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In Brazil, Paying Farmers to Let the Trees Stand

QUERENCIA, Brazil — José Marcolini, a farmer here, has a permit from the Brazilian government to raze 12,500 acres of rain forest this year to create highly profitable new soy fields.

But he says he is struggling with his conscience. A Brazilian environmental group is offering him a yearly cash payment to leave his forest standing to help combat climate change.

Mr. Marcolini says he cares about the environment. But he also has a family to feed, and he is dubious that the group’s initial offer in the negotiation — $12 per acre, per year — is enough for him to accept.

“For me to resist the pressure, surrounded by soybeans, I’ll have to be paid — a lot,” said Mr. Marcolini, 53, noting that cleared farmland here in the state of Mato Grosso sells for up to $1,300 an acre.

Mato Grosso means thick forests, and the name was once apt. But today, this Brazilian state is a global epicenter of deforestation. Driven by profits derived from fertile soil, the region’s dense forests have been aggressively cleared over the past decade, and Mato Grasso is now Brazil’s leading producer of soy, corn and cattle, exported across the globe by multinational companies.

Deforestation, a critical contributor to climate change, effectively accounts for 20 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and 70 percent of the emissions in Brazil. Halting new deforestation, experts say, is as powerful a way to combat warming as closing the world’s coal plants.

But until now, there has been no financial reward for keeping forest standing. Which is why a growing number of scientists, politicians and environmentalists argue that cash payments — like that offered to Mr. Marcolini — are the only way to end tropical forest destruction and provide a game-changing strategy in efforts to limit global warming.

Unlike high-tech solutions like capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide or making “green” fuel from algae, preserving a forest yields a strikingly simple environmental payback: a landowner reduces his property’s emissions to zero.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, said that deforestation “absolutely” needed to be addressed by a new international climate agreement being negotiated this year. “But people cut down trees because there is an economic rationale for doing it, and you need to provide them with a financial alternative,” he said.

Both the most recent draft of the agreement and the climate bill passed by the House in late June in the United States include plans for rich countries and companies to pay the poor to preserve their forests.

The payment strategies may include direct payments to landowners to keep forests standing, as well as indirect subsidies, like higher prices for beef and soy that are produced without resorting to clear-cutting. Deforestation creates carbon emissions through fires and machinery that are used to fell trees, and it also destroys the plant life that helps absorb carbon dioxide emissions from cars and factories around the globe.

But getting the cash incentives right is a complex and uncharted business. In much of the developing world, including here, deforestation has been tied to economic progress. Pedro Alves Guimarães, 73, a weathered man sitting at the edge of the region’s River of the Dead, came to Mato Grosso in 1964 in search of free land, pushing into the jungle until he found a site and built a hut as a base for raising cattle. While he regrets the loss of the forest, he has welcomed amenities like the school built a few years ago that his grandchildren attend, or the electricity put in last year that allowed him to buy his first freezer.

Also, environmental groups caution that, designed poorly, programs to pay for forest preservation could merely serve as a cash cow for the very people who are destroying them. For example, one proposed version of the new United Nations plan would allow plantations of trees, like palms grown for palm oil, to count as forest, even though tree plantations do not have nearly the carbon absorption potential of genuine forest and are far less diverse in plant and animal life.

“There is the capacity to get a very perverse outcome,” said Sean Cadman, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society of Australia.

Global as well as local economic forces are driving deforestation — Brazil and Indonesia lead the world in the extent of their rain forests lost each year. The forests are felled to help feed the world’s growing population and meet its growing appetite for meat. Much of Brazil’s soy is bought by American-based companies like Cargill or Archer Daniels Midland and used to feed cows as far away as Europe and China. In Indonesia, rain forests are felled to plant palms for the palm oil, which is a component of biofuels.

Brazil has tried to balance development and conservation.

Last year, with a grant from Norway that could bring the country $1 billion, it created an Amazon Fund to help communities maintain their forest. National laws stipulate that 80 percent of every tract in the upper Amazon — and 50 percent in more developed regions — must remain forested, but it is a vast territory with little law enforcement. Soy exporters officially have a moratorium on using product from newly deforested land.


Issued by:  New York Times



Issue date: August 22, 2009

Link to Article: Origin of text

Can new growth save the Amazon rainforest?

Vegetation is reclaiming agricultural land and might save us from consequences of deforestation

Aug. 17, 2009 | Felipe Garcia's shack backs up against a wall of forest. "My neighbors abandoned their farm seven years ago," says Garcia, a farmer. "Now the jungle has taken over their property once again." He strokes his round belly and says: "And if I don't till my field, it'll look the same way in a few years."

Garcia is a member of the Ngöbe tribe, the largest indigenous group in Panama. He is one of the few residents of the small town of Chilibre who still make a living farming. Most of the local farmers abandoned their farms long ago. "Farming is too hard work for the young people," Garcia complains. "They prefer to work in the capital."

Panama City's office buildings are about an hour's drive away. Chilibre has become a bedroom community as residents choose to commute to the capital. It has also become a field laboratory for botanists and ecologists fascinated by the dense vegetation that has returned to abandoned farms in the former Canal Zone within just a few years.

Undervalued growth
In the past, scientists scorned the "secondary forests," as the new growth is called. There is no doubt that they are not nearly as spectacular as the species-rich primary forests, with their giant trees, which are often centuries old; and they are not home to nearly as many animal and plant species. But now a growing number of biologists are interested in this previously ignored vegetation. According to a United Nations study, the ecological importance of these new forests, which are "growing dramatically" all over the world, is "undervalued."

