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Brazil auctions parts of Amazon for logging

By Catriona Davies for CNN
  • Brazil is auctioning one million hectares of public forest this year as logging concessions
  • The policy will reduce illegal logging, says government
  • "Very few countries have been able to pull it off," says Amazon scientist

(CNN) -- Brazil has begun to auction parts of its rainforest to private companies for logging.

One million hectares are being made available as logging concessions this year, expected to rise to 11 million hectares within five years.

Eventually, up to 10 percent of Brazil's 280 million hectares of public forest could be managed by logging companies, with the land remaining publicly owned.

While this may sound like an environmentalist's worst nightmare, the Brazilian government claims it will reduce demand for illegal logging and make sure the forests are managed in a sustainable way.

So could the policy help save the Amazon rainforest, or does it simply legitimize its destruction?

CNN spoke to Marcus Alves, one of the directors of the Brazilian Forestry Service, and Daniel Nepstad, a leading environmental scientist who has studied the Amazon for 25 years and is director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute's international program, to get their views.

Won't it mean more damage to the Amazon?

The problem in the Amazon is not so much logging per se, but illegal logging, according to both Nepstad and the Brazilian government.

The concessions will allow companies to take only 25 cubic meters of timber -- about four to six trees -- per hectare, and make sure they do not damage surrounding trees, said Alves.

"They can't return to the same hectare again for 30 years, allowing the forest to recover and grow again," he added.

Nepstad said: "Properly done, logging can be a very good way of reconciling the need for jobs and revenue with conservation of the forest. If you do it well, you can pull down three or four trees per hectare without damaging any others, and within a few years, you wouldn't notice the difference.

"There's huge potential to use logging as part of the Amazonian economy while keeping the carbon in the trees, and the biodiversity."

Alves said there were 25 million people living in the Amazon who need to earn a living.

Logging can be a very good way of reconciling the need for jobs with conservation of the forest.
--Daniel Nepstad, Amazon Environmental Research Institute

Is logging a major factor in Amazon deforestation?

The biggest drivers of deforestation are clearance for cattle grazing, growing soy beans, illegal roads and small-scale slash and burn for subsistence use, according to both Nepstad and Alves.

Both agree that selective logging does not contribute to deforestation if only small numbers of trees are removed responsibly.

Deforestation has reduced significantly in Brazil in recent years, down from nearly 13,000 square kilometers in 2007-8 to 7,000 square kilometers in 2008-9, according to the Brazilian government.

Alves claims the reduction as a victory for the concessions policy.

"These concessions are just beginning, but already we have a dramatic reduction in the rate of deforestation," he said.

Nepstad disagrees that concessions have reduced deforestation, but does believe that working with industry will help.

He said: "I believe deforestation in the Amazon could be ended by 2020, while logging continues. Industry is part of the solution as well as the main cause of the problem. Without industry at the table it would be hard to end deforestation in a place like the Amazon."

How big a problem is illegal logging?

Nepstad estimates logging is currently taking place on one million hectares of private forest -- feeding 2,000 saw mills -- the majority of it illegally.

"There are some responsible operators working on private land, but many do it in a sloppy way, yanking down trees and causing a lot of damage," he said.

"The government has been able to eliminate a lot of illegal logging with tighter controls, but much of it is still going on."

Alves said: "Our expectation is that in the long term, concessions will supply 80 percent of the timber to the market, reducing demand for unregulated timber from private forests."

Can Brazil's concessions work?

"It sounds great on paper, but very few countries have been able to pull it off," said Nepstad.

"Forest policies that feature logging concessions to private companies on publicly owned lands have had a dismal history in most of the world's tropical nations, plagued by graft, cronyism, and royalties that miss the mark. But if any country can make this work, Brazil can."

What do environmentalists think of Brazil's policy?

"We believe you can get further by favoring the responsible loggers," said Nepstad. "In some areas it is best not to use any natural resources, but you have to look at what is good for the Amazon as a whole."

"When the policy was first proposed, some environmental groups were opposed to any economic activity in the forest, but that resistance has subsided as their attention has moved to the main causes of deforestation, such as agriculture and cattle ranching."

Denisa Morariu contributed to this report.