Between 2004 and 2012, deforestation rates fell in Brazil. Dramatically. But then in 2013, the rate increased by 29%. And in August and September this year, the rate shot up by 190% compared to the same period last year.
In September 2014, according to data from satellite images reported by Brazilian NGO Imazon, an area of 40,200 hectares was deforested, an increase of 290% compared to September 2013. An area of 62,400 hectares was degraded, an increase of 3,797% compared to September 2013.
So what’s going wrong?
Much of Brazil’s success in reducing deforestation was the result of legislation and enforcement of laws. A decade ago, Marina Silva, then-Environment Minister, introduced a series of measures to protect forests and to ensure land rights for indigenous peoples and landless peasants.
But Silva resigned in 2008. In her resignation letter to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva she had faced difficulties “for some time” in implementing the government’s environmental agenda.
Things took a further turn for the worse two years later, when Dilma Rousseff was elected President. Rousseff campaigned with promises of a “zero tolerance” policy for deforestation. But last year, the Brazilian government weakened its Forest Code, allowing amnesty for previous destruction and reducing the area of protected forest.
Rousseff has also given the go-ahead to dam construction in the Amazon. Shortly after she was elected, the Brazilian government approved construction of the Belo Monte dam, a massively controversial project that would flood 150,000 hectares of forest and result in the eviction of 40,000 people.
The Amazon’s silent crisis
Illegal logging in Brazil remains a serious problem. Greenpeace calls it “the Amazon’s silent crisis”. In May 2014, Greenpeace released a report that revealed that Brazil was laundering illegally logged timber on a massive scale before exporting it to the US, Europe and China. In the state of Pará 78% of the timber exported is illegally felled.
Paulo Barreto of Imazon told the Guardian that the situation is getting worse, with the area illegally logged in Pará increasing by 151% between 2011 and 2012.
Recently, Greenpeace activists spent two months putting GPS trackers on trucks involved in illegal logging in Pará. They found a network of sawmills that received the illegally logged timber.
The sawmills claimed the timber came from legal operations, but Greenpeace found little or no evidence of logging at these sites. In fact, the trucks drove deep into protected areas to collect timber and returned to the sawmills under cover of darkness.
Rousseff backed by the chainsaw queen
On 26 October 2014, Rousseff was re-elected in an election battle during which the environment played little role. Kátia Abreu, the head of the Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, backed Rousseff in the elections. Abreu, who has the nickname the “chainsaw queen”, told the Guardian that she sees the environment and indigenous peoples’ rights as “obstacles” to Brazil’s “progress”:
“There are many things holding back progress – the environmental issue, the Indian issue and more. But even with these problems we keep producing high levels of productivity. Imagine how high it might be without those obstacles.”
In December 2014, the Brazilian Soy Moratorium will end. This could result in a further wave of deforestation.
Where does this leave REDD in Brazil?
Proponents of REDD argue that REDD helped support Brazil’s reductions in deforestation. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists argues that REDD agreements, “help reinforce the political changes that led to increased action against deforestation in the first place.”
Since 2009, Norway has spent almost US$750 million on the Amazon Fund. Per Fredrik Pharo, Director of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, argues that REDD helps weaken the agribusiness lobby in Brazil:
But consider what could have happened if Brazil had not received any international financial support, after delivering what is probably the largest single reduction in greenhouse gas emissions the world has seen in recent years. The forces that want large-scale conversion of the Amazon for agricultural purposes would have had a better hand; those wanting to protect it would be weakened.
In the face of Brazil’s increasing deforestation, these arguments are looking increasingly flimsy.
Two reports on Amazon deforestation came out in October 2014, with somewhat different recommendations for slowing deforestation.
The first report was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and carried out by Datu Research. The report, titled “Deforestation in the Brazilian Beef Value Chain”, found that clearing forest for cattle ranching was a cheaper option than sound pasture management.
Datu Research recommends a jurisdiction-based approach, “certifying a given jurisdiction, and all commodities produced in it, as ‘deforestation-free’”. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is precisely the approach favoured by EDF.
The second report, led by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute, found that the contribution to deforestation by the largest landholders decreased by 63% between 2005 and 2011, that of smallholders increased by 69%. At the same time, deforestation in remote areas was increasing.
The report concludes that Brazil’s command and control policies focussed on larger properties,
may be increasingly limited in their effectiveness and fail to address all actors equally. Further reductions in deforestation are likely to be increasingly costly and require actor-tailored approaches, including better monitoring to detect small-scale deforestation and a shift toward more incentive-based conservation policies.
PHOTO Credit: Fires burning in Amazonia, NASA.