Never before has so little rainforest been destroyed in Brazil's Amazon basin. The government has claimed this success as its own, but critics say that is not the case.
In 2011, less of the Amazonian rainforest was cleared than in any year since record keeping began in 1988. Brazil's National Institute for Space Research analyzed satellite images to determine that 6,418 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed last year. Seven years ago, that number was around 27,000 square kilometers or about four times as much.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff shared the results two weeks ahead of the start of the Rio+20 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. "This drop is impressive. It's the fruit of change within society, but it's also due to the government's more aggressive pursuit of those breaking the law," she said.
Indeed, Brazil is now moving closer to the goals set at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, which would see deforestation reduced by 80 percent by 2020 as compared with the deforestation average for the years 1996 to 2005. To reach the goal would mean limiting deforestation to less than 5,400 square kilometers annually.
But Mario Astrini of Greenpeace Brazil does not view that as an achievement solely attributable to the current government. "The reduction of deforestation is the result of a long political fight against illegal logging that found a balance between economic, ecological and civil interests," the activist said in an interview with DW.
Astrini added that he believes Rousseff's government has had the worst record on environmental policy since democracy was restored in Brazil in 1989.
The beginning of a turnaround
Rousseff's politcal mentor and predecessor, Lula da Silva, had a better track record, says the Greenpeace activist. An action plan introduced in 2004 to curb the illegal, indiscriminate logging in the Amazon basin. Thirteen government ministries are jointly working on the program to establish a controllable infrastructure for agricultural land and conservation areas to protect the environment and finance ecologically and economically sustainable development.
A second project was the implementation of the "deter" system. The country's Institute for Environment and Renewable Resources, IBAMA, documents deforestation in real time. The daily satellite reports fromBrazil's aerospace institute, INPE, enables the tracking of illegal activites and allows the police and National Guard to pursue and penalize the perpetrators. The authorities have become a force to be reckoned with and have earned national recognition for their efforts to stem the destructive exploitation.
New forest law faces criticism
The main reason for the decline in logging, experts say, can be attributed to the establishement of national parks and conservation areas for indigenous peoples to protect their traditonal methods of gathering fruits, natural rubber and other products from the forest. In the course of the last 12 years, the size of protected areas has climbed from 140,000 square kilometers to 320,000. Today, these zones account for nearly half of Brazil's Amazon basin.
To be fair, Rousseff enlarged a few of these areas, but it took her 18 months to sign the first decree establishing the new protective areas. "Her government was the first to let a whole year go by without announcing any environment measures - a bad sign," in Astrini's view.
But more than anything, he is critical of the new forest law. Everything that was achieved in the past is now in danger, he says, because it not only allows amnesties for illegal loggers, but also restricts the scope and reach of IBAMA, which had been so successful in the past, by assigning some of the national environment agenciey's duties to individual states.
Author: Nadia Pontes, Jan D. Walter / gsw
Editor: Gregg Benzow