Brazil’s rising deforestation rate shows reversal of environmental progress

(Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)/Flickr)

Between 2005 and 2012, Brazil managed to reduce forest clearances in the Amazon by 80 percent. But as the rate of deforestation appears to be rising again, the loss of more Brazilian rainforest could reverse that progress, which preserved the land for the millions who live there.

“It’s a worrying sign, because Brazil has, for many of us, recently been a thing of hope,” said Bill Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, in an interview with Humanosphere. “And right now, we’re very worried that this icon might be in danger of diminishing or even collapsing.”

Brazil’s challenges with Amazon deforestation, illustrated in a new interactive published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), is the result of weaker government regulation, overt efforts by the rural and industrial agro industry lobbies to try to weaken the Brazilian Forest Code, and the rapid construction of dams, roads and other infrastructure projects.

The rise in deforestation can also be attributed to the faltering economy, Laurance said, and devaluation of the Brazilian real.

“What that’s meant is that the value of export commodities such as beef, timber, soy and other products has suddenly become much more competitive,” he said, adding that more competitive prices create incentives for illegal logging and clearing land for crops and cattle.

Some forest clearing methods continue because of a widening gap between foresting activities and lawful oversight. The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the main law-enforcement body for the rainforest, has fewer than 2,000 officers patrolling the entire Amazonian region. Informal land tenure and unclear property rights also make it difficult for law enforcement to differentiate between legal and illegal deforestation, so only a small portion of fines on individuals and corporations for illegal deforestation are ever even collected.

Even protected rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon is degraded by human activity, as selective logging and forest fragmentation are making the Amazon rainforest more flammable, according to a recent study.

Although the Brazilian Amazon has suffered something of a deforestation relapse, there’s still a lot to say for the region’s overall progress, according to Tom Rudel, a distinguished professor in the departments of human ecology and sociology at Rutgers University.

“Stopping deforestation is hard, for any government, just because there’s so much money to be made from cutting down virgin timber and starting farms,” Rudel said in an interview with Humanosphere. “Brazil has actually been one of the most successful at it.”

Brazil still has the largest network of protected areas of any country on Earth, and has the best systems for tracking deforestation, with the government and Imazon, a national civil society organization, releasing frequent updates using MODIS satellite data. These technologies have also shown that Brazil’s overall decrease in deforestation has been comparatively better than that of other countries in the region, as well as other countries with large protected forests such as Indonesia or Russia.

Scientists continue to stress the importance of preserving Brazil’s portion of the Amazon – two-thirds of the overall rainforest – which is home to millions of people, including some of the world’s last uncontacted indigenous tribes. Many of these populations depend on the rainforest’s preservation for their economic well-being.

The rainforest also absorbs more greenhouse gases than any other tropical forest, making it one of the world’s greatest safeguards against climate change.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau or email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.