A global forest mapping system developed by a team of scientists from the University of Maryland, Google and the United States government is now able to pinpoint exactly where and at what rate deforestation is occurring around the world. The results are alarming. The world is losing the equivalent of 50 soccer fields of forest every minute. In Brazil — home to 60 percent of the Amazon rain forest and a major component of the planet’s climate system — the rate of deforestation jumped 28 percent during 2012-13. Environmentalists say a 2012 change in Brazil’s regulations governing forest conservation is partly responsible.
Brazil had been making good progress. From a high of 10,588 square miles in 2004, deforestation dropped to 1,797 square miles in 2011; the number of metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere dropped as well, from 1.1 billion metric tons in 2004 to 298 million metric tons in 2011. These successes resulted from aggressive enforcement of the country’s 1965 Forest Code, and a 2006 soy moratorium, a voluntary pledge brokered by the Brazilian government, agribusiness and environmental groups to prevent trade in soybeans cultivated on deforested land.
Soybeans aren’t the only cause of deforestation in Brazil, but they are a major factor. Brazil is now the world’s second-largest producer of soybeans after the United States. Soybeans have been a boon to Brazil’s economy, and global demand is growing. Under intense pressure from agricultural interests, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies approved legislation in July 2012 that rolled back many provisions of the 1965 Forest Code, reduced the amount of reserve areas in the Amazon and gave amnesty to past violators. To her credit, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, thwarted some of the most damaging provisions of the new legislation, but the rate of deforestation still rose.
The soy moratorium has been extended until the end of 2014, by which time Brazil plans to have in place new mechanisms to monitor soybean cultivation on deforested land. These mechanisms must be backed by credible enforcement. And developed countries need to do more to help Brazil, Indonesia and other nations whose forests are at risk protect a resource in which everyone has a stake.