Deforestation is causing some of the world's worst environmental problems. So it may shock you to discover that deforestation in Brazil, one of the worst-hit regions, has dropped by 80% in the past 8 years.
Photo via NASA
This week, the Economist has a big package of stories devoted to how economic growth and environmental sustainability have become strange new bedfellows. In the introduction to these stories, Emma Duncan explains what's happening in Brazil:
If the events of a single night can be said to have shaped the fate of life on Earth, it could be those that took place in Paragominas on November 23rd 2008. Paragominas is a municipality in the Brazilian Amazon two-thirds the size of Belgium. Its population of 100,000 is made up largely of migrants from the south of the country who were encouraged by the government to colonise the area and chop down the forest. The small town that is its capital has an air of the wild west about it. Men wear cowboy hats in the streets. Five years ago it was a rough place, its air full of sawdust and rumours that slave labour was used in the charcoal business fuelled by Amazonian timber.
Earlier that day, at the request of the mayor, Adnan Demachki, the federal environmental police had confiscated some lorries piled high with illegally cut logs (pictured below). The loggers were not happy. That night a few hundred of them entered the town, repossessed some of the trucks, set them and the office of the environmental police on fire and then tried to burn down the mayor’s office too. Paragominas was known to be the front line of the fight against deforestation, so the burning trucks were all over the nation’s television screens.
Mr Demachki, elected for his efficiency, not his political views, had come to believe that Paragominas was on the wrong side of history. He called a town meeting and held up two letters he had written. One apologised to the nation for the previous day’s events and committed Paragominas to stopping deforestation. The other announced his resignation. The townsfolk chose the first. The mayor stayed in his job, and Paragominas changed its ways.
The events in Paragominas have been repeated, in less dramatic ways, across much of the Brazilian Amazon. Deforestation has fallen steadily, from 28,000 sq km in 2004 to 5,000 in 2012. Whether this is a permanent victory or a temporary respite is not yet clear, but the fact that Brazil has succeeded in greatly reducing a seemingly unstoppable process of destruction raises hopes for the future of the rest of life on Earth.