Brazil’s announcement it has cut annual deforestation to its lowest level in 21 years is great news. Some 7,008 km2 of Amazonia was lost between August 2008 and July 2009, or 45.7 percent less than during the same period a year previously. This year’s number is down to about a quarter of what it was in 2004.

The government is celebrating the drop, which is to be expected, and it is claiming the improvement is down to its own policies. There are lots of theories why deforestation has fallen so much over the last five years. (I’ve outlined a few of them in this story on the Christian Science Monitor website).

Clearly, the change is down to a combination of factors and policy decisions and the Lula administration is responsible for lots of them. In fact, this may be one of the very few areas in which Lula owes no debt to his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

But make no mistake, this administration is no great friend to the environment. From the very start of his term in 2003, Lula made it clear that economic growth – and the prosperity it would bring – was more important than preserving flora and fauna. He is a close ally to people like Blairo Maggi and he regularly undermined Marina Silva in her battles with the agriculture lobby.

That double talk was evident this week in his decision not to pass a law that would punish landowners not in compliance with the Forest Code. (The code stipulates what percentage of land must be kept intact. In the Amazon, 80 percent must be kept as natural vegetation; in the Cerrado it is 65 percent.)

The law was to have taken effect in December but Lula postponed its implementation until June 2011, which not only gives the agricultural lobby another 18 months of respite, it also allows them time to pressure Lula’s successor to cancel it for good. If the administration can maintain deforestation on a downward trend it will have made a huge difference. But it cannot pass itself off as a government that has done all it could to protect the environment.