Not a time for complacency in the Amazon


Guest post by chinadialogue intern Irina Federenko

Deforestation of the Amazon rain forest is at its lowest rate since records began more than 20 years ago, according to new figures from the Brazilian government. So is it time to celebrate?

The decline has occurred at the same time that Brazil’s economy has grown by roughly 40%, suggesting a decoupling of economic growth and deforestation. Around 81% of Brazil’s original forest remains, making it the Earth’s largest rainforest, so what happens here is hugely important and progress hugely welcome.

But the region is still facing an unprecedented storm of challenges: the simultaneous impacts of large-scale forest loss and degradation, fragmentation, forest fires and climate change. Here are a few facts and figures:

*Some 6,418 square kilometres of Amazon rain forest were stripped in the year to July 31, 2011.

*580,000 square kilometers of Amazon rain forest – which helps regulate the global climate, protect water resources and sustain biodiversity – has been destroyed in Brazil since 1980.

*The forest is cleared mainly for cattle pasture and agricultural purposes such as soybean cultivation.

*Almost 70 % of the cleared lands become pasture to supply beef to the cities and leather for international export.

*The Amazon’s worst droughts of the last 100 years occurred in 2005 and 2010.

Research by ecologist Daniel Nepstad suggests that in the next 20 years 55% of Amazon rain forest will be “cleared, logged, damaged by drought, or burned” due to human activity, fires and climate change. This will have a devastating impact on lives of indigenous people of the Amazon and on climate globally.

Despite policy successes, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has recently weakened forest-protection measures, and so the Amazon remains under threat. As Brazil prepares to host world leaders at the Rio+20 conference, there is good news, but it should be cautiously welcomed. Despite the improvements, the rain forest is still at grave risk, and environmentalists argue more radical measures must be taken to halt deforestation.