AS BRAZIL’S skyscrapers and silos rose, it seemed the most impressive quality of this 21st-century Latin American powerhouse was its ability to grow without trashing the environment. Just last year, Brasilia was boasting about a steep decline in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, a feat that President Dilma Rousseff trumpeted as “impressive, the fruit of social change.” What would she say now?
After nearly a decade of steady decline, forest cutting has spiked again in the world’s largest rainforest. The nonprofit Amazon watchdog organization, Imazon, released a study reporting that deforestation at the hands of farmers and ranchers jumped 90 percent in the 12 months since April of last year. And since burning always follows felling, another 88 million tons of carbon dioxide and other gases hit the atmosphere—a 62 percent increase on the year.
For decades, Brazilians were told that ruin in the Amazon was the price of development. But recent research has imploded that assumption. A paper published by the National Academy of Sciences shows that continued deforestation threatens not just the trees but the progress and riches their removal were thought to guarantee. The paper bolsters an old theory by Brazilian climate scientist Eneas Salati, who argued that the Amazon actually produces half its own rainfall. The takeaway: remove too much of the forests and the Amazon could dry out. And more than the jungle is at stake. Reduced rainfall from forest cutting could dry up the water that powers hydroelectric dams, thus slashing Brazilian power-generating capacity by 40 percent by midcentury. It could also rob the food larder, cutting soybean productivity by 28 percent and beef production by 34 percent.
Brasilia quickly countered the environmental skeptics by saying that these are unofficial figures, noting that the National Space Institute is still crunching the satellite data. The government is still basking in last year’s numbers: only 4,600 square kilometers of forests felled, a fraction of the 27,700 square kilometers lost in 2004. But the Rousseff administration would do well to heed the smoke signals. Even Brasilia admits that Brazil’s continued rise to glory turns on the country’s ability to stay green.