Science, Tech & Environment

Brazil's winning on the soccer field — and in battling climate change

Amazon deforestation 1.jpg

Credit: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture/flickr

Amazon deforestation has lessened as new regulations in Brazil have taken hold.

At this year’s World Cup Soccer tournament, Brazil introduced a new noisemaker for the home crowds — the caxirola, an environmentally friendly shaker that evoked Brazil’s Afro-Caribbean roots.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

Unfortunately, the caxirola also turned out to be an effective missile for angry fans, and it has been banned from the matches. Now the caxirola, like the massive stadiums built for the event, serves as a symbol of the wasteful, excessive spending that has angered so many Brazilians.

Fortunately, there is good news out of Brazil that runs counter to the ‘waste’ narrative.

A new paper in Science says that since 2005, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has dropped 70 percent, and Brazil now leads the world in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Dan Nepstad, the executive director and founder of Earth Innovation Institute and one of the authors of the paper, says he is "fascinated" by how little the Brazilian government has made of this.

“Brazil really could very legitimately say to the world, ‘We're not just the best in soccer, we're the best in agricultural growth, and we're also doing our part to keep forests standing, protect indigenous lands and greatly lower greenhouse gas emissions,’” Nepstad adds.

Brazil used to clear nearly 8,000 square miles of rainforest every year, an area the size of Massachusetts. Now the rate has dropped to about 2,000 square miles, the size of Delaware. Keeping that forest standing prevents 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere — about two years worth of emissions from all cars and light trucks in the US.

Nepstad says there’s an interesting story behind this. After a Greenpeace campaign targeted McDonalds, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and other companies, revealing the extent to which they were complicit in rainforest destruction, some of them came together with non-governmental organizations to work out a deal.

Starting in 2006, many of the world's largest soy buyers agreed to buy only soy that was grown on existing farmland, which pushed the industry to farm more productively instead of cutting down forests to clear new land.

A similar deal for cattle followed in 2009. Not quite as many companies were involved, says Nepstad, but again, companies wanted to avoid the "reputational" risk of buying from farmers who might be clearing forests.

In addition, the government took a new enforcement approach. It created a deforestation blacklist, which denied growers access to public agricultural credit programs if their county cleared more that 40 square kilometers of rainforest in a year.

“In some countries that wouldn't be a big deal,” Nepstad explains, “but Brazil makes $50 billion available to its farmers every year through credit.”

After the policy was put in place, counties started to organize and to work directly with the beef and soy companies. “They all said, ‘Let's fix this problem.’ And they did it, through collective action,” says Nepstad. About 11 of the 36 blacklisted counties have come off the list.

Brazil has also created the Rural Environmental Registry, which requires landowners to submit the perimeters of their property to the government. Nepstad says this means that if the government spots a new area of illegal deforestation they can easily see on a map who owns the land and cut them off from credit — even embargo their property, making it illegal for them to sell whatever they're producing on that farm. Satellite technology has improved the government’s ability to find areas of deforestation and quickly move in to stop it.

Despite these successes, Nepstad says, there is still cause for concern.

When we think of Brazil, he says, we tend to think only of the Amazon and forget its sibling to the south, called the Cerrado. According to the Nature Conservancy:

The Cerrado is the world’s most biologically rich savanna. It has over 10,000 species of plants, of which 45% are exclusive to the Cerrado, and it stretches across nearly 500 million acres of Brazil — an area nearly three times the size of Texas.

Nepstad says the supply-chain interventions have been heavily focused on the Amazon and haven't yet been applied to the Cerrado. “I think we're getting to the point now where we need to expand and build upon the success in the Amazon to have a truly national agenda,” he says.

That would be a great reason to break out your caxirola and make some noise.

This story is based on an interview from PRI's environmental news magazine, Living on Earth.

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