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Protecting One of Earth's Greatest Treasures
This week one of the greatest natural treasures on Earth was protected. The giant sequoias are direct descendants of the enormous trees that once covered North America and loomed over dinosaurs in vast forests of fern and evergreen. Now they survive in just one small redoubt, the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
By the time modern man first encountered the giant trees, only sixty-odd scattered groves remained. Our first response was awestruck incredulity. Our second was to start cutting them down. The wood wasn't good for much. Since it was too fibrous and brittle for construction, most of it became shingles, stakes and matchsticks. The plundering lasted for decades, with one lumber company felling an estimated 8,000 trees in the Converse Basin alone. Soon, nearly a third of the giant sequoias were gone.
In fairness, it's difficult to imagine the mindset of a 19th century lumberman. We can more easily understand why over 1 million people would sign a petition to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 demanding that something be done to protect the trees (that's about one in 80 Americans, at a time when signing a petition required more than a mouse click). Little wonder that a fledgling conservation group called the Sierra Club adopted the giant sequoia for its first official seal and for every logo to this day. The word iconic has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, but no adjective better suits these majestic trees.
Thankfully, something was done. Eventually, about half of the remaining giant sequoias wound up under the protection of the National Park Service, in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Finally, these trees would be safe from logging.
Most of the remaining trees, however, were in Sequoia National Forest, which was (and still is) managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service was accustomed to managing trees and other natural resources as commodities, and the giant sequoias were no exception. Some logging of giant sequoias continued well into the 20th century. Almost as alarming, though, was the aggressive logging of other tree species in giant sequoia forests, which severely harmed the unique ecosystem on which the giant sequoias depend.
President Clinton's creation of Giant Sequoia National Monument on April 15, 2000, was designed to change that. The new national monument held most of the giant sequoia groves not already under federal protection. Although most national monuments are managed by the National Park Service, this one, which had been carved out of Sequoia National Forest, was placed under the authority of the Forest Service, but with a key provision:
No portion of the monument shall be considered to be suited for timber production, and no part of the monument shall be used in a calculation or provision of a sustained yield of timber from the Sequoia National Forest. Removal of trees, except for personal use fuel wood, from within the monument area may take place only if clearly needed for ecological restoration and maintenance or public safety.
The Forest Service was given three years to develop a plan for managing the new national monument. But when the plan was finally unveiled, under the Bush Administration, it didn't take the intent of the proclamation to heart. The Forest Service wanted to allow 7.5 million board feet of timber, enough to fill 1,500 logging trucks, to be removed from the monument each year.
Because the Forest Service's plan was so obviously at odds with the intent of the monument proclamation, the Sierra Club and five other groups, as well as the California attorney general, challenged it in court. More than two years later, we won. Judge Charles R. Breyer of the United States District Court for Northern California found that "the Forest Service's interest in harvesting timber has trampled the applicable environmental laws." Judge Breyer added that the monument plan was "decidedly incomprehensible."
The Forest Service was told to start over and try again.
Now, after six years, hundreds of thousands of public comments, and countless hours of hard work, the U.S. Forest Service has finally released a management plan for Giant Sequoia National Monument that doesn't default to cutting trees down. That's a significant departure from the Bush administration's practice of logging without limits.
Like the National Park Service, which has done a stellar job of managing its own giant sequoia forests, the new plan clearly states that the Forest Service will give priority to using fire (instead of chain saws) as a means of keeping the forests healthy (giant sequoias are resistant to fast-burning fires, which are essential to the giant sequoia ecosystem). It also spells out more clearly when trees may be removed for ecological and safety reasons. No giant sequoias greater than 12 inches in diameter can be cut, and then only as a last resort. The new plan even recommends the creation of a new 15,110 acre Moses Wilderness Area, which will be important as plants and wildlife adapt to climate change.
Is it perfect? No. There's still the possibility that some exemptions and loopholes could allow too much logging in the wrong places in the name of fire prevention. We look forward to working with our members, volunteers, scientists and the Forest Service to address those concerns.
But under this plan for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, it's at least possible that the U.S. Forest Service will finally treat the surviving giant sequoias like the irreplaceable treasures they are, using the same tools for ecological restoration that have worked so well in the neighboring national parks. We will remain vigilant to assure that this possibility becomes a reality and that these mighty forests are finally restored to health.
We've spent more than a century working to protect all of these forest giants. But for trees that have watched the seasons change for thousands of years, and for a species that's adapted and endured for millennia, these perilous decades have been only the merest wink of time. Let's hope their patience pays off.
You can thank the U.S. Forest Service for improving their plan and encourage them to make it even stronger here.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
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- Amazon Deforestation Increase Prompts Germany to Cut $39.5M in ... ›
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