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Araracanga. Photo: Haroldo Palo Jr.


05 set 2017

Why did the deforestation of the Amazon start to increase again?

Enjoy an article written by Carlos Nobre*, member of the Nature Preservation Experts Network.

A member of the Brazilian Academy of Science, Carlos Nobre comments on the increased illegal deforestation of the Amazon.

Photo Credit: Haroldo Palo Jr.​

Enjoy an article written by Carlos Nobre*, member of the Nature Preservation Experts Network. The Network is a collection of nationally and internationally renowned professionals acting in areas related to biodiversity protection, with the goal of encouraging the dissemination of positions in defense of the preservation of Brazilian nature. The Network was established in 2014 as an initiative by the Boticário Group Foundation for Nature Protection. 

During the Climate Convention of 2009 (COP15), in Copenhagen, Brazil surprised the world by voluntarily committing to reducing the upward trend in its greenhouse gas emissions. The central element in that sustainability policy would be a significant decrease in deforestation of the Amazon, projected to fall below 3.9 thousand km2 each year until 2020. This policy shows a clear commitment of the country to fighting global warming. The increase in the planet's temperature has accelerated in recent years. 2015 and 2016 have witnessed the highest global temperatures in the historical record within the last 150 years.

For around 10 years, until the signing of the Paris Accord in the Climate Convention of December 2015 (COP21), the best environmental piece of global news year after year was the decrease in deforestation of the Amazon: the yearly rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell from unthinkable 28 thousand km2 in 2004 to 4.6 thousand km2 in 2012, a decrease of 83%, oscillating from 5 to 6 thousand km2/year until 2015. This stabilization trend, however, seems to have been reverted this year. Deforestation in 2016, as measured by the PRODES system at the National Space Research Institute (INPE) have reached almost 8 thousand km2. Image 1 compares the distribution and intensity of new deforestation in 2014, 2015, and 2016. We can see the existence of two quite active fronts for the entire period, more intensely in 2016.

Does this indicate a possible reversion of the process, signaling the beginning of a new cycle of high rates of deforestation?

First, we need to identify the main causes of the decrease in deforestation after 2004. Many scientific studies have debunked what was thought until 10 years ago to be the major force of the deforestation dynamics, meaning the price of agricultural commodities meat and soybeans, and the increase in global demand for those products. Agricultural production in the Amazon has grown steadily while deforestation plummeted.

These studies also identified the effective implementation of public policies for controlling and reducing deforestation as the fall inductor element. Considering that nearly all deforestation is illegal, this policy was strict in directly attacking the illegality with initiatives by IBAMA, Federal Police and the Attorney General (MP) to monitor and disrupt organized crime, particularly gangs that illegally extracted wood and encroached into public land. This continued initiative of command and control had the addition of policies that restricted credit and subsidies to unsustainable practices and created protection areas, as well as regulating and marking indigenous land.

Finally, awareness actions toward responsible and sustainable consumption leveraged agreements such as the moratorium on soybean expansion into forest areas since 2006, and the MP's agreement with large cold store chains and supermarkets for tracking the source of meat and refusal to purchase products originated in areas illegally deforested.

Modern tools for monitoring changes in vegetation based on satellite-borne sensors pioneered in Brazil by INPE detect illegal deforestation almost in real-time and have been essential to environmental agencies in combating them. Technology advances are noticeable in our ability to observe the Earth remotely. An article in last Thursday’s Science Magazine, by American researcher Greg Asner and others, reports the use of new technologies based on laser images captured by aircraft to discriminate areas of maximum biodiversity in the Peruvian Amazon and Andes that are a priority in preservation, indicating those under greater risk of disappearing due to human action.

Two factors may be the root for the recent increase in deforestation. First, a direct cause-effect relation has been proven between inspection initiatives and deforestation. The increased budget cuts by federal and state governments due to reduced income have stopped or delayed initiatives to inspect and fight illegal activities.

Secondly, and more subjectively, another factor may have contributed to the increase in deforestation: changes in environmental law. The new Forest Code, approved in 2012, provided some positive aspects, such as the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), but on the other hand, was heavy on deregulation and pardoned a large portion of the illegal deforestation committed before 2008, indicating that at some point in the future any new illegal deforestation activities will also be pardoned.

Likewise, despite 55% of the Amazon forest area being currently under some form of protection, recent changes in the limits of protected areas in the region also point to the unbalanced forces of private (agribusiness, mining and infrastructure projects) and public interests in the region. Furthermore, several preservation units remain unconsolidated and weakly implemented.

As geographer Bertha Becker used to say, different time-spaces coexist in the Amazon. While in some areas there are initiatives to intensify and insert into certified market chains, in others a frontier mindset of encroaching and rural violence survives.  In that scenario, we can explain, for example, the resistance of large land owners to releasing their CPF to CAR which is public information based on the fear that products without sourcing certificates will be avoided by conscious consumers, an incontrovertible change in a global and digital world.

Deforested areas in the Brazilian Amazon have reached nearly 800 thousand km2, but with an average agricultural productivity of no more than 30% of agriculture in the State of São Paulo, for example. Recent studies show it is possible to meet the demand for agricultural products with no additional deforestation not only in the Amazon, but in all Brazilian biomes by increasing productivity, particularly in grazing areas.

Illegal deforestation must be harshly and relentlessly opposed, