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Global Ideas

Brazil in tricky balancing act to fight climate change

The Brazilian government has pledged to join international initiatives to combat climate change. But at home, it's struggling to juggle powerful business interests with efforts to protect its threatened rainforest.

Deforestation of the rainforest in Brazil

Almost a fifth of the Brazilian rainforest has been cleared away

Brazil is considered one of the key countries in global efforts to protect the climate. The destruction of the rain forest alone is said to be responsible for around half of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions. The Latin American country is the world's fifth-largest polluter.

A man fells a tree with a chainsaw

The sound of the chainsaw is increasingly part of daily life in the rainforest

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reportedly wants to reduce the amount of Amazon rain forest being cleared by 80 percent by 2020. But Lula insists that the main responsibility for sustainable climate protection lies with the United Nations. Following the failure of global climate talks in Copenhagen last December, Lula reportedly urged UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon during a private meeting to press for a global agreement. Lula said the UN is the right forum for discussions about climate change.

Controversial dam project

Lula's policy on protecting the environment and the rain forest became apparent in early February when Brazil's environment agency Ibama approved the construction of a controversial hydro-electric dam Belo Monte in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.

When it is completed, Belo Monte will be the third largest hydro-electric dam in the world, after the Three Gorges in China and Itaipu, which is jointly run by Brazil and Paraguay. It is expected to provide electricity to 23 million Brazilian homes.

But residents as well as environmental activists have protested the building of the mega dam in the Brazilian state of Para. The justice ministry in Para has even tried to prevent the project but Lula's government has stood firm and pushed the project, estimated to cost billions.

Construction is slated to begin later in 2010 - a year in which Brazil holds general elections. Some 20,000 indigenous people are to be resettled and some 516 square kilometers (199 square miles) of rain forest are to be flooded for the dam's construction.

Business interests damaging rain forest?

Deforestation in Brazil

The rainforest is being cleared away to make room for lucrative cattle ranching

Despite pledges by Lula's government to protect the rain forest and the global climate, tree-cutting and the clearing of forests to make way for pastures and cultivation of fields is continuing. It's no surprise considering that one of Brazil's leading exports includes beef used in burgers in fast food chains around the world. That has made cattle ranching more profitable for farmers and encouraged them to deforest.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said in March that these business interests have led Brazil to sacrifice an average of 26,000 square kilometers (10,040 square miles) of forest each year in the past decade.

The rapid pace of deforestation has done irreparable damage to the so-called "air conditioner" of the world, as environmental activists call the rainforest.

The Amazon acts as a "carbon sink," absorbing carbon dioxide but once the trees are cut down, this absorption stops. Often the wood is burned, releasing carbon, and the loss of forest cover can also lead to carbon release from the soil. The forest also releases enough water to the atmosphere via evapotranspiration to influence world climate patterns.

A ray of hope

The GTZ, a German state-owned organization working for sustainable development worldwide, says that the environment laws passed in Brazil so far can't stop the destruction of the country's tropical forests. It estimates that around 680,000 square kilometers (262,550 square miles) of rain forest in the Amazon or 17 percent of its original area has been destroyed so far. Along the Atlantic coast, just seven percent of rain forest has been preserved.

Comparative satellite images of the Brazilian rainforest

Comparative satellite images highlight the extent of the damage in the Brazilian state of Rondonia

The project "Amazon Region Protected Area" (ARPA), which is supported by Germany, provides a ray of hope. It was founded by Lula's predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso who, in 1998, vowed to designate 12 percent of the rain forest as an officially protected zone by 2012. That has now been postponed to 2016 and there are plans to declare the entire 600,000 square kilometers (231,660 square miles) of the rain forest as a protected zone by then.

Some progress has already been made. So far around 390,000 square kilometers (150,580 square miles) of the rain forest has been marked as a federally-protected zone. But the GTZ says that only half of that - just four percent of the Amazon rain forest - is strictly protected. That's too less, according to the group.

Critics trace the lowest rate of deforestation in 2009 to the global financial crisis.

"The demand for beef, soya and wood has dramatically fallen," Paulo Adario of Greenpeace said. But he added that slowing deforestation has little to do with efforts to protect the climate. That means in the worst-case scenario, the Brazilian rainforest faces another wave of erosion as soon as world markets begin clamoring for Brazil's exports again.

Author: Martin Schrader (sp)
Editor: Mark Mattox

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