Brazil's Political Storm Driving Amazon Deforestation Higher

A giant kapok tree. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

"We feel as if we're combatting an organized criminal gang," said Everton Barros Dias, head of forest monitoring for the Environment and Sustainability Secretariat (SEMAS) in the Amazonian state of Pará. He explained how "impotent" he feels, as his agency engages in an "unequal fight" to combat a rising wave of illegal deforestation in this key Amazonian state.

From 2005 to 2015, the Brazilian government made major headway in reducing, and holding the line against Amazon deforestation – reductions recognized by the environmental movement. But deforestation gained alarming new momentum in 2016, with the trend then apparently reversed in 2107, though some controversy exists over the reliability of the figures. Of concern was a surge in carbon emissions, due to vast Amazon wildfires (most of which were set by people using fire as a land clearing tool). Partial forest loss due to fire is not included in official government statistics from INPE (the National Institute of Space Research) which only records clear cutting.

However, the news regarding Amazon deforestation could be bad for 2017-18. Though official INPE statistics haven't been released yet, and in fact are overdue, preliminary figures provided by IMAZON, a non-profit research institute, show that Amazon deforestation rates are rising this year. Though it must be pointed out that INPE and IMAZON use different methodologies from each other, which typically show different statistical results (see comparison chart).

According to the new figures published by IMAZON, the rate of deforestation for the whole of the Amazon basin rose by 22 percent between August 2017 and May 2018, compared with the same period the previous year. Perhaps more importantly, forest degradation was up by 218 percent. Degradation is often followed by deforestation.

Of the nine Brazilian states into which the Amazon basin extends, Pará is the one that has suffered the greatest increase in forest felling, according to IMAZON. Of the 2,441 square kilometers (942 square miles) cleared Amazon-wide between August 2017 and May 2018, a third of that (852 square kilometers; 329 square miles) was in Pará, reported the institute. Moreover, forest degradation in that state rose from 271 square kilometers (105 square miles) to 5,439 square kilometres (2,100 square miles) – an increase of almost 2,000 percent

The two municipalities within the state that saw the greatest deforestation were Novo Progresso, an area notorious for land-grabbing, and Altamira, site of the Belo Monte mega-dam (the construction of large dams has been shown to lead to high rates of land clearing).

The likelihood is that much more forest will be cut as the dry season progresses this year, which suggests that 2017/2018 could see high levels of deforestation across the Amazon basin, and particularly in Pará. This state includes major portions of the basin's largest river systems, including the Xingu and Tapajós basins. It is also here that key battles over the future of the Amazon are being waged by indigenous and traditional communities and environmentalists.

The Amazon's perfect storm

This new rise in deforestation is resulting from the coming together of multiple factors, say experts, especially a perfect storm that has made it easier for politically well-connected wealthy land-grabbers to convert native forest to pasture and for croplands, with little fear of punishment. The power of the majority bancada ruralista, agribusiness lobby, in Congress, and its similar strength in the Temer government, has led to major legislative and administrative setbacks for the environmental movement and for indigenous groups.

Temer has drastically slashed the budgets for the nation's environmental agencies, IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) and ICM-BIO (the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), as well as for FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation). Cuts of between 40 and 50 percent have made it even more difficult for these institutions to carry out their charters, that includes deforestation enforcement duties.

Add to this a March ruling by the Supreme Court redefining the New Forest Code largely in favor of Brazil's ruralists, that also endorsed an amnesty of 8.4 billion reais (US$2.2 billion) in fines for illegal deforestation that won't be collected. This decision could lead land-grabbers to believe they will not be held accountable for breaking the law. However, the Temer administration claims that the amnesty will be followed up with a requirement for "environmental services," including the restoration of the illegally clear-cut forest lands – though the government has made no move in that direction.

Importantly, these environmental lawbreakers may have been emboldened by the supportive government decisions, believing they've gained the upper hand politically against their opposition. This could lead to a quickening of Amazon deforestation.

The ruralists may believe that even better days lie ahead. Jair Bolsonaro, who leads in the polls for the October presidential election, has a long history of opposing the environmental and indigenous agenda, and has played a key role in the drive in Congress to reduce the size of conservation units. He is widely seen as the ruralists' preferred candidate and has announced that, if elected, he will stop all demarcation processes for indigenous lands, promising "not to give the Indians another inch of land."

Jair currently leads the polls with 17 percent, while former environment minister Marina Silva is in second place with 13 percent, though she is gaining slowly. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now in prison on corruption charges, could still be released in time to run, though this is becoming increasingly unlikely. If he were freed, all polls show Lula as the favorite over Jair Bolsonaro or Marina Silva. Clearly, anything could happen with three months still to go until the vote.

Conserved lands under assault

IMAZON's figures show another disturbing trend: half the Amazon area cleared in May in Pará was located inside conservation units and indigenous territories. One of the most impacted was the Triunfo Xingu Area of Environmental Protection (APA), in the Xingu basin. An APA is a conserved area that permits some private ownership. APAs – with their weaker protections – are typically targeted by land-grabbers and ranchers.

Maria Bento, from the Pará state government's Institute of Forest Development and Biodiversity (IDEFLOR-BIO), manages five state conservation units in the Xingu basin, including APA Triunfo Xingu. She says that deforestation has reached a "frightening" level.

