In 2014, Brazil’s deforestation rate was reported to be about 75% below the average for 1996 to 2005. But in recent years, Brazil’s deforestation rate has been going back up, despite the fact that the country is going through its worst recession in decades.
Since 2012, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has increased by almost 36%. From August 2014 to July 2015, Brazil lost 6,207 square kilometres of forest, a 24% increase over the previous year. Since August 2015, there has been a sharp increase in deforestation.
It’s worse than we thought
As if that wasn’t bad enough, a recent study in Conservation Letters found that Brazil wasn’t reporting all the deforestation in its official figures. The study found that about 9,000 square kilometres of forest was cleared between 2008 and 2012 without the deforestation showing up in the official figures.
The research compared the results from Brazil’s official Monitoring Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by Satellite Project (PRODES) with two independent satellite measures of forest cover, the Global Forest Change (GFC) dataset and the Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS).
In a statement about the research, Leah VanWey, co-author of the research and senior deputy director at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, said,
“PRODES has been an incredible monitoring tool and has facilitated the successful enforcement of policies. But we show evidence that landowners are working around it in ways that are destroying important forests.”
While the PRODES monitoring system has played an important role in reducing deforestation in Brazil, there are several problems with the PRODES data:
- PRODES monitors only primary Amazon rainforest;
- PRODES excludes dry forests and secondary forests;
- PRODES excludes forest plots smaller than 6.25 hectares.
VanWey points out that,
“PRODES essentially masks out these regions and treats them as non-forest. We wanted to compare the PRODES maps with satellite sources that just look at canopy cover, without those exclusions. We showed that while deforestation in large plots of primary rainforests has declined, it has expanded in these areas not tracked by PRODES.”
In their paper in Conservation Letters, VanWey and colleagues include satellite images of the state of Mato Grosso. Below is one of them. Blue areas show deforestation tracked by the PRODES system. Black areas are areas shown as deforestation under the GFC system, and yellow dots show fire events picked up by FIRMS:
And it’s likely to get worse
Deforestation in Brazil is likely to increase further in coming years. The country’s environmental regulations are under threat from a series of proposed new laws and constitutional amendments. Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Research in Amazonia, explains that,
These dubious initiatives have jumped to the forefront as anti-environment politicians rush to exploit the opportunities offered by Brazil’s current political turmoil, which led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff.
Legislators are eager to help provide short-term stimulation to the country’s flagging economy, in part by removing social and environmental restrictions on proposed development projects. But the way this is being advanced reeks of political shadiness and trickery.
More than 20 legislative proposals are currently in Brazil’s Congress, all aimed at relaxing regulations on road-building, mining operations, hydroelectric dams and expanding industrial agriculture. On her website Forestless.net, Maria Fernanda Gebara lists some of the most worrying proposals:
- The Forest Law, which grants amnesty to landowners who deforested illegally before 2008;
- The lack of financial resources to keep deforestation monitoring in locu;
- The reduction of the number of conservation units in the Amazon, leading to an increase in illegal occupation;
- Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 215, which requires Congress to approve the demarcation of indigenous lands;
- Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 65, which will facilitate licensing for the construction of major infrastructure projects without evaluation and mitigation of environmental impacts;
- Delaying twice the obligation for farmers to register their property under CAR and the obligation to restore or provide compensation for illegally deforested areas;
- The proposed construction of 334 dams throughout the Amazon Basin;
- The registration of over 1 million square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon for mining.