in Brazil, Norway

Deforestation is increasing in the Brazilian Amazon

In 2011, REDD-Monitor asked “Can REDD save the Amazon?”. Six years later, after Norway has poured more than US$1 billion into REDD in Brazil, it is clear that REDD is not a solution to Amazon deforestation. Deforestation fell from 2004 to 2012, but the reasons were nothing to do with REDD. Now deforestation is going back up.

Norway calculates how much to pay Brazil based on the previous year’s deforestation. Development Today reports that, “The unprecedented increase in deforestation during 2016 will result in a ‘drastic’ reduction in Norwegian climate forest aid to Brazil this year.”

Philip Fearnside is one of the leading experts on deforestation in the Amazon. He works at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) in Brazil, and has lived and worked in the Amazon for 41 years. In that time, an area of forest larger than the size of France has been cleared.

In a recent article for Yale Environment 360, Fearnside writes that he was relieved when deforestation fell from more than 27,000 square kilometres in 2004 to 4,400 square kilometres in 2012. “But I had witnessed too much destruction in the Amazon to celebrate,” Fearnside writes.

Unfortunately, these widely publicized declines led not only to the impression among the international conservation community that Amazon deforestation was finally ebbing. It also led to a dangerous illusion taking hold in the capital of Brasília — the belief that deforestation was thoroughly under control, and thus the government could build roads, dams, and other infrastructure at will in Amazonia, without consequences for the world’s largest rain forest.

Since 2012, deforestation has increased. In 2016, deforestation increased by 29% compared to 2015.

Fearnside writes that, “powerful economic and development pressures are bearing down on the Brazilian Amazon”. He notes that control of deforestation is now better than it was in 2004, but argues that much of reduction in deforestation from 2004 to 2012 can be explained by factors other than improved governance.

Market forces

From 2004 to 2007 the reduction in deforestation “is virtually all due to market forces”, Fearnside writes. The prices of export commodities such as soy and beef fell. Meanwhile, the Brazilian real increased in value by 80% compared to the US dollar and exports became less profitable.

From 2008, commodity prices recovered. But deforestation continued to fall until 2012. Fearnside puts this down to a 2008 resolution by Brazil’s Central Bank that banned credit for agriculture and ranching dependent if the recipient had any pending fines for illegal deforestation. Fearnside writes that,

Unlike the fines themselves, which can be appealed seemingly indefinitely and are often never paid, the ban on credit is immediate, cannot be appealed, and directly affects the largest and wealthiest actors in the deforestation process. The slowdown in deforestation was disproportionately a result of reduced clearing by large and medium landholders — who were facing tight credit from government banks — rather than small farmers.

Fearnside argues that the increase in deforestation since 2012 is a result of the following:

  • 2012 saw a “major weakening” of Brazil’s Forest Code removing restrictions on deforestation and making it easier to get permission to clear forests legally.
  • As a result of lobbying by the “ruralists”, a coalition of landowners, soy producers, and other economic players, the Forest Code pardoned illegal clearing carried out up to 2008.
  • Soy prices increased in 2012, encouraging farmers to clear more forest.

Fearnside writes that,

Every year there are more people in the Amazon region, more roads giving them access to the forest, more money pouring in for investment in agriculture and ranching, and more large projects such as hydroelectric dams. The areas around the dams on the Madeira River (Santo Antônio, whose reservoir was filled in 2011, and Jirau, filled in 2013) and on the Xingu River (Belo Monte, filled in 2015) have been major deforestation hotspots. So has the Santarém to Cuiabá highway, which is being rebuilt to transport soybeans from Mato Grosso to ports with access to the Amazon River.

