Brazil points to sharp drop in Amazon destruction

BRASILIA (Reuters) - The annual rate of destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest has fallen 46 percent to its lowest level in over two decades due partly to increased police patrols, Environment Minister Carlos Minc said on Tuesday.

The drop, if confirmed by definitive data, could allow Brazil to argue at a major world climate summit later this year that it is delivering on a pledge to slash deforestation after decades of criticism by environmentalists.

“We’ll have the lowest deforestation in 21 years,” Minc told a news conference in the capital Brasilia.

Brazil has been under pressure to slow the encroach of loggers and ranchers who are blamed for much of the destruction of the world’s largest rain forest, while at the same time continuing to develop the resource-rich region.

Deforestation has in the past increased when demand for soybeans, beef and timber have gone up.

Minc estimated between 8,500 square kilometers (3,088 sq miles) and 9,000 sq km (3,474 sq miles) were destroyed in the 12 months to July, 2009. That compared to 12,900 sq km (4,980 sq miles) in the same period a year earlier.

The peak of 27,329 sq km (10,500 miles) was reached in the 2003/2004 period.

He based his calculations on a preliminary report by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Studies, which indicated a 46 percent reduction in deforestation in the region in the 12 months to July, 2009.

That report was based on satellite imaging. A definitive report using higher-resolution images will be published later this year.

Minc attributed 90 percent of the deforestation reduction to improved policing. Experts give authorities some credit for the trend, but they say lower commodity prices resulting from a global economic crisis also was a factor.

“Government measures seem to have had a positive impact but we need to see that trend confirmed during an upswing in demand for commodities,” Paulo Moutinho, coordinator at the Amazon Research Institute, told Reuters.

The states with the biggest reduction were Rondonia and Mato Grosso, both in the southwestern region of the Amazon.

Mato Grosso is one of the country’s leading farm states and its governor, Blairo Maggi, is often called the “king of deforestation” by conservationists.

Brazil last year announced it would reduce destruction in its share of the Amazon by 50 percent in a decade.

The South American nation is expected to play a key role in negotiations at a summit in Copenhagen in December, which is aimed at framing a new international treaty on climate change.

The destruction of the rain forest made up 75 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions in 1994 but is falling to around 60 percent, Minc said last week. Burning or decomposing trees emit carbon dioxide, a key cause of global warming.

Minc, in his post since May 2008, earlier complained to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva about opposition to his agenda from a powerful farm lobby and from colleagues. Minc will step down in March to run as a candidate for the Rio de Janeiro state assembly in an election next year.

Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Paul Simao