in Brazil

Brazil’s deforestation rate soars. What now for REDD?

Brazil's deforestation rate soars. What now for REDD?

On 24 May 2011, Brazil’s House of Congress approved revisions to the country’s forest code. It now goes to the Senate and, if approved there, requires the approval of Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff. If passed, the new forest code would reduce the area of forest that farmers and ranchers must preserve and would allow clearing forest along rivers and on hilltops.

It also could create an amnesty for forest cleared before July 2008 to make way for agriculture, industrial tree plantations or tourism. On the same day, that the vote took place on the forest code, gunmen killed two activists, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo. The two campaigned against illegal logging for charcoal production and cattle-ranching in the state of Pará.

“Brazil woke up to the news of the murders of two leading environmental activists, and it’s going to bed with the murder of the forest code,” Greenpeace Brazil ecologist Paulo Adario told the press.

Currently, Brazil’s forest code limits the percentage of their land that farmers and ranchers can clear. In the Amazon rainforest, 80% of the forest must be left intact, 35% in tropical savannah zones and 20% in the rest of the country. The law is not enforced and ranchers and agribusiness corporations ignore it – meaning a huge amount of illegal deforestation.

The areas involved are vast:

  • Brazil’s total area of forest – 5.3 million square kilometres
  • Brazil’s area of protected forest – 1.7 million square kilometres
  • Area deforested in 2009 and 2010 – 7,000 square kilometres
  • Area deforested in 2004 – 26,000 square kilometres

But while deforestation rates have fallen in recent years, they appear to be increasing again. Between August 2010 and April 2011 deforestation rose by 27% compared to the same period a year earlier. Particularly worrying are the figures from the last two months. In March and April 2001, nearly 593 square kilometres of forest were cleared, an increase of 470 per cent compared to the same two months last year. The vast majority of the clearing is taking place in Mato Grosso state where vast areas of forest have been cleared for soy plantations. Since 1990, the number of cattle in the Amazon has increased from 25 million to 70 million, while the area of soy plantations has increased from 16,000 square kilometres to 60,000 square kilometres.

Deforestation in Brazil varies from month to month. It usually peaks in the dry season, between July and October. Accelerating deforestation in April, during the rainy season is unusual. Even more worrying is that the rate of forest degradation in Mato Grosso reached 1,755 square kilometres in April 2011. A year ago, the figure was only 13 square kilometres.

While the government announced that hundreds of environmental protection officers would be deployed to prevent the forest destruction, that fails to address the causes of the acceleration, such as the government-level discussion about weakening the forest code coupled with high commodity prices.

Avaaz launched an online petition on 24 May 2011 aimed at preventing the weakening of the forest code. Already, more than 115,000 people have signed the petition.

This raises several questions relating to REDD:

  • It highlights the perverse incentive to increase deforestation now, before REDD starts. Governments with good laws in place, with good governance and with decreasing rates of deforestation stand to gain little from REDD. But with deforestation soaring, Brazil might just do very well out of REDD.
  • Behind the change in forest legislation is pressure from agribusinesses, keen to profit from currently high commodity prices. REDD, at least so far, simply cannot compete with the increased profits available from soy plantations, oil palm plantations or cattle ranching. In fact, if REDD were successful it would decrease the amount of land available for commodity production, thus potentially driving up the price of commodities.
  • Research recently published in Environmental Research Letters, suggests a further complication. If a rancher sells cattle grazing land to a company to establish a soy plantation, that does not directly lead to deforestation. However, because of the high price of the land sold, the rancher can afford to buy up to five times the area of forest and convert it to pasture. The researchers describe this as indirect land-use change. Eugenio Arima, from University of Texas at Austin, the lead author of the paper points out that indirect deforestation has implications for REDD: “For example, the government could support a biofuels project to cut emissions, but this project may indirectly be increasing deforestation in another part of the country. Thus, environmental policy in Brazil must pay attention to indirect land-use change.” There could also be a time delay between selling one plot of land and later buying another and clearing the forest.
  • Doug Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists last year argued that the reduced rate of deforestation in Brazil was an example illustrating that REDD is succeeding. Boucher did not refer to the rate of forest degradation in his argument. Neither did he prevent much evidence that REDD was the cause of the reduced rate of deforestation. In any case, with deforestation increasing again and the government weakening legislation, where does that leave REDD?

Meanwhile Brazil continues its plans for the Belo Monte hydropower dam, that has been opposed for 20 years by the indigenous peoples living in the Xingú watershed. Brazil is also pushing to include “forests in exhaustion” in the clean development mechanism – a proposal that amounts to no more than a subsidy for industrial tree plantations.

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  1. Oh dear. Is that the sound I can hear of another $1 billion of Norwegian REDD money going down the drain?

  2. The BBC and other news article are reporting, “The main force pushing the reforms is Aldo Rebelo, head of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCDoB).

