Sunday, June 12, 2011

COWS AND CLIMATE: FINDING THE BALANCE

Balance

Finding the balance between Brazil's twin goals of doubling the size of its cattle herd and seriously reducing deforestation and carbon emissions may be as challenging as getting a cow to do what the elephant pictured above is doing.

Mongabay reports on a new study:
Despite environmentalists' efforts to combat "rainforest beef" in the 1980s, pasture expansion for cattle is still the primary cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, says a new report produced by Brighter Green.

While Brazil's investments in agribusiness have made it an agricultural powerhouse—the country is now the world’s third-largest exporter of farm commodities after the US and the European Union—unfortunately, two of the Brazil’s key products, cattle and soy, are still driving deforestation as well as economic growth. According to Brighter Green’s report, researchers estimate that cattle ranching caused 65-70 percent of land clearing in the Amazon between 2000 and 2005.

Brazil is advancing dual goals--the protection of its rich biodiversity and economic expansion--without integrating its policy, according to Brighter Green. The study finds that Brazil may be unable to meet its climate change goals through rainforest protection while simultaneously allowing clearing in the Amazon for cattle pasture and soy cultivation. (Read full article)

Two more recent reports here and here are raising concerns about the cross-purposes of holding the line against more deforestation and the desire for expanded agricultural production. Bottom line is that the two policy lines are not integrated but instead each is pursued as if it was a special interest.

Offering a prime example of the non-synch between agricultural and climate goals, Mongabay has posted a further analysis of how recent Forest Code revisions may cost Brazil the ability to meet its international commitments.

The search for a sustainable balance between cows and conservation (all well as seeking an end to the violence) has been going on in Brazil for over 20 years. Chico Mendes explained just days before his assassination in 1988, that he wanted to "demonstrate that progress without destruction is possible", but progress has been bloody both for people and the forest, and the goal of balance remains elusive.

Nowadays, the dream of "progress without destruction" is part of the Brazilian political litany and is often voiced by Brazil's world renown agricultural organization Embrapa which promises that new techniques can vastly increase production without further deforestation. Restoration and utilization of Brazil's vast amount of degraded land (largely exhausted cattle pasture) is key to the goal of increasing production without increasing deforestation.

However, it must asked why would Brazilian farmers and ranchers invest in improved techniques that can be costlier in the short run if they can legally or illegally (and less expensively) grab more fertile land from the forest for expanded production? This question is the great subtext behind the current struggles over both the Forest Code and its enforcement. Indeed, it is also the reason that only about ten percent of Brazilian farms are in compliance with the present Forest Code.

Brazil has a long history of non-enforcement of its deforestation ban, especially in local contexts that favor the powerful landowners and the general economics of agricultural expansion. The Federal Government has stepped up efforts to reduce deforestation only in recent years as it sought the green mantle of a global leader in meeting the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and protecting biodiversity. This effort has, in turn, triggered a ruralista reaction in Congress to legally increase the amount of allowed deforestation and give amnesty for past illegal deforestation.

Unfortunately, the intense internal contradictions of pursuing conservation and development have produced a "Bloody June" in Amazonia with 5 murders of environmental activists in the past few weeks. Sadly, despite increased efforts by a special team of Federal police, another "execution" was reported in the past few days.

In Brazil, the Forest Code sets the boundaries. If ecologically appropriate limits on deforestation can be enforced, the dream of having both conservation and expanded production becomes quite possible, perhaps even probable. But, in the absence of operationally firm limits on deforestation, achieving the dream of "progress without destruction" will be like trying to get a bull to balance on a ball.

[NOTE: For very contrary views, check out this video tribute to the Brazilian farmer from BASF and this propaganda video prepared by Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA) for presentation at last December's climate meetings in Cancun.]

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