Can Brazil Save the Amazon?

On Sunday I woke up in a hotel in Manaus, Brazil, had breakfast overlooking the Negro River, then went for a run along the river’s beaches. It was an enjoyable way to begin my first visit to Brazil, a six-day, government-backed, jam-packed tour with a focus on the environmental issues facing the Amazon.

Environmentalists have labored for decades to protect the impossibly vast rainforests of the Amazon, which make up more than half of the world’s tropical forests. But until recently they had little to show for their efforts. (Ben & Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch doesn’t count.) Since the 1970s, about 230,000 square miles of the Amazon have been lost to development, mostly cattle ranches, soy plantations and illegal logging.

Only lately has the rate of deforestation began to slow, thanks to more progressive government policies and corporate campaigns by NGOS, notably Greenpeace.  Just last week, there was encouraging news from a British think tank called Chatham House, which published a major report on illegal logging around the world. Fiona Harvey wrote in the Financial Times:

Illegal logging has fallen by 22 percent worldwide in the past decade according to a report published on Thursday ...

The assessment found that that in certain key countries the decline was even more dramatic, showing a fall of between 50 and 75 percent in the Brazilian Amazon, 75 percent in Indonesia and by about half in Cameroon.

The New York Times said:

In Brazil in particular, an overhaul of logging laws and a new zeal in enforcement have led to a significant drop not only in illegal logging but also in overall deforestation rates in the Amazon, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Why should you care?

The big reason is that deforestation is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for as much as 20 percent of global emissions, scientists say. Preventing deforestation of the Amazon is incredibly complicated: It requires good government policy, effective local law enforcement, satellite monitoring and global cooperation because soy, beef and logs are shipped from Brazil to the U.S., Japan and Europe. Rich countries, NGOs and even some corporations  have been trying for years to find way to create market mechanisms or outright grants that would get money to places like the Amazon, so that trees are worth more standing than cut down.

Even oil and coal companies like this idea because preserving trees is low-cost way to generate carbon offsets and one of the very cheapest ways to fight climate change -- much less expensive, say, than building solar or wind power.