More deforestation in the Amazon - why?

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More deforestation in the Amazon – why?

Deforestation went down by more than 70 per cent recently. But now there’s more again in the Amazon. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, scientist Philip Fearnside explains why. And how we can control it.


Matt Zimmerman (under a Creative Commons Licence)

Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years. He knows more than almost everyone about deforestation here - in the world’s largest tropical forest.

He is a professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon. He studies how to sustainably develop the Amazon. But there are very big pressures to cut and clear the forest. Now he is very worried because there is more cutting and clearing trees in the Amazon.

This is because the economy in the world is improving, prices are rising and there are new laws in Brazil that encourage the development of the Amazon.

Fearnside says there will be big problems if Dilma Rousseff (now President for the second time in Brazil) does not change direction. But the big landowners and farming businesses support her.

Yale Environment 360: Deforestation is now rising dramatically in the Brazilian Amazon. When did this begin?

Philip Fearnside: Deforestation went up a bit in 2013, but now in the last six months there has been a very big rise. Brazil’s DETER satellite system shows how much deforestation there is. It more than doubled from September 2014 to January 2015 from the year before.

The government did not tell the public before the election in October. They normally publish the information from August and September in October, but, last year, they didn’t publish it until the end of November. This is really bad.

e360: This is a surprise to many people who thought that Brazil was in control of deforestation. Deforestation went down from 2004 until 2012. Why?

Philip Fearnside: The dollar to Brazilian real exchange rate was not good, so they did not make so much money from eg. exporting soybeans or beef. And prices eg. of soybeans and beef were going down.

e360: What happened after 2008?

Philip Fearnside: From 2008 to 2012, commodity prices started to go up again. The exchange rate improved at the end of that time. But in 2008, there were new Central Bank rules about lending money to agriculture – this had to agree with the environment department, IBAMA. If you cut the forest illegally and don’t pay the fine, you can’t borrow money. It had a big effect, especially on the large landowners. So commodity prices went up, but deforestation still stayed low.

e360: So why is deforestation now rising so much?

Philip Fearnside: In 2012, there was a new Forest Code law. It protects the environment less and cancels all the legal problems for people who broke environmental laws before 2008. So if you cut trees illegally in the past, there is no problem! And people now think that if you cut trees illegally now, soon there will be another amnesty to cancel these crimes.

But if you followed the law, you lost money. It is very strange, and does not encourage people to respect the law.

Also, the prices for soy and beef are now high, and the exchange rate is higher. So companies make more money. All this means more deforestation.

e360: How does commercial logging (cutting trees) affect the deforestation problem?

Philip Fearnside: When people cut trees commercially, this doesn’t show as deforestation. In the northwestern U.S., you cut all the trees, and leave empty ground where there was forest before.

But in Brazil, you only take the wood that brings the most money, and leave most of the trees. So the satellite shows it as forest. However, it is very important for deforestation, because logging is one of the big sources of money that pays for the people who clear the land.

You’re selling wood and using the money to clear forest for cattle farms or plantations. To transport the wood, you also need to build temporary roads. And this makes it easier for people to come in and clear the forest for farms. So cutting a few trees makes deforestation happen more quickly.

e360: How much illegal logging is going on?

Philip Fearnside: A lot of the logging is illegal. But even if you follow all the regulations and log legally, it’s not sustainable.

Some companies are allowed to cut trees on federal or state land. They have to have a forest management plan. With forest management, you divide up the forest into small areas and you take the big trees out of one area one year and another the next year. After thirty years you come back to the first area and the trees have grown again and you cut the big ones. You keep going round and round and this will be sustainable.

You have to sit there for 30 years doing nothing, getting no money from the trees. Nobody is going to do that. There is nothing to force people to do this forever. So you say you’ve changed your mind, you’ve decided to cut the trees for a farm.

Other people sell the land. And the new owner will not sit there for 30 years waiting for the new forest to grow. So the logging looks sustainable on paper, but it isn’t.

e360: What effect has this kind of logging had on the forest?

