BRASILIA Deforestation in the Amazon forest fell to its lowest level on record, the Brazilian government said on Wednesday, marking what could be a watershed in the conservation of the world's largest rain forest.
The figures coincide with a United Nations global climate conference in Mexico. There, Brazil wants to showcase it is one of the few major economies significantly slashing its greenhouse gas emissions, which for it come mostly from burning or rotting trees.
"We will honor the pledge we made and we don't need any favors. We do it because it's our obligation," said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, adding that the developed world was failing to agree to ambitious cuts in greenhouse gases and was not transparent about financial aid to developing nations.
Deforestation fell to around 2,509 square miles (6,500 sq km) in the 12 months through July 2010, down 14 percent from the year before and a peak of 11,235 square miles (29,100 sq km) in the mid-1990s. It is the lowest rate since the series began in 1988.
Lula criticized industrial nations for lacking commitment to cut greenhouse gases, saying it was disappointing that almost no heads of state would attend the Cancun summit.
"It won't lead to anything," he said during a ceremony in Brasilia.
Increased policing and pressure from consumer groups were instrumental in bringing down deforestation. The government's environmental watchdog has in recent years fined illegal cattle ranchers and loggers, confiscated their products, and cut off bank loans to them. Beef and soy industries have declared voluntary bans on products from illegally deforested areas.
The latest reduction in deforestation occurred despite high commodity prices, which usually drive more loggers and cattle ranchers into the forest seeking cheap land.
"There's been a decoupling, this is a big step forward," said Paulo Barreto, senior researcher at the Imazon think tank in Belem. "Of course, it's still an unacceptable rate and the government needs to do more to support the small guy in the forest," said Barreto, citing growing financial and public opinion pressure on ranchers as a reason for progress.
The area destroyed is still as large as a small country and was higher than the 1,930 square miles (5,000 sq km) that Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira had hoped for.
Experts say progress will be more difficult as logging now takes place on a smaller scale and is more difficult to spot.
"This will require more investment by the federal government," said Gilberto Camara, head of the National Institute for Space Studies, which monitors deforestation.
Officials also agree more must be done to promote alternative economic activities to the impoverished region.
"We won't keep the trees standing unless we develop forest-based economies," said Roberto Vizentin, a director at the ministry of environment, citing pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies that were developing products from plants.
"These need to create added value and jobs in the forest, not in the big cities," he said during a ceremony where Lula handed property titles to communities of forest-dwellers.
By 2020 Brazil wants to reduce its annual deforestation target to 1,351 square miles (3,500 sq km).