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What a difference a year makes! When the 2007-2008 Brazilian Amazon deforestation figures came out in 2008 and showed a slight uptick, our leaders here in Brazil did what politicians the world over do when presented with inconvenient facts: they tried to shoot the messenger.

President Lula and his chief of staff, Djilma Roussef, were loud in their protestations that the methodology was wrong, that the figures were questionable, etc. etc. Which would have been more convincing had Brazil’s Space Institute, the institute responsible for the numbers, not compiled over the last 25 years a deserved reputation as the world’s leading centre for tracking deforestation.

Fortunately, Brazil being the thriving democracy it is, the Space Institute’s director robustly defended the numbers, the media had a field day, and Lula and Djilma cut their losses and moved on.

No questioning of the latest figures released in November, however, and easy to see why — the preliminary figure for 2008-2009 is around 7,000 square kilometers, the lowest since records began in 1988.

This report accelerates a long-term trend of decline in Amazon deforestation that began in 2004-2005. Lula and Djilma — now Lula’s candidate to succeed him as president in this year’s election — practically elbowed the environment minister away from the cameras in the nationally televised press conference to announce the report, which led off all the evening news bulletins. All very amusing for the few who remembered what happened exactly a year ago.

So — unambiguous good news for the Amazon, surely? Well, yes, but only up to a point. I have a lot of sympathy for governments of all stripes that constantly have to deal with environmentalists who are determined to see doom and gloom from even the most upbeat of news items, but there is less to this good news than meets the eye.

The Brazilian government was quick to credit its own actions for the decline in deforestation, and it is true that the federal authorities have been much more active in recent years in cracking down on illegal logging and keeping invaders out of protected areas and indigenous reserves. They deserve a great deal of credit for the deforestation trend, especially as much federal enforcement takes place in the teeth of entrenched resistance from state and local governments in the Amazon, dominated as they often are by the deforesters and their allies.

But this year’s figure fell by a huge amount — over 50 percent from the year before. Which leads the reasonable observer to conclude that the sharp (and, in Brazil, short) economic downturn which began in late 2008 must have had a lot to do with it. That downturn is now finished and our economy here in Brazil is roaring ahead, along with China’s, as the emerging economies lead the world out of recession for the first time.

We can be confident that real progress on deforestation is being made when we have a number of years of high economic growth combined with low deforestation. That looked like it might be starting to happen from 2005 to 2007, but then along came the 2008-2009 economic crash to mess up the trend pattern.

Brazil looks very well set for 5-6 percent GDP growth over the next three to four years. If deforestation stays at or even below this year’s level at that level of GDP growth, it really will be time to open the champagne. For now, jubilant press conferences or no, best to keep it on ice.

— Text by David Cleary, Cool Green Science Blog