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Top Ten Counties Losing Forests in the South

World Resources Institute

World Resources Institute (WRI) released a new map Nov. 1 that identifies the hotspots where urban and suburban development are putting forests at risk in the southern U.S. Areas experiencing the most forest loss to development between 2001 and 2006 (the most recent years for which data are available) were counties near Houston, Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., and Charlotte, N.C. Counties around San Antonio, Jacksonville, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., round out the top ten (Table 1).

Here are some additional highlights:

  • Harris County near Houston, Texas, lost more forest to development than any other county in the South during this time period.

  • Among southern states, Georgia experienced the most forest conversion to such development, nearly twice the amount of runner-up Texas.

  • Development in Georgia, Texas and Florida alone accounted for almost 50 percent of all forest loss in the South due to development.

  • In total, these top ten counties converted approximately 123,000 acres of forest to development over five years, an area three times the size of Washington, DC.

Table 1. Ten counties in the U.S. South experiencing the most annual deforestation due to urban and suburban development (2001-2006) Rank County (metro area) State Forest acres converted per year (2001-2006)

RankCounty (metro area)StateForest acres converted per year (2001-2006)
1Harris (Houston)Texas5,230
2Gwinnett (Atlanta)Georgia3,033
3Fulton (Atlanta)Georgia2,801
4Wake (Raleigh)North Carolina2,407
5Montgomery (Houston)Texas2,153
6Mecklenburg (Charlotte)North Carolina2,139
7Bexar (San Antonio)Texas1,897
8Duval (Jacksonville)Florida1,693
9Jefferson (Birmingham)Alabama1,687
10Cobb (Atlanta)Georgia1,644

Covering nearly 214 million acres, the forests of the southern U.S. stretch from Texas to Virginia, and from Kentucky down to Florida. These forests are the nation’s wood basket, supporting 600,000 jobs. They also provide a multitude of other benefits or ecosystem services such as watershed protection, carbon storage and recreation. As profiled in WRI’s Southern Forests for the Future, suburban expansion is the biggest threat to the quality and quantity of these forests.

The new map shows a continuation of trends from the 1990s. But trends since 2006 may be different. It is likely that forest conversion patterns in the region have changed since the economic downturn started in 2008. Given that housing starts have declined over the past few years, we would expect to see a reduction in forest conversion once the data become available.

Therein lies one of the challenges in monitoring changes in the nation’s forests. It can take years for data on forest cover change to be processed and made publicly available. A forest cover monitoring system that makes information available more frequently would enable decision-makers and forest stakeholders to better understand what is happening to forests in a more timely manner.

But a more fundamental question raised by the WRI analysis is how can the South break the link between growth and forest conversion? Paradoxically, expanding suburban areas are clearing the same forests that they depend upon for clean freshwater, recreation and the beautiful vistas that make living in those regions so attractive in the first place.

Robust markets for sustainably managed forest products such as timber and pulpwood are an important start. Many woodland owners need to earn financial benefits from working their forests. Without such a revenue stream, selling land for real estate development may become an attractive alternative when the housing market rebounds.

Likewise, innovative approaches for financially rewarding woodland owners for the benefits their forests provide need to become more mainstream. These approaches could include payments for watershed services, working forest conservation easements, habitat credits and others, as recently profiled by WRI.

Through these and similar approaches, the South may be able to have its growth and its forests, too.

For more information, click here.

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When developing the map, WRI performed a county level analysis on the National Land Cover Database 2006 Land Cover Change dataset which was produced by the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, a coalition of federal agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and others. WRI analyzed forested areas in 2001 that by 2006 had become developed or characterized by a high percentage of buildings, asphalt, concrete and similar constructed infrastructure.

More maps on forest cover loss/gain are available on the Southern Forests for the Future website.

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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.

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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.

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Thaís Borges.

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."

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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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