Philip Fearnside: Selective logging (choosing a few trees to cut) allows more forest fires, because of all the dead treetops drying out in the forest. People driving bulldozers in the forest can kill many other trees.

If you open up the forest, more sunlight comes in, and more wind to dry things out. It is much more likely to catch fire, and, in the end destroys the forest.

e360: Is global warming also making more fires? Is fire new in Amazonia?

Philip Fearnside: There have always been a few forest fires. We can see from the soil that there were four very big forest fires in the past 2000 years. It is more or less one every 500 years. But now fires are far more often, usually in the big El Niño years. El Niño (a wind) makes the forest dry, especially in the northern part of the Amazon. It happened in 1982, 1997, and 2006. We had destructive forest fires in the northern part of the Amazon.

Now we have something else that has increased even more quickly than El Niño - called the Atlantic Dipole. El Niño is caused by warming of the top water in the Pacific Ocean.

The Atlantic Dipole is a warm area of water in the tropical part of the North Atlantic. It causes drought and forest fires in the southwestern part of the Amazon, in Acre state and areas near there.

This happened in 2005, and then five years later again in 2010. The water gets warmer in this part of the Atlantic. In the past, it gets cooler again because of dust in the air, eg. from the deserts in Africa and industrial pollution in Europe.

The dust protects it – some of the radiation from the sun hits these dust particles instead of hitting the water. But now with global warming, there is more rain in the world. So there is not so much dust, so more of the sun’s energy gets to the water. It makes that part of the Atlantic warmer, and it causes droughts in the western Amazon.

e360: People say the Amazon forest creates its own climate. Water rises from the trees and creates clouds, and these make rain. What is the effect of cutting the forest on rainfall?

Philip Fearnside: Now there is a big drought in Sao Paulo. You can’t say definitely that it’s because of deforestation. But a lot of the water in Sao Paulo comes from the Amazon. It’s water that is recycled through the trees, so if you cut the forest and make cattle farms, that water doesn’t go to Sao Paulo, it goes into the Amazon River, and into the Atlantic.

If you keep clearing the Amazon, there will be a permanent drought, not just a one-year drought. There will be no water going to Sao Paulo. It will also affect Argentina. Argentina is very worried about deforestation in the Amazon.

There are also connections to North America and other parts of the world, so deforestation would have some effect on rainfall in North America in important agricultural areas in the Midwest, for example.

e360: President Dilma Rousseff has promised more development in rural areas. What effect might this have on the Amazon forest?

Philip Fearnside: There is the PAC (the five-year plan for the growth). Dilma supports this: lots of projects, building roads and dams etc. So there will be more deforestation.

The most dramatic case is the plan for the BR 319 Highway. This is to link Manaus in the center of the Amazon with the area of deforestation in the south and east - where 80 percent of the deforestation has been.

If the companies and individuals involved in deforestation there move into the rest of the forest, it changes everything. It isn’t only one road; many other roads are planned. They will open up that big area of forest in the western Amazon.

When you build a road like that, the government can no longer control what happens eg. people moving into the forest. The government usually legalizes what happens in the end.

e360: So what needs to happen to control deforestation?

Philip Fearnside: They could tax land speculation, stop subsidies and financial help for development that leads to deforestation, cut road building, and end the practice of allowing animal farming as an ‘improvement’ to get control of the land.

The government also needs to have much tighter controls on big development projects. And they need to pay rural populations to protect forests and the ecosystem.

If the government doesn’t start doing some of this soon, we will lose the forests of Amazonia.

e360: Are you pessimistic?

Philip Fearnside: Many people say the Amazon problems are so great, the forest is going to be cut down no matter what you do, so it’s better to worry about something else. But I think it’s very important to keep working on the problem.

There are lots of groups working in Brazil putting pressure on the government to change direction. Brazil is a very diverse place, including the Brazilian government. Most of what is going on is pushing for more deforestation, but there are 39 different ministries and thousands of people in the government. And many of them are very worried about these things. So it’s important not to give up.

This article first appeared on the Yale Environment 360 website.

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