    His rationale is that the current code works against small-scale farmers. Regional rivals that compete with Brazil as food exporters are not expected to labour under such a handicap, supporters say.”

    Why did you not include this information in your article? It is important to understand the complicated situation in Brazil.

  3. It is a complex situation indeed. Still, it is one more (and important) factor to be used in order to prove the addicionality of a REDD project. The more theated the forest is, the more important a REDD project become.

  4. its not complex at all.
    its just REDD and REDD+ are meant to confuse and conspire manipulation.
    A forest area has a boundry , how hard is it to protect that area of a forest and its bio diversity with in that boundry.

  5. @Cath: That is misleading. As a Brazilian following our domestic politics for a while, I can tell you that Rebelo’s proposal to reform the code has very little to do with smallholder interests or any leftist, “communist party” agenda. Most social movements in Brazil are actually AGAINST the changes in the forest code. What is referred to as “small-scale” in this context actually involves properties of up to 400ha (since when is that small-scale?). This whole process refers much more to commodity exporters and agribusiness interests – well represented in the Congress where MPs were rejoicing after the approval of the changes.

  6. @Cath (#2) and @Mairon (#5) – Thanks for these comments. I agree with Mairon that Rebelo’s proposed gutting of the forest code has little to do with smallholder interests – but I probably should have mentioned that he is behind the proposed changes.

    Here’s how World Rainforest Movement describes what is happening:

    The reforms proposed by Rebelo serve the interests of large landholders in the agribusiness sector, who are represented in Congress by the so-called ruralista bloc of lawmakers. They are pushing for a thorough revision of the Forest Code that will allow them to further expand their operations and will grant an amnesty for fines already handed out for illegal deforestation – some of which are owed by ruralista deputies and senators themselves!

    In the meantime, social movements representing rural workers, environmentalists and scientists want to maintain the current Forest Code and would like to see complementary measures to guarantee the protection of the environment and small-scale family farming, which is in a completely different class from the large-scale operations of the agribusiness sector.

  7. You tells us that between August 2010 and April 2011 deforestation rose by 27% compared to the same period a year earlier. Which institution has reported these figures? Can you give us a link to the report? Do all institutions working with forest monitoring in Brazil agree that this is the correct figures?

  8. @Norwegian Forestry Group – Thanks for this comment. I got the figure of 27% from a BBC News report: “Brazil: Amazon rainforest deforestation rises sharply,” (19 May 2011). I’ve added that link to the post above. According to the BBC report, the figure comes from a Brazilian government report, based on data from Brazil’s space research institute (INPE).

    According to, the information was leaked by INPE during a lecture in Cuiaba on 13 May 2011: “Information leak: Amazon deforestation increases sharply while forest code debated,” (16 May 2011).

    To respond to your question about whether institutions in Brazil agree that these are the correct figures, the Brazilian government certainly seems to be taking them seriously. BBC News reports that “Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said the figures were ‘alarming’ and announced the setting up of a “crisis cabinet” in response to the news.”

    The figures are based on INPE’s DETER (Real-time Detection of Deforestation) system, that has a resolution of 25 hectares. INPE uses DETER to provide information every two weeks, year round, to IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency. The idea being that IBAMA can then react quickly to increases in deforestation. INPE also has a more accurate system called PRODES (Program to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon) that has a resolution of 6.5 hectares – the PRODES data is published once a year, in August. Here’s a useful article on about INPE: “Monitoring deforestation: an interview with Gilberto Camara, head of Brazil’s space agency INPE.”

  9. At one time Brazil’s model was being supported as almost the best and Guyana was being advised to follow suit – you can see the disaster looming, washed away by the Belo Monte Hydro followed by the Amaila Hydrodam.

  10. Thanks for adding more information about the political situation in Brazil. I wasn’t suggesting that Rebelo actually was representing the best interests of small farmers or rural workers. I just am trying to understand what is going on in Brazil which is difficult since I don’t speak Portugese and don’t know much about political parties there. We have all sorts of strange groupings going on in Washington D.C. so I would suspect the same sort of thing goes on in other countries around the world! I would welcome additional information from people who follow and understand politics in Brazil.

  11. This is an article written by Aldo Rebelo, a member of the Communist Party who proposed the changes to Brazil’s forest code. He argues in this article that international environmental organizations are distorting information about the forest code. He states, “The Guardian of London publishes an article by one of the Greenpeace honchos with threats to Brazil for the Forest Code vote. They treat us like a colonial enclave in need of the empire’s civilization lessons.”

    This was posted at

    Stop Treating Brazil as a Colony in Need of Civilization Lessons!
    Written by Aldo Rebelo
    Tuesday, 31 May 2011 01:09

    Farmer in the Amazon Legend has it that, while surrounding Madrid with his troops during the Spanish Civil War, General Emilio Mola Vidal, when asked which of the four columns he headed would first enter the besieged city he answered “the fifth column.” General Mola was referring to his agents, who, from within, were sabotaging the republican resistance.

