Amazon Deforestation: Crunch Time

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Published on September 3rd, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

Interesting times in the Great Brazilian Amazon Deforestation Debate, which, since time immemorial—actually the mid-1980s, when reliable satellite data first became available—has had academics and policymakers arguing over the stubbornly obscure relationship between economic factors, especially commodity prices, and levels of deforestation.

The period from 2008 to 2011 promises to shed some light on the topic, since it is a perfect natural laboratory for economic activity—full boom ahead up to the Brazilian economy hitting the buffers along with everyone else in late 2008, roughly a year of flatlining, and then, since the second half of 2009, a roaring recovery. The relationship between that economic yo-yoing and deforestation levels in the Amazon should be illuminating.

We are in fact  beginning to get some data and other early indicators on deforestation that are extremely suggestive. True deforestation junkies might want to look at a March blog I did on 2008-2009 deforestation levels as a scene-setter.

Brazil’s Amazon deforestation figures come out in November every year, and are always a media event. They cover the period from August of the preceding year to July of the current year, since the burning season inconveniently doesn’t match the break between calendar years.  The figures to be released in November of 2010, then, cover August 2009 to July 2010.

The final number-crunching is quite complicated, which accounts for the delay in releasing the official figures, but they are widely trailed in the Brazilian media well before they are made official – especially this year, when there is also a presidential election in November, guaranteeing the deforestation figures even more attention than usual.

Two very interesting things are clear already with the 2009-2010 deforestation figures:

  1. They are very low, possibly the lowest yet recorded, somewhere not far above 5,000 square kilometers.
  2. There’s a change in the pattern of deforestation—for the first time, more than half of it appears to be down to small fires. This means that small peasant farmers, rather than ranchers, were responsible. This is a major shift, since in a typical year the split has historically been more like 80/20 between ranchers and small farmers.

So what does this mean? What everyone would love to see is a year where the economy is doing well, but deforestation is going down. At first sight, that’s exactly what the 2009-2010 figures appear to show, since the “deforestation year,” from August 2009 to July 2010, coincides pretty well with Brazil’s strong economic recovery that began in the second half of 2009.

Great news, right? Unfortunately not, for two reasons.

First, there may be a time-lag: many specialists have argued that it takes around a year for economic conditions to feed through and change behaviour on the ground in the Amazon. If that’s true, what we are seeing in 2009-2010 is the delayed effect of the economic slowdown of 2008-2009. That’s an argument given force by the apparent shift in the pattern of deforestation. Peasant smallholders would be much less affected by a general economic contraction, since a good chunk of their production is for subsistence and they usually have local markets for their output, whereas ranchers and larger farmers (unless they happened to be exporting to China, which only a tiny minority in the Amazon does) would be hammered.

The second argument is potentially even more worrying. There are already signs that 2010-2011 deforestation, which we won’t know for another year, could be bad. Deforestation figures are retrospective but there is another indicator that gives you almost a real-time window into what’s happening—the number of fires recorded daily by Brazil’s space agency. These have jumped by 85% this calendar year, and there are already reports in the Brazilian press that smoke levels during the burning season in parts of the Amazon are the worst for several years. Partly this is because this year has been dryer than usual in much of the Amazon. There is always some noise in the levels caused by annual weather variations. But I think it is more than that.

The most fires have been recorded in Mato Grosso and Pará, the traditional champion states of Amazon deforestation. In another worrying trend, an intense “fire frontier” has formed in the south of the states of Maranhão and Piauí, the north of Tocantins and the west of Bahia, outside the Amazon but close to it. The fires are precisely where much of  the intact Cerrado, Brazil‘s highly biodiverse savanna, is located. All concerned, including the international environmental movement, need to step back, take a broader view (in every sense) and worry about the Cerrado, instead of only paying attention to the Amazon and tropical forests. The two are interlinked.

If I had to put my money on the table, I’d be betting that next year’s figures, covering August 2009 to July 2010, will show a big jump in deforestation. That will support the idea that deforestation follows the economy, with a lag of around a year. Most people, including me, expect Brazil to do very well economically over the next few years. Brazil has made commitments to get deforestation down dramatically as part of its national climate action plan over the next few years. We’re about to find out whether those two things can happen at the same time.

(Image: Aerial view of timber cutting near Cachoeira Reservoir. Source: Scott Warren)

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