Major threats

There are several major threats to the Brazilian Amazon, none of which are even remotely addressed by Norway’s REDD payments:

  • The Brazilian government is planning to reconstruct the 870-kilometre-long BR-319, from Manaus to Porto Velho. The road was built by the military government and opened in 1973. Since 1988, it has been impassable. Fearnside writes that rebuilding the road, “would open about half of what is left of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to the soy growers, ranchers, loggers, and others from the notorious ‘arc of deforestation’ that stretches along the southern edge of the region”.
  • Land speculators operate above the law. As Sue Branford and Maurício Torres report in Mongabay, they clear forest on public lands then illegally sell the land. The land speculators use militias and hired thugs to intimidate landless peasants or anyone else claiming the land. Branford and Torres write that, “It is now through illegal ‘speculative clearance’ of public lands that the big money is to be made. Thus, deforestation becomes a business in its own right.”
  • Backed by the ruralists, congressmen have introduced amendments to provisional measures (MP 756/2016 and MP 758/2016) that would remove conservation protection from 1.2 million hectares of forest in Pará state.
  • Another bill, proposed by legislators from Amazonas state, aims to eliminate the Campos de Manicore Environmental Protection Area and reduce the size of Acari National Park, the Manicore Biological Reserve and the Urupadi and Aripuana national forests. WWF-Brazil points out that areas removed from protection correspond with proposed mining operations.
  • The Brazilian government is cutting funding to the environment ministry by 51%.
  • Climate change increases the risk of droughts in the Amazon, which increases the risk of fires and forest dieback. Forest dieback increases the risk of drought. A recent paper in Nature discusses this vicious circle and concludes that “frequent extreme drought events have the potential to destabilize large parts of the Amazon forest”.
  • A proposed series of hydropower dams on the Tapajós River that threatens the livelihoods of thousands of traditional forest communities such as the indigenous Munduruku, as well as large-scale deforestation. The 7.5-kilometre-long São Luiz do Tapajós dam would flood almost 400 square kilometres of forest and would lead to the destruction of a further 2,200 square kilometres of forest.

This week, indigenous peoples protested in front of Brazil’s Congress about the murder of indigenous peoples and government policies that result in the destruction of their land. They were met by military police who fired rubber bullets, pepper spray and flash bombs to break up the peaceful protest:


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  1. Well, one could argue that it is precisely because REDD has been delayed both in Brazil and internationally that deforestation is increasing. This article looks like a big syllogism to me.

  2. @Sylvester G – But wouldn’t you think that Norway’s more than US$1 billion in REDD payments since 2009 would have had at least some impact on deforestation? The trouble is that REDD does not address the drivers of deforestation – especially large scale infrastructure and the political power of groups like the ruralists.

  3. @Chris: Hmm. If you agree that addressing climate change requires $100 billion per year and that about 20% of that should be directed to land use, that’s $20 billion per year, or cumulatively $160 billion since 2009. Relative to that, Norway’s billions are just a drop in the ocean, and no wonder why it has little impact.
    Once again, you cannot judge a policy if has not been implemented/enforced; you can just blame the politicians/governments for their lack of action.

  4. @Silvester. “little impact”? which impact? It had no impact = money wasted, or, better said, gone to the traditional array of cronies (bureaucrats, consultants, etc.), contravening the pay-for-result principle that defines the REDD+ mechanism.
    The “policy” has not been implemented/enforced by those defined by that same policy; therefore that policy was ill-conceived, has not worked; nobody kidnapped it.

  5. REDD+ is just a neo-liberal program (i.e., public-private “partnerships” always to the benefit of the latter interest) to preserve and exploit the Amazon at the same time. Like all similar programs, it is failing the environment and traditional societies. WWF, CI, TNC, EDF, etc. are increasingly headed by former Wall Streeters that tend toward solutions that benefit private interests despite the worn out 3 legged stool discourse.

  6. @Carlo Castellani: I agree with you: little or no impact. Not arguing about that.

    Your point (and the point of the blog): “policy not implemented means policy ill-conceived” is is logically flawed. There are very good policies or standards which are never -or poorly- implemented (protected areas are typical examples where the goal is laudable, but the implementation can be poor).

    For avoidance of doubt, I am not judging the content of the article; I just point out that the logic sustaining it is wrong, and certainly defeat the purpose.