Bento believes that APA Triunfo Xingu has been targeted because it borders the São Félix do Xingu district, which now has more head of cattle than any other district in Brazil. Ranchers there are keen to expand production, especially due to the recent recovery in beef prices after the corruption scandal, the recovery of meatpacking plants, and the end to the ban on Brazilian beef by the Chinese and other nations.

If this new upsurge in Amazon deforestation is confirmed, it will likely be difficult for the authorities to curb it, given the tiny federal budgets for environmental agencies. State agencies are similarly strapped. SEMAS, for example, has just 20 forest guards to safeguard all of Pará, which covers 1.2 million square kilometers (463,300 square miles), an area half as big again as the state of Texas.

Moreover, critics doubt the political will of some state officials to combat deforestation effectively. In March, the NGO Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) sent SEMAS a list of all the principal areas in the Xingu River basin within Pará where illegal tree felling was currently underway. If SEMAS had moved quickly, some devastation could have been prevented. Instead, the state agency did nothing.

Authorities blamed the weather. Everton Barros Dias, from SEMAS, said that heavy rainfall prevented the agency from reaching isolated areas. However, as he admits, the land-grabbers did get there. "It's absurd the amount of devastation they did in a very short period when we couldn't even reach the area," he lamented. Now that the rains are over, he added, SEMAS has plans for ten operations in the third quarter of 2018, including one in APA Triunfo Xingu.

Another area under great pressure from land thieves is the National Forest of Jamanxim in Pará's southeast. From January to May IMAZON recorded forest clearances totalling 57 square kilometers (22 square miles) there, all illegal. This is more than twice the area felled in all of 2017.

IMAZON researcher Antonio Fonseca sees a direct link between this increase and repeated efforts by the national legislature to drastically shrink and dismember Jamanxim: "It's clear that it [the rise in deforestation] is linked to bills going through Congress to reduce or even abolish some conservation units. Clearing an area of forest has become a way of guaranteeing your hold over that land." Conservationists note that the new borders of Jamanxim, if approved, will exclude the parts of the national forest where land thieves have made major incursions, legitimizing their theft of public lands.

Indigenous forests at risk

Even some indigenous communities, often the best stewards of Brazil's forests, are finding it hard to stem the current land-grabbing offensive.

While some groups are still managing to keep intruders out, others are finding the pressure too great. The Indigenous Territory of Apyterewa in Pará, inhabited by Parakanã Indians, has been badly affected. It has seen 10 percent of its land illegally deforested, and that was before two additional land-grabbing incursions this year, which when detected in May, had already cleared 94 hectares (232 acres) of forest.

Many experts aren't surprised by these land-grabber assaults, even though the Apyterewa preserve lies within the area of influence of the giant Belo Monte dam built on the Xingu River, and even though one of the condicionantes (conditions) for the dam's construction, agreed to in 2010, was that the government protect this territory and evict all illegal intruders living there. Even before the dam was built, critics warned that the authorities would not be able to fulfill this commitment, and that pressure on protected areas near the dam would rise.

The eviction process was eventually begun, but proceeded slowly. In September 2017, the Justice Ministry agreed to a request from FUNAI, the indigenous agency, to allow National Force soldiers to remain in the territory for four additional months in order to conclude the eviction process. But today, outsiders still inhabit the reserve.

Cerrado losses slacken, but deforestation on going

While deforestation is taking off in Pará, some success in bringing down native vegetation clearing rates are being achieved elsewhere, particularly in the Cerrado, Brazil's severely threatened savannah biome. According to figures released by Brazil's Environment Ministry in June, between 2010 and 2017 half the region's vegetation – 80,114 square kilometers (30,900 square miles) – was cleared, with much higher annual levels of deforestation than in the Amazon. The figures come from INPE's "Prodes of the Cerrado" satellite monitoring project, which is similar to INPE's work in the Amazon.

This monitoring shows that annual deforestation increases in the Cerrado have slowed to about the same levels as in the Amazon – with 6, 677 square kilometers (2,578 square miles) of Cerrado native vegetation cleared in 2016, and 7,408 square kilometers (2,860 square miles) in 2017.

But environmentalists aren't celebrating this slowdown. "Considering that the Cerrado is only half the size of Amazonia, the Cerrado is still the most threatened biome in Brazil," stated the Institute of Environmental Research in Amazonia (IPAM) in a recent press release. Also, many Cerrado soy, cotton and corn growers seem little inclined to work closely with environmentalist or traditional communities.

The upsurge in forest conversion in both the Amazon and the Cerrado, shows that current conservation methods are inadequate, say some experts. The primary tool currently used is the imposition of fines. ICMBio, for instance, which is responsible for protecting and monitoring federal conservation units, says that so far this year it has levied fines of more than 70 million reais (US$18 million) on illegal deforesters, with 23 million (US$6 million) alone imposed on land-grabbers inside Jamanxim National Forest.

But land-grabbers have long ignored these fines, to the point of laughing at those who suggest they should pay them, as Mongabay witnessed in recent trips to the region. This feeling of impunity has only grown stronger as the importance of agribusiness commodities to Brazil's struggling economy has grown, and as the ruralists have consolidated political power in congress and the administration.

In the first decade and a half of this century, tremendous international pressure, along with a more environmentally responsive Brazilian government, resulted in a significant curbing of Amazon deforestation, which gave activists hope for the future. If, when all the data is in, 2018 does see a large increase, and Amazon deforestation again rises year by year, those hopes could fade.

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