    During the Second World War, the term became synonymous with the struggle against allied activities in the fight to defeat the Nazi-Fascist axis. The fifth column disseminated rumors, trying to neutralize and weaken the will of the resistance and to demoralize the reaction against the enemy.

    After the vote of the Forest Code, this May 24, a restaurant in Brasília, received the main “heads” of the international NGOs for a dinner that went late into the night. The House had just approved by 410 x 63 votes, the Forest Code draft and overwhelmingly defeated the attempt of the group of external pressure to prevent a decision on the matter.

    The mood at the restaurant was one of shock at the defeat but there was born the modern tactic of the fifth column to push the Senate and the government against Brazil’s agriculture and farmers. The international agents would resort to the foreign media and would spread domestically the idea that the Code pardons loggers and allow new deforestation.

    The succession of events illuminates the road taken by the bar plotters. Last Sunday, the daily O Estado de S. Paulo dedicated a page to an article written by journalists Afra Balazina and Andrea Vialli with the following headline: “New Code allows clearing of native forest in an area equivalent to the Paraná state.”

    In the whole text of the article there is no information whatsoever that confirms the piece’s headline. It’s obvious that the bill voted in the House does not authorize any deforestation.

    At issue is whether two million homeowners who occupy permanent preservation areas (river bank, slopes, hills) should be expelled from their lands or to what extent can they continue farming as they have done for centuries in Brazil, like their counterparts worldwide.

    In the newspaper O Globo, the text written by Cleide Carvalho tries to link the Mato Grosso state deforestation to the debate on the Forest Code and the NGOs spread through their contacts in the media the existence of a connection between the killing of peasants in the Amazon and the vote on the legislation in the House of Representatives.

    The Guardian of London publishes an article by one of the Greenpeace honchos with threats to Brazil for the Forest Code vote. They treat us like a colonial enclave in need of the empire’s civilization lessons.

    International NGOs consider the entire area occupied by agriculture in Brazil, environmental liabilities that must be converted into forest. They deem reasonable to think that millions of farmers be coerced to pull farm trees and grass and plant native vegetation instead in a country that reserves more than 60% of its territory for green areas.

    The “amnesty” attributed to the legislation is not explained by those denouncing it and no explanation was asked by the press. They only say that those who deforested until 2008 got amnesty. Who deforested until 2008? Those who planted the first seedlings of sugarcane in the Northeast and in São Paulo at the time of the hereditary captaincies?

    The first farmers of Pará, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the 18th century? The settlers invited by the Getúlio Vargas administration to cultivate the state of Mato Grosso? Or the Gauchos and Nordestinos taken by the military governments to expand the agricultural frontier in the Amazon? Maybe the INCRA settlers who received their land and only got their property title after deforestation?

    It’s important to note that, by the legislation in force, they are all environmental “criminals” subject to the opprobrium of environmental fines and citations by prosecutors and supervisory boards. Involved in this “illegality” web are almost 100% of the country’s farmers for not having the legal reserve, which the law made no provision for, or riparian forest, which the law of 1965 established as being from five to 100 meters and, that in the 1980s, was changed to 30 to 500 meters.

    Recognizing the absurdity of the situation, the government itself, in a decree signed by president Lula and Minister Carlos Minc, suspended fines due to the “legal” requirement, whose term expires on June 11 and the decree will likely be reissued by president Dilma.

    The government and the country are under intense pressure from misinformation and lies. The Brazilian agriculture and farmers have become invisible in the presidential palace. I do not know if the president was aware when she included the Brazilian pig farmers to the delegation that went to China in search of market in the Asian giant that almost all the production of pigs in Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná is illegal for being inside a permanent conservation area.

    The House of Representatives by a large majority, showed to be looking for the interests of environmental conservation and agriculture, approving a proposal that was accepted by one side but rejected by those who ignore or need to ignore the reality of the Brazilian countryside.

    The Senate now has a great responsibility and the Brazilian government must decide whether to protect the agriculture of the country or to capitulate in the face of external pressures, which in the name of the environment undermine the welfare of our people and the national economy.

    Aldo Rebelo, of the Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B) is a member of the House of Representatives for the state of São Paulo. He was the rapporteur of the bill of the New Brazilian Forest Code approved by the House of Representatives. He can be reached at

  12. Just realized that I may have confused people with my last two posts. My original post was #2 Cath Van Order. I also made two additional posts #10 and 11 under the name marion. Sorry for the confusion for using different names. The change is due to a computer change — nothing sinister.

  13. Belo Monte is only a small part of development-induced displacement in Amazon Region (see. the situation in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. Many NGOs estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 10 million people per year. According to the World Bank an estimated 33 million people have been displaced by development projects such as dams, urban development and irrigation canals in India alone.

    India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement in India. According to Bogumil Terminski an estimated more than 10 million people have been displaced by development each year.

    Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.
    This is what experts have termed “development-induced displacement.” According to Michael Cernea, a World Bank analyst, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.