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Efforts pay off in fighting deforestation in Brazil

A deforested area along the border of the Xingu river, 140 Km from Anapu city in the Amazon rainforest, northern Brazil, on February 19, 2005, The Brazilian government is making an effort to try and stop deforestation in the Amazon.

Kai Ryssdal: We talk a lot about sustainability around here, but for a lot of people, their understanding of just how ecological changes and the health of Mother Earth are connected started with Brazil and the Amazon rainforest -- and deforestation, cutting down huge numbers of trees every year for logging and farming.

But here's something a lot of people might not know: A few years ago, the Brazilian government decided to fight back. They promised to reduce deforestation by 80 percent by the end of the decade.

Justin Rowlatt, host of the BBC program Business Daily -- our partners in a joint production a couple of months ago -- is just back from the Amazon. Justin, good to talk to you again.

Justin Rowlatt: Yeah, very good to talk to you, Kai.

Ryssdal: Tell me about deforestation, which is the purpose of this trip and the reporting you did. What's the government doing down there about this?

Rowlatt: Certainly in the Amazon, we've all seen those incredible images of burning forests, of trees being cut down. But actually, the government is making a real effort to reduce deforestation and has turned things around in an incredible way. So in the last six years, the rate of deforestation has dropped by 70 percent. So last year, 2,300 square miles of rainforest was cut down. Now of course, that does sound like a lot -- that is a lot -- but it's the lowest level since records began.

Ryssdal: How are they doing it? Are they getting out there and just patrolling more?

Rowlatt: They're getting out and patrolling, the IBAMA -- that's IBAMA, not Obama -- IBAMA is the Brazilian environment agency. But what they're doing, they've become much more focused. They're using absolutely state-of-the-art satellite monitoring to work out where deforestation's taking place. When the data comes through on the satellite monitoring, they go out and they try to get the bad guys. And I was out there with them.

Rowlatt in Brazil: We've just landed the helicopter, and the officers are going over to the truck here, which clearly has been -- it's got freshly cut logs on it.

Ryssdal: Justin, what do the loggers say when you catch them? I mean, do they offer a defense at all?

Rowlatt: You know, I think everyone in Brazil knows that cutting trees down isn't kind of good for the environment. So they -- the environment agents -- captured about five loggers, and we spoke to one guy who was pretty frank about what he felt about logging.

Logger: I know it's wrong, I've seen it on TV. But what can I do? If I don't work, I don't eat.

Ryssdal: There are lots of people involved in this effort. One of the ones that you met actually turns out to be an American, right? If I have it right, he's an ex-Special Forces guy?

Rowlatt: Well he's an extraordinary character. He was in a ranch that was literally alongside primary rainforest, and he's kind of set up an alliance of ranches and farmers to try and stop deforestation. Now the aim is to try to get farmers to look after the forests better, so get high standards of environmental management on the farms and then begin to market the output -- the soil that's grown on those farms or the beef that's raised on those farms as kind of, if you like, Amazon-friendly product. And hopefully create a financial incentive for the farmers to look after the forest reserves on their farms better than they do at the moment. Here's what John had to say to me:

John: Our whole desire is to produce something that the consumer can trust, hands down. It's going to come a time when we have enough volume that we can supply McDonald's for all of Latin America.

Ryssdal: Think about that -- McDonald's for all of Latin America?

Rowlatt: I mean, the output of farms in Brazil is absolutely enormous. We're talking arguably, possibly after the United States, the greatest agriculture superpower on the planet. So Brazil is already number one in beef around the world.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you this, though: How long can this deforestation effort continue? How long are people willing to ride this out?

Rowlatt: The economics of the forest are very clear: There's a lot of money to be made cutting the forest down. The trees are worth money and then the land's worth much more money without trees on it. As we've said, the government's doing very well at the moment, but there needs to be constant vigilance on this. The Brazilian government needs to keep its effort up, so it's an ongoing battle, Kai. There's good news at the moment, but this story's by no means over.

Ryssdal: Justin Rowlatt of the BBC's Business Daily, back from a trip to the Amazon basin. Justin, thanks.

Rowlatt: Cheers, Kai. Thank you very much.

About the author

Justin Rowlatt is the host of Business Daily from the BBC World Service

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