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On the Environment

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
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Ending Deforestation in the Amazon: Turning a Possibility into a Reality

By Guest Author, Jonathan Smith, JD/MEM candidate, Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

For the past several months, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy has invited global experts to speak about the climate policies of the top ten greenhouse-gas-emitting nations in its Climate Change Solutions: Frontline Perspectives from Around the Globe webinar series. For most of the nations in the series, that means policies addressing emissions from energy use, electricity, and transportation. For instance, over three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions in both the US and EU are attributable to the energy sector. But the issues Brazil faces are much different – it is the only top-ten nation with emissions primarily derived from land use change, deforestation, and agriculture. Dr. Paulo Moutinho, Executive Director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), spoke recently about these issues and others. A recording of the webinar is available here.

Over the last twenty years, an area the size of Texas has been deforested in the Brazilian Amazon. Seventy percent of this deforestation is due to cattle-ranching activities, but other factors -- such as increasing corn, soy, and sugar cane production for food and biofuels -- are also stressing the environment. The Brazilian government’s subsidies of traditional, intensive agricultural practices dwarf that of sustainable, low-carbon agriculture. And governmental investment in transportation and urban infrastructure in the Amazon similarly threatens its forests, with over 70 percent of deforestation occurring within 50 kilometers of roads. Settlements are a relatively new driver of deforestation, and in the last ten years small landholders and settlers have been playing an increasingly major role in deforestation. At current rates, over 40 percent of the Amazon forest could be gone by 2050, potentially releasing up to 40 billion metric tons of the carbon stored by the forest into the atmosphere.

Moutinho condenses the myriad of contributing factors to four main threats to the forest: 1) the lack of environmental safeguards in the government’s huge Growth Acceleration Plan that is building infrastructure in the Amazon; 2) the growing demand for beef and grain commodities around the world, and the ensuing incentives for cattle ranchers and farmers to cut down forestland; 3) governmental settlement policy that encourages the deforestation of a large number of small land plots; and 4) threats to weaken protections in the Forest Code that are currently under debate in Brazil’s Congress.

But though the threats to the Amazon loom large, progress has been made. Deforestation rates have been reduced to two-thirds below the 1996-2005 average through programs like the compensated reduction of deforestation and the Amazon Fund, the creation of protected areas, and improved law enforcement measures. And the national goal of an 80-percent reduction in deforestation by 2020 could avoid the release of nearly 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. At the subnational level, some Brazilian states such as Para and Amazonas are instituting their own state-level REDD programs. And at the sub-state level, forest protection is highly dependent on stakeholders, such as the indigenous communities, who live on lands that hold 30 percent of the carbon stock of the Amazon, and have traditionally low rates of deforestation.

Moutinho stresses the importance of a national REDD regime within which state-level REDD programs are nested, so that targets and methodologies could be standardized across states. And aside from REDD, he also advocates for a national emissions trading scheme, expansion of protected areas, and programs to both increase the land-use efficiency of cattle ranchers and promote the growth of crops on land that had already been cleared for ranching.

A long and multi-pronged effort is necessary in order to slow—or eventually stop—deforestation in the Amazon. But with deforestation not only directly threatening one of the world’s richest biomes, but also indirectly threatening biomes the world over through climate change, the effort must be made.

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