Brazil’s Good-News Story Is Hiding in the Rainforest

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Not to spoil the mood, but a green shoot threatens to poke through the funk lately enveloping Brazil. The rare good news emerges from an unlikely patch of this conflagrated land, the Amazon rainforest.

For the last several years, deforestation in the Amazon, a calamity at which Brazil unfortunately has always excelled, has plummeted. And with it, so have emissions of climate-cooking carbon gases loosed by forest clearing and slash-and-burn agriculture. So much so, that Brazil is already well ahead of its 2020 target for reducing greenhouse gases, as agreed at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, in 2009.

Yet you’d be none the wiser after listening in on the political bluster that is roiling the country ahead of the October 7 national elections. As candidates, partisan boosters and social media warriors clash over the country’s competing miseries and who’s to blame for economic stagnation, crime and dirty public officials, this good green news goes mostly overlooked and wholly unsung. Among the five leading presidential contenders, only Marina Silva, a former environment minister, has a coherent plan to combat climate change, and she’s polling last, at 5 percent.

That blind spot troubles scientists and defenders of the world’s largest rainforest, who fear not only a return to wanton clear-cutting but a missed opportunity. “Stewarding the Amazon is a nonpartisan agenda. It’s worrying that the region representing 70 percent of Brazilian territory is off the campaign radar,” Adalberto Verissimo, of the Institute of People and the Environment, a rainforest research group, told me. 

Brazilians confront plenty of of strife-inducing environmental difficulties. Chaotic urbanization and poor management on top of a severe drought left hydroelectric dams at critical levels and the continent’s biggest metropolis on the verge of water rationing in 2015. Despite decades of official promises and lavish cleanup campaigns — last renewed when Rio de Janeiro hosted the 2016 Olympic Games — trash and untreated sewage still foul Rio’s storied Guanabara Bay. Now extreme weather driven by climate change is disrupting growing seasons and threatening to stunt the harvests that have made Brazil into the world’s silo.

Yet the jaguar in the room has always been the despoliation of the world’s largest stretch of tropical forests. The pace of forest-clearing in the Brazilian Amazon surged to 19,500 square kilometers per year from 1995 through 2005. After a global outcry, Brazil turned that narrative around by cracking down on land-grabbers, scorched-earth ranching and bootleg frontier loggers. Forest clearing in the Amazon slowed to just 5,843 square kilometers in 2013, averting the release of some 3.2 gigatons of carbon into the global greenhouse.

True, the felling spiked again last year to around 7,000 square kilometers, more than six times the size of Hong Kong — a reminder that past conservation doesn’t lock in permanent gains. The difference is that Brazilians no longer seem willing to shrug off the ruin as the collateral damage of progress, or to affront the sensibilities of a greener generation.

The reversal of misfortune in the Amazon is a victory of public policies and good governance, wrought against pressure by vested interests. It’s also a tribute to rainforest diplomacy: Last decade, big agriculture responded to international demand for greener goods by agreeing not to buy soybeans grown on newly cleared land.

Tech-minded ranchers and planters in parts of the Amazon frontier did their part, learning to work the fields without trampling the forests. “Brazil is the only country able to harvest three different crops a year on the same patch of land,” said agronomist Judson Valentim, an expert in sustainable cattle ranching in the Amazon at the Brazilian agriculture research institute, Embrapa. “This drastically reduces pressure to cut deeper into the forest.”

The reduction in deforestation, in turn, has made Brazil one of the few nations to have reduced its absolute volume of greenhouse emissions. “Brazil has shown it can expand the economy without increasing carbon emissions. What country can make that claim?” Verissimo said.

That accomplishment ought to be celebrated, studied and encouraged to prevent official backsliding and pushback from opportunists and natural resource pirates. After all, it took years for Brazil to assemble and fine tune its forest safeguards, a combination of careful mapping of rural properties, satellite monitoring, and boots on the ground to enforce the rules and punish scofflaws.

What’s troubling now is that most of Brazil’s political class seems unmoved by such victories or in open revolt against the policies that wrought them. When Valentim’s team drew up a proposal on how the next government could promote sustainable ranching and farming, only one candidate (Marina Silva) showed any interest. “In a society as unequal and with as many problems as ours, the easiest path for politicians is to prioritize short-term demands and ignore the environment,” Valentim said.

Just ask presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro. Emulating Donald Trump, the former army parachutist and climate skeptic has vowed to withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate accord. That could be disastrous: Dismantling conservation safeguards, whether from disinterest or open resistance, would put not just the Amazon rainforest in jeopardy, but the poorly protected lands beyond as well.

After successfully rolling back destruction in the Amazon, environmentalists are turning their attentions to the Cerrado, a sprawling savanna of grasslands, scrub and low-lying forests that has become the country’s agricultural frontier. Thanks to the Cerrado, the national soybean crop has doubled in the last decade, making Brazil the largest producer after the U.S. — and the latest environmental hotspot.

And here is where politics comes into play. Saving the Cerrado makes a fine bumper sticker, but the opportunity cost of ring-fencing this new fertile frontier is far greater than in the Amazon, where soils are fragile and mechanized planting is far more difficult. “Billions of dollars are at stake in the Cerrado,” said forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad, executive director of the Earth Innovation Institute, a research and policy group.

Farmers might be willing to sign on to zero deforestation, as many green groups now advocate, but only in exchange for some benefit. As Nepstad wrote recently, one could be receiving credit for the emissions avoided by forgoing land clearing, an idea that’s written into Brazil’s forest code, but was only recently regulated and has yet to be widely put in practice. “Brazil is sitting on a gold mine of carbon, and most farmers aren’t even aware of the opportunity,” he said.

The opportunity is not just for farmers. “At least a quarter of the economic recovery in Brazil’s western heartlands owes to the soy crop,” said Nepstad. “Besides, China wants to shore up trade relations with Brazil for soy and beef to offset the Trump tariffs. If we can monetize avoided carbon emissions and give Brazilian farmers incentive to preserve their forests, everybody wins.”

In a more rational political world, candidates for public office might leap at the opportunity to win over a powerful lobby like farmers to greener practices. But first politicians will have to stop plowing the gloom.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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