The Amazon Gets Less and Less Green

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Steve Winter / National Geographic / Getty

Rainforest in Brazil.

Despite the alarms about global warming, the news concerning Brazil's crucial Amazon jungle is not good. Once again, satellites are showing deforestation is on the rise. And once again the government has announced a package of measures aimed at halting it. If you think you've heard this story before, you're not wrong. It's depressingly familiar. "This is only a surprise if you believe in Father Christmas," said Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth's Brazil office.

The new statistics show that deforestation for the last five months of 2007 was 3,235 sq. kilometers (1,250 sq. miles or about the size of Rhode Island), a rise from the previous year's figure and alarming because deforestation normally drops in the final rainy months of the year. In a world panicked by its own carbon footprint, the forests of the Amazon are the planet's largest absorber of carbon dioxide.

Even more disturbing was an alert from another government agency warning the true figure is closer to 7,000 sq. km. (2,700 sq. miles) "It is a completely new and very worrying development," Joao Paulo Capobianco, executive-secretary at the Environment Ministry, admitted at a press conference to announce the figures on Thursday. So worrying that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva brought together several ministers to discuss measures designed at halting the destruction.

Lula, elected with the support of green groups who later accused him of kowtowing to Brazil's powerful agribusiness lobby, called for a complete ban on deforestation in the 36 worst-hit municipalities and said he would next month send 800 federal police officers to ensure the moratorium is respected. He also told landowners they would have to register their properties and prove they comply with existing environmental legislation, something very few currently do. Those not in compliance will be ineligible for government credit or prohibited from selling their property. Measures will also be introduced to stop non-compliant businesses from selling their produce.

The measures are thorough and hard-hitting and many environmentalists approve. However, in a remote region like the Amazon, where laws are more suggestions than commandments, perpetual question marks surround enforcement. The Lula administration has to truly want to bring landowners into line, which is a big if, especially in a year of municipal elections, said Paulo Adario, coordinator of Amazon campaigns of Greenpeace.

What is even more frightening is that the government may not even be able to implement the laws, even if it wanted to. "These measures are very difficult to implement," Adario said. "But the problem is that while the government knows where the deforestation is taking place it doesn't know who is doing it. They don't know who owns what out there. Lots of people don't have legal papers, some of the land has been taken in land grabs and it is hard pinning down the culprits."

Environmental groups also believe the government's commitment is questionable because it needs the income from Brazil's booming agriculture sector. Brazil is the world's biggest beef and soy exporter and it leads the global race to turn sugar cane into fuel. When commodities like soy, beef and grains are sought after on world markets, farmers have more incentive to hack away and create fields. Environment Minister Marina Silva said the recent rise in deforestation is due in large part to increased commodity prices. Deforestation fell along with food prices in 2005 and 2006 and now both are on the rise. Silva, however, meets counter-arguments from within the government. The minister of Agriculture has rejected that theory and argued that the amount of land given over to soy has remained constant for four years.

Until the government operates from the same premises, real and concerted change will remain elusive, said Carlos Alberto Scaramuzza, thematic conservation director at the World Wildlife Fund-Brasil. "The government needs to recognize that agribusiness, especially cattle ranching, is part of the problem," Scaramuzza said. "If we keep hearing the agriculture minister saying that agribusiness has nothing to do with the problem then we are always going to be chasing our tail."

Another worrying aspect comes in the westerly shift of deforestation. Thursday's figures show a large increase in forest degradation in Rondonia, a remote state bordering Bolivia. Rondonia had avoided much of the destruction but the new figures show that deforestation there is almost equal to that in Para, a state five times the size.

Smeraldi put the rise down to a controversial government decision to license two hydro-electric dams on the Madeira river, the longest tributary of the Amazon. The dams could provide as much as 8% of Brazil's energy needs but they have been compared to China's Three Gorges project because of the potential ecological damage. Lula dismissed claims by his own environmental agency that the dams could cause serious harm to the environment and ordered a shakeup that resulted in the ousting of officials who opposed the project. The tender process went ahead last year, prompting a land grab nearby, Smeraldi said. "This is the result of the speculation boom over land that started in July 2007 when the Madeira dams were given the go ahead without even studying the impact on deforestation and land issues," he said.

Whatever the cause, Smeraldi and his colleagues in the environmental lobby are gearing up for more bad news when the annual figures are released later this year. Most of them swear they are optimistic by nature. But they know how this story goes. They've seen it before. And it rarely has a happy ending.