Is the rain forest truly recovering from overexploitation? And could it be that the consequences of deforestation are not as devastating as environmentalists have been preaching for years?

"There are more secondary than primary rain forests in most tropical countries today," explains American biologist Joe Wright. "On the whole, the amount of land covered by vegetation is stable." In tropical countries, in particular, rural flight and urbanization have led to more and more farmers abandoning their fields, allowing new vegetation to grow rampant on the fallow ground. "The numbers speak for themselves," Wright says.

Wright is a research biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He works in a wooden building built by the Americans in the former Canal Zone, just a few kilometers from Felipe Garcia's hut. He has spent the last 25 years studying Central American jungles, which have long consisted primarily of secondary vegetation. "Even the Mayans were cutting down forests," Wright says.

Naive claims
Wright recently investigated areas that were cleared to build the Panama Canal, where the Americans displaced local settlers. Since then, much of the region has reverted to rain forest. To a layman, it is hard to recognize the difference between primary and secondary forest. In the Canal Zone's newer forest, monkeys screech, colorful butterflies flutter across jungle paths, and an eagle circles overhead. According to Wright, "many animals adapt to the environment, and 80 percent of biodiversity is preserved."

With his field studies, Wright has triggered a scholarly dispute among scientists around the world. "Joe is naive," says Bill Laurance, who conducted research in the Brazilian Amazon region for many years and even works at the same institute as Wright. Privately the two men are friends, but professionally they are bitter rivals.

Laurance fears that Wright is downplaying the destruction of virgin rain forest. "The conditions in the small country of Panama cannot be generalized. In the Amazon, cattle ranchers and the agricultural industry are destroying the jungle on a large scale. The undergrowth that thrives in cleared areas is a caricature of a forest."

Even Wright concedes that Brazil is a key region for the future of the rain forest. Three-quarters of the Amazon jungle lie in Brazilian territory. Nowhere else is the forest being destroyed so recklessly. Nevertheless, there is a lack of reliable information about the long-term consequences of overexploitation.

Looking under the mask
Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which monitors the jungle via satellite, reports that 17 percent of the Brazilian Amazon rain forest has been deforested. But what happens in cleared areas when they are abandoned after years of agricultural use remains a big mystery, says INPE researcher Claudio Almeida.

In Belem, in the Amazon delta region, the Brazilian scientist is currently setting up an INPE institute devoted to the study of rain forests. In his office, littered with moving boxes and electronic equipment, Almeida is sitting at a computer, analyzing satellite images transmitted by the INPE satellite-monitoring center in São Paulo. The images from space depict only recently cleared areas of land. So far scientists have not looked at the question of how areas that were deforested some time ago have changed in the meantime. "We are now looking under the mask for the first time," says Almeida.

The São Paulo agronomist is studying secondary vegetation throughout the entire Brazilian Amazon region. Using satellite images, he selected 26 locations that were cleared years ago and eventually became overgrown with new vegetation. Then he spent two months driving from one location to the next. His conclusion? "Twenty percent of the deforested areas are recovering."

Nevertheless, Almeida is not issuing a general all-clear signal for the rain forest. "Within no more than five years, most of the secondary forests will be burned down or cut down again," he says. Cattle ranchers use the fallow fields as pasture, while farmers plant soybeans or cereal crops.

Nevertheless, the secondary vegetation provides Brazil with a significant benefit. The new forests help capture carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, thereby curbing global warming. "We have more biomass than was previously believed," says Almeida. The new forests will be a central issue at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, where the successor to the Kyoto Protocol is to be discussed.

Wright, for his part, would like to see secondary forests placed under protection right away. "In many countries, there isn't any old-growth vegetation left. We have to protect what's left to protect."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


Issued by:  Salon.com

Author: Jens Glüsing, This interview originally appeared in Der Spiegel


Issue date: August 14, 2009

Link to Article: Origin of text


20% of land deforested in the Brazilian Amazon is regrowing forest

At least 20 percent land deforested in the Brazilian Amazon is regrowing forest, reports Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Analyzing high resolution satellite imagery, analysts at INPE found large areas of regenerating forest in Pará, Mato Grosso, and Amapá, states which account for the majority of Brazil's deforestation. Of the 233,399 square kilometers of land in deforested Pará by 2007, 22 percent, or 51,406 square kilometers, was already in the process of regeneration. The proportion for Amapá was 25 percent, with 620 of 2,440 square kilometers experiencing regrowth. In Mato Grosso, a state where the bulk of deforested land is used for large-scale agriculture and cattle ranches, forest was regenerating on 22,611 of 201,798 square kilometers (11 percent) of deforested land.

The new monitoring system will allow INPE to determine the fate of deforested lands, enabling Brazil to track carbon fluxes from deforestation, degradation, and regrowth. The accounting system is needed for Brazil to reach its target of reducing emissions from deforestation 70 percent from a 1996-2005 baseline by 2018.

While the findings are a hopeful sign that the Amazon can recover from deforestation, it will take decades for regrowing forest to store as much carbon and house as much biodiversity as the original forest prior to clearing.


Issued by:  Mongabay



Issue date: September 15, 2009

Link to Article: Origin of text


Extpub | by Dr. Radut