Saturday, October 08, 2011


Andrew Revkin requested that I send Dot Earth a blog "postcard" [update: published at Dot Earth on 10/11/11] commenting on the October 3, 2011 press release from Brazil’s Ministry of Environment announcing, "the lowest Amazon deforestation rates for the month of August since monitoring began in 2004."

My response is more of a letter:
"The Brazilian government’s proactive enforcement measures and near real-time satellite monitoring of the forest regions led to a 21.8 percent drop in deforestation rates by from July to August 2011, and a 38.2 percent decrease compared to August 2010 figures." (more on the story here)
I was surprised by this claim. While Brazil's law enforcement actions have seriously reduced the incidents of large-scale deforestation (and should be applauded for doing so) the claim that overall recent deforestation rates have fallen did not seem justified by month-to-month data that are often inaccurate.

I asked for some science input from Foster Brown who is a professor of Ecology at the Federal University of Acre and a scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center. His current specialty is satellite monitoring and remote sensing of climate and forest events in the western Amazon. Here is his response:
I checked the data at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) web site:

These are data from DETER, a program for alerting about deforestation events with a minimum detectable size of 25 hectares. (This would be an area approximately the size of 60 football fields.) Much of the deforestation in Acre, for example, is produced by clearing 10 hectares or less of forest. Consequently, these data are extremely useful to alert authorities about the occurrence of large-scale deforestation events, but do not capture small-scale deforestation.

I am not alone in concern about how to use DETER data. In the same report (cited above) INPE emphasizes, "Because of cloud cover varies from one month to another and also the resolution of the satellite, INPE does not recommend comparing data from different months and years obtained by DETER."

In sum, it is an important tool, but the DETER data do not represent total deforestation rates occurring on a monthly basis in the Brazilian Amazon.
Ultimately, this is much more than a "numbers game". The context surrounding these deforestation statistics is that Brazil has been promising the world that it can greatly increase its food, fuel and energy production and simultaneously achieve a dramatic reduction in deforestation. However, large-scale sustainable development remains a noble but yet unproven promise full of contradictions and dilemmas.

The Amazon deforestation results are important not only in Brazil but for the whole world. I've portrayed the larger view in my post, "Why  Belo Monte (and Amazon Deforestation) Matter in the Big Picture".

Hopefully, there will be no backsliding but serious danger flags were waved earlier this year.  The new president of IBAMA (Brazil's Environmental Protection Agency) Curt Trennepohl shocked the world with what seemed like a major retreat from sustainability and social justice -- first, by licensing the extremely controversial Belo Monte Dam and then by telling an Australian TV interviewer that his job was not to protect the environment but "to minimize the impact." When thinking that the microphones were turned off Trennepolh went on to say that Brazil would do to it's indigenous people what Australia had done to theirs. (View this disturbing declaration at You Tube)

Brazil has made great strides in reducing deforestation but the Forest Code is now under attack in Congress and the future may include much more deforestation. Clearly, a strong Forest Code is what Brazil must maintain to be a leading global voice arguing that forests AND development are possible. BUT now this is an open question. With the approaching UN Conference on Sustainable Development RIO+20  in June of next year, the world is watching.

I, along with many others, are hoping that Brazil will have the wisdom and will to break free of the old-style destructive models and achieve its vision of developing with social justice and environmental sustainability. We will see.

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