June 12, 2009

Study: Deforestation In Amazon Not Helping Anyone

According to a new study, researchers say that deforesting large swathes of the Amazon to clear land for cattle and soy does not bring long-term economic progress.

The study examined some 286 Amazon municipalities and found that clearing forests offered only short-lived economic benefits that were soon reversed.

In the most recent issue of the journal Science, the researchers use their data to argue that the deforestation cycle helps neither people nor nature in the long-run.

They further suggest that putting policies in place aimed at rewarding the people of underdeveloped countries for conserving their densely forested regions could alter current trends in which all sides are losing.

For years, Brazil's federal government has pursued something of contradictory policy in the Amazon, which still contains roughly 40% of the world's rainforests.

Since the 1970's, Incra, the federal agency responsible for land development, has helped to settle hundreds of thousands of people in the Amazon as a means of providing them with land and a source of income.  Simultaneously, the nation's environmental ministry has been vainly struggling to reduce the rate of deforestation.

In something of an ironic twist, the environmental ministry actually named Incra as the country's worst source of illegal logging last year.


The new study suggests that Incra's policy of settlement and expansion is not creating lasting benefits for anyone.

Ana Rodrigues and colleagues used the UN's Human Development Index (HDI) to assess the development status of inhabitants in the 286 municipalities.  The index uses a combination of standard of living, literacy and life expectancy to gauge human progress in developing regions around the world.

A number of the municipalities examined were located in areas of virgin forest, some had already lost all their trees, and still others were in an intermediate stage of deforestation.

The researchers found that regions in the early stages of deforestation tended to show development scores higher than average for the region. However, in areas where the forests were already gone, scores fell back to the values observed in areas that had not yet been logged.

"It is generally assumed that replacing the forest with crops and pastureland is the best approach for fulfilling the region's legitimate aspirations to development," noted Dr. Rodrigues.  "We found although the deforestation frontier does bring initial improvements in income, life expectancy, and literacy, such gains are not sustained."

The characteristic "boom and bust" cycle observed by Rodrigues and fellow researchers held for each of the three different factors measured by the HDI, indicating that the supposed developmental benefits of logging have proven largely unsustainable.


The report was published just as UN delegates are gathering in Bonn to negotiate the details of a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol to be voted on sometime in December of this year.

One element of the new treaty"”known as REDD (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and forest Degradation"”aims at addressing the issue of deforestation by channeling financial subsidies to local communities who refrain from logging their carbon-absorbing forests.

Andrew Balmford, a co-author of the Science report, said that REDD and similar policy proposals could help to derail current deforestation trends, which he described as disastrous for indigenous peoples, wildlife and the global climate.

"Reversing this pattern will hinge on capturing the values of intact forests [...] so that local people's livelihoods are better when the forest is left standing than when it is cleared," said Balmford, a professor of conservation science at Cambridge.

"Discussions being held in the run-up to this December's crucial climate change meeting in Copenhagen [...] offer some promise that this lose-lose-lose situation could be tackled, to the benefit of everyone"”local Brazilians included."

The researchers noted that their study was possible only because Brazil regularly collects data on human development and deforestation, which today is measured predominantly via through satellite imaging.
Rodrigues, however, suspects that the boom-bust trends observed in Brazil likely hold true for other regions rich in tropical forests such as southeast Asia and west Africa.

"I would be very surprised if we didn't see this boom and bust pattern emerging in these areas as well," she told reporters.

Brazil's President Lula and other politicians are currently debating a bill that would grant legal status to illegal settlers and loggers in the Amazon region.  Environmentalists protest that the legislation would spark a rise in quick land-grabs and illegal logging activity.


Image Credit: An average of 1.8 million hectares of forest are lost annually in the Brazilian Amazon, corresponding to nearly one third of global tropical deforestation, and releasing approximately 250 million tons of carbon. Credit: Alexander Lees


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