Brazil's Decision to Try to Reduce Deforestation Draws Praise From Environmentalists

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 6, 2008

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec. 5 -- Brazil's decision to set a target for reducing deforestation by 70 percent over the next decade to combat climate change was hailed by environmentalists Friday as a significant goal for a major polluting country.

"This is an enormously important step," Stephan Schwartzman, an Amazon expert with the Environmental Defense Fund, said by telephone from a climate change conference in Poland. "This is the first time that a major developing country, whose greenhouse gas emissions are a substantial part of the problem, has stepped up and made a commitment to bring down its total emissions. Brazil has set the standard. Now we want to see the U.S. and President Obama come up to it."

The clear-cutting and burning of the Amazon rain forest for cattle and soybean ranches, roads and settlements makes up one of the world's largest sources of the types of gases that contribute to global warming. Since reaching a recent peak of 10,588 square miles of forest destroyed in the Amazon in 2004, deforestation dropped for the next three years, before rising slightly this year to 4,621 square miles, according to data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, which monitors deforestation.

Brazil is one of the world's top four emitters of greenhouse gases, with China, the United States and Indonesia. The destruction of the world's rain forest accounts for about 20 percent of annual greenhouse gas pollution, of which Brazil makes up 40 percent, Schwartzman said.

Brazil's plan, announced this week and detailed Friday by Environment Minister Carlos Minc, calls for reducing the annual rate of deforestation to 1,900 square miles by 2017, down from 7,300 square miles, which has been the average rate of deforestation over a recent 10-year period. Minc said reaching this target would prevent 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide from being pumped into the atmosphere, more than the combined commitment of industrialized countries under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

"Climate change is one of the issues that most worries our civilization these days," Minc said. "Many people used to say it was just the delirium of environmentalists, but after they started to see ice melting on their TVs, they changed their minds."

Under Minc's predecessor, Marina Silva, Brazil set aside millions of acres of forest as protected areas. But in practice, it has been difficult to protect the vast, sparsely populated areas because of pressure from farmers and ranchers, corruption, illegal clearing and a lack of economic incentives.

Ana Cristina Barros, the Brazilian representative for the Nature Conservancy, called the new deforestation target a "time for celebration."

"It is possible for the government to control the Amazon frontier," she said. "It doesn't mean we have to prevent agriculture; we just need to control it."

Minc said he would create an environmental police force of 3,000 people to protect national parks and target illegal loggers. But he said deforestation cannot be solved by police action alone and requires economic incentives for farmers and other residents of the Amazon.

Farmers were encouraged that the government's plan included a program to pay those who preserve forest on their property, said Marcelo Duarte Monteiro, executive director of an association of soybean farmers in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. There are 62 million acres of cattle farms in the state, he said, and some of this land can be converted for soybean and other agricultural products.

"From our perspective, we are going to be looking at conversion, from pasture into cropland. That, in our opinion, is the way we should be going," he said. "On the other hand, we think it's fair to think of economic incentives for farmers who have forest and are delivering these environmental services, of carbon, of biodiversity, for free. And then everybody's going to be happy."

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