Are Your Cheeseburgers Causing Deforestation?

Consider this thought experiment: Given the importance of the Amazon rainforest to the effort to curb climate change, and the potential value of the thousands of species that live only in the Amazon, and the vastness of the place (See Just how big is the Amazon?), what benefit, if any, can justify destroying a few trees, or a few thousand trees, or even a few thousand square miles of trees? Feeding a hungry family? Providing energy, at a lower cost to a nearby city? Making meat or cheese cheaper in the U.S. or Europe?

These are obviously not theoretical questions. They're the kinds of questions facing the Brazilian government, and they are relevant to the rest of us because decision we make -- about the government leaders we elect or about what to eat for dinner -- can have an impact on the Amazon. These are also the kinds of questions that arose frequently during my six-day tour of Brazil last week. The government-organized trip for international reporters focused on the Amazon.

The good news is that the rate of deforestation of the Amazon is decreasing, and dramatically. Six years ago, 27,700 square kilometers of trees were cut down -- that's about 10,700 square miles, an area bigger than the state of Massachusetts. Last year, about 7,000 sq. km. were cut down, and this year the pace is slowing further, satellite photos show.

Americo Ribeiro Tunes, who's in charge of protecting the forest for IBAMA, Brazil's equivalent of the EPA, told us: "Brazil is on the verge of a major victory over deforestation."

Well, maybe, but, along with stepped-up law enforcement, a big reason for the decline in deforestation is the global recession, which drove prices down timber, soy and beef, easing pressures on the Amazon. A strong global economy recovery will likely renew the pressure to destroy forest land to raise cattle or harvest timber, no matter what the laws say.

Besides, there's plenty of opportunity for legal deforestation of the Amazon. Today, landowners are permitted to cut down up to 20 percent of their land under Brazil's Forest Code; proposed revisions would raise that to 50 percent. Government-approved plans for industrial development include the controversial Belo Monte Dam, which would be the world's third largest dame, and the potential expansion of the Urucu Oil Province, which we visited (See Deep in the Amazon, learning to like fossil fuels) also pose a threat. Revenues from Amazon development can be used to promote social and education programs in Brazil, the government says.

This may -- may -- justify drilling for more oil and gas at Urucu. The Petrobras project has done minimal damage to the rainforest, while providing tax benefits to the region, as well as cleaner energy and cheaper electricity to Manaus, where 2 million people live.

Similar arguments can be made for hydroelectric projects like the Belo Monte Dam, which has been in the works for years. The environmental costs are significant, Reuters reports:

The 6 kilometer-long (3.75 miles) dam will displace 30,000 river dwellers, partially dry up a 100-kilometer (62.5 mile) stretch of the Xingu, and flood a 190-square-mile (500-sq-km) area three times the size of Washington D.C.

And the benefits? According to Amazon Watch, which opposes the project,

The electricity may be exported in large part to eight industrial mining and construction companies: Alcoa, ArcelorMittal, Camargo Corrêa, CSN, Gerdau, Samarco, Vale, and Votorantim.