Rainbow over the Andean foothills of the Peruvian Amazon. Photo taken August 11 by Rhett Butler
While environmentalists have long lamented the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, in recent years deforestation has slowed in Brazil, the country that accounts for the bulk of remaining Amazon forest cover. Annual forest loss has fallen substantially since last peaking in 2004 and even with a small increase this year over last year’s record low, deforestation in 2011 will be only a fraction of what it was just five years ago.
Nevertheless there are some reasons for concern. First and foremost, there is a strong push from agricultural interests to relax Brazil’s Forest Code, which requires landowners to maintain as much as 80 percent cover on private lands in the Amazon. Green groups warn that the current reform bill could spur a big increase in deforestation. At the same time Brazil is expanding and improving infrastructure across much of the Amazon, including highways, roads, and dams, which will provide further impetus for forest clearing. Another worry is what’s happening outside Brazil — Peru has seen a tremendous surge in deforestation since 2005, while Ecuador and Colombia are envisioning new projects in the Amazon. Large swathes of land in Venezuela and Bolivia continue to go up in flames for cattle ranching and industrial agriculture, respectively. Meanwhile high the gold price has caused a mining boom in all Amazon countries. Many of these mines are unregulated and cause deforestation as well as water and air pollution. Finally climate change looms large in the future of the Amazon. Since 2005 the region has seen the two worst droughts ever recorded. These leave the forest susceptible to fires and cause large-scale die-offs.
So while there has been hopeful news of late in the Brazilian Amazon, there is a need to remain vigilant. After all, sometimes the rainbow comes before the storm.
(08/09/2011) A recent push to revise Brazil’s forest code has emerged as one of the more contentious political issues in the country, pitting agribuisness against environmentalists trying to preserve the Amazon rainforest. Historically, the forest code has required private landowners to maintain a substantial proportion of natural forest cover on their properties, though the law has often been ignored. While both sides claim to be basing their recommendations on the ‘best science’ available, Brazilian scientists say they haven’t had much of a voice in the debate. In fact, says Antonio Donato Nobre, a researcher at the Amazon Research Institute and Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, ‘throughout the development of the said revisions, Congress has neither invited nor commissioned a coordinated and serious contribution from the scientific community.’