest and peatlands are cleared to establish plantations.

Ten signatories of Brazilian NGO letter

Friends of the Earth – Brazilian Amazon

Association for the Preservation of the Environment and Life-APREMAVI

SOS Mata Atlantica

Carajás Forum


Conservation International – CI-Brazil

Amazon Working Group – GTA

Institute of Man and Environment in the Amazon – IMAZON

Instituto Centro de Vida – ICV

Socio-Environmental Institute

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