Facing accelerating deforestation, Brazil declares large Amazon reserve
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Facing accelerating deforestation, Brazil declares large Amazon reserve

On Tuesday, Brazil’s government announced the federal protection of a large area of ecologically rich Amazon rainforest. The newly protected area of 6,680 square kilometers is roughly equal in size to the U.S. state of Delaware and is considered more or less pristine and uninhabited by humans.

Combating deforestation is the main mechanism for Brazil to reduce carbon emissions. While the main strategy for most countries is to burn less fossil fuels, the Amazon’s massive capacity as a carbon sink means that rainforest conservation is actually more effective.

In contrast to concentrating on coal and petro-chemical emissions, rainforest conservation has the benefits of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen, as well as preserving endangered species and biodiversity. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the recently inaugurated reserve, named Alto Maues, is home to at least 13 species of primates and more than 600 bird species. However, the WWF also warned that the federal government simply declaring an area to be “protected” does not in any way guarantee that it will be.

The government announcement of its plan to protect a large area of the Amazon could be seen as a move to garner more electoral support for incumbent President Dilma Rousseff, who is narrowly leading challenger Aécio Neves in the latest poll for Sunday’s presidential vote. The environment is seen as one of the issues that took votes away from Rousseff and strengthened support for her first-round challenger Marina Silva, who served as Minister of the Environment in the administration of Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Though Silva voters are likely to be split between Rousseff and Neves following Silva’s failure to advance through the first round of the elections, she has thrown her official support behind Neves, the candidate for the Social Democratic Party.

Read more: Brazil’s run-off dilemma: continuity with change, or change with continuity?

The declaration of a new Amazon forest reserve may also be a reaction to the latest numbers released on deforestation in Brazil, something that will surely continue to hurt Dilma’s environmental credentials.

Amazon rainforest destruction rose by 290 percent in September, with a total area of 402 km lost in just one month, according to the monitoring system of nonprofit research organization Imazon, which is based in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. Fifty-nine percent of the Amazonian destruction detected during September, 2014 took place in privately owned areas, with 20 percent occurring in areas of agrarian reform, 19 percent in protected conservation areas and 2 percent on indigenous lands (source: O Estado de S. Paulo).

That 19 percent loss in protected conservation areas is a telling confirmation of the WWF warnings. Furthermore, looking at the past two months together, Imazon satellite data shows that Amazon deforestation rose by 190 percent compared to August and September of 2013.

From the Guardian:

Among the reasons for the setback are a shift in government priorities. Under Rousseff, the government has put a lower priority on the environment and built alliances with powerful agribusiness groups. It has weakened the Forest Code and pushed ahead with dam construction in the Amazon.

If there were any doubts about the political motivations behind the creation of Alto Maues and the government’s transparency concerning deforestation data, the fact that government has chosen to release official numbers after Sunday’s vote should set those to rest. On the other hand, it would be foolish to believe that a pro-business candidate such as Aécio Neves will have weaker connections with agribusiness or be capable of fighting deforestation in a more effective or meaningful manner than Rousseff. The difficulties of protecting the Amazon will be a challenge for any president, and the candidate (or candidates) with large corporate support simply cannot be trusted to steward the environment.