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Threat to Amazon grows

The news of a huge rise in the rate of deforestation of the vast Amazon rainforest is one of the most serious indications yet that governments are standing more or less idly by as the conditions for climate change worsen. While they may wring their hands in concern, they are essentially taking on the role of spectators as global warming continues its acceleration.

Take the Brazilian government under President Lula. His attempts to protect the rainforest are so puny that they have come to nought. The Brazilian government has announced that in the last five months of 2007 alone, some 3,235 sq km (1,250 sq miles) of the rainforest were lost. We are talking about what is referred to as the “lungs of the world”, a massive forest that holds and soaks up huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Satellite imaging experts say the rate of deforestation is unprecedented and could even be far higher after further analysis is completed.

Brazilian officials admit that a rise in the price of soya has encouraged companies and farmers to clear the forest at an increasingly rapid rate. This price hike is itself inextricably linked back to Lula’s government and climate change. One of the reasons soya is in short supply around the world is the fact that it is being used increasingly as a source of so-called biofuels. These are being put forward as a “cleaner” alternative to fossil fuels.

Only last year, the Lula government signed a deal with the US government to expand production of soya beans. Because soya beans are also used in 60% of all processed food, a rise in prices is now being felt by shoppers around the world. Biofuels are a key plank of the European Union’s market-driven, carbon trading approach to curbing carbon emissions. The EU reacted angrily to a UK Parliamentary report this week which concluded that biofuel targets were damaging the environment and threatening food supplies.

In the past 40 years, close to 20% of the Amazon has been cut down. Last year, Lula said his government's efforts to control illegal logging and introduce better certification of land ownership had helped reduce forest clearance significantly. The latest figures show this to be nonsense. In practice, the government’s efforts have been minimal. "We have a national plan to fight deforestation that, historically, was a good plan on paper but lacked implementation both due to political will and due to resources," says Marcelo Furtado, campaigns director for Greenpeace in Brazil.

“Although the government could celebrate in recent years a decrease in deforestation, the fact is that structurally this didn't change. The environment ministry still lacks funding. You still have situations where the police don't have a helicopter to fly over a certain area or there is no fuel in the truck to go to verify if an area is being deforested or not. You still have a problem with availability of maps," Furtado said. “The tools to decrease deforestation and monitor implementation of the law are still not good enough." At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali, Indonesia, last month, Brazil announced the creation of a voluntary fund to protect the Amazon, due to be launched this year. This is all too little, too late.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
24 January 2008

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