Drop in Amazon deforestation does not let Global North nations off the hook

Aerial view of the Amazon with a river winding through dense rainforest.
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Figures for the first four months of 2023 show promising signs that Amazon deforestation is beginning a downward trend. However, Global North governments should not use this as an excuse for complacency in the biodiversity crisis.

Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been taking ambitious steps to protect critical forest ecosystems. Meanwhile, as the European Union demonstrates, Global North nations still lag behind in halting rampant Amazon rainforest destruction.

Drop in Amazon deforestation not quite as it seems

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that during April, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell 68% from last year. This is according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The World Wide Fund for Nature Brazil (WWF-Brazil) was cautiously optimistic about the figures. Its conservation specialist Daniel Silva said:

In the Amazon, there’s been a reduction in deforestation of 40 percent so far this year.

It fell from 1,967 square kilometres to 1,173 square kilometres. However, while the INPE data does show a 40% drop on last year’s rates for the same period, it represents a smaller change than first appears.

In fact, deforestation throughout January to April 2023 has dropped less than 10% of the average for the first quarter during former president Jair Bolsonaro’s four-year term. Moreover, the figure is in fact a 28% climb on the first quarter average for the four years preceding Bolsonaro’s presidency.

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Under Bolsonaro, Amazon deforestation rates rocketed nearly 60%. This was the highest rise for any presidential term since records began in 1988. In the first instance, Lula therefore faces a huge challenge to return to pre-Bolsanaro levels of deforestation.

Furthermore, Silva pointed out that while the figures are promising, it is still too early to recognise a downward trend. Crucially, the critical season for deforestation in the Amazon typically runs from around May to October. This is when loggers, ranchers, farmers, and land-grabbers take advantage of drier weather to clear and torch forest land.

Lula leading the fight against Amazon rainforest destruction

Despite the limitations of these early figures, Lula’s record as president between January 2003 and December 2010 may yet provide hope for the world’s largest tropical rainforest ecosystem. During this period, he oversaw a 70% drop in Amazon deforestation.

Since Lula was sworn in on 1 January, the new president has taken a number of bold steps towards curbing deforestation. As the Canary’s Alex/Rose Cocker previously reported, in his first month in office, Lula signed decrees to undo the anti-environmental legacy of his presidential predecessor.

Lula has also made Indigenous rights central to tackling deforestation. The Canary also reported in April of 2023 that the Minister of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, Sonia Guajajara announced the government’s plans to register 14 new Indigenous reserves. These will cover 1.5 million hectares of land across Brazil.

Following this announcement, the government established six new reserves on 28 April. Lula signed off to set up two of the six new reserves in the Amazon rainforest. Moreover, the government allocated the largest reserve of over 550,000 hectares to the Maku and Tukano Indigenous peoples.

In addition, the government also reinstated the flagship Amazon Fund. Since 2008, the fund has implemented a number of forest sustainability and livelihood projects in the Amazon rainforest. The primary financiers, Norway and Germany, previously froze contributions to the fund. They did so in response to the Brazilian government’s continued failure to curb rainforest destruction.

However, Norway and Germany have since restarted their donations. Lula has won diplomatic victories recently with pledges of more than $100 million from the UK and $500 million from the United States.

Lula has made ambitious moves to save biodiverse forest biomes. Conversely, the EU is a clear example of where the Global North has been falling short on taking much-needed action.

Anti-deforestation laws not strong enough

The EU is a major importer of products linked to rainforest destruction. To tackle this, the European Parliament adopted a new law on April 19. Following this, on 16 May, the European Council representing its 27 member states, formally adopted it. The EU deforestation regulation (EUDR) aims to prevent the import of commodities that can be traced back to forest destruction.

The law also puts the onus on companies to demonstrate that their products are free from deforestation. They must prove that they have not produced commodities on land deforested since 31 December 2020. Environmental campaign group the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has called it “groundbreaking”.

However, while the new law will aid the fight against deforestation in the Amazon, some groups have also highlighted that there are still key gaps in the legislation.

In the first instance, the EU did not extend the new law to other biodiverse forested biomes. Meanwhile, INPE’s statistics show that since Lula took office, deforestation in the Cerrado has increased by 30% on last year’s figures. The Cerrado is a vast tropical savanna, south of the Amazon rainforest.

By contrast, Lula’s government has signalled that it intends to develop action plans for other critical habitats. For example, the Brazilian government seeks to address deforestation and habitat destruction in Cerrado and the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the EU Parliament also failed to include financial institutions in the anti-deforestation scheme. The same month the EU Parliament passed the law, a briefing by Friends Of the Earth Europe (FoE) found that many of the top banks in Europe were funding international agribusiness corporations. In particular, many of these have been linked to Amazon rainforest destruction.

For instance, it identifies that French bank BNP Paribas funds large-scale agribusiness firms like Bunge, Marfrig, Minerva and Olam. These companies have ties to deforestation in the Amazon for export commodities like soybeans and beef. In February, environmental and human rights non-profits sued BNP Paribas for funding corporations that have been driving deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Zero deforestation and degradation by 2030?

The Canary’s Glen Black previously noted that the law leaves scope to review the gaps that groups have identified:

The legislation will be reviewed one year after coming into force, to see whether it should be extended to other wooded land. Another review at the two-year mark would have the commission considering whether to expand it to cover other ecosystems and commodities, as well as financial institutions.

At the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Lula pledged to end deforestation by 2030. Speaking to the conference, he said:

There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon. We will do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation and degradation of our biomes by 2030

As Lula faces down the destructive legacy of his presidential predecessor, Global North nations must grapple with the ongoing legacy of their colonial expropriation in the Global South. Crucially, the EU and other wealthy nations must halt their capitalist destruction of the Amazon rainforest and other biodiverse biomes.

However, corporate regulation can only go so far. So long as global food and commodity systems continue to extract and exploit ‘resources’ from the Global South, nature is at risk. And the world’s largest tropical rainforest could forever be lost.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.

Featured image via Neil Palmer/CIAT/Wikimedia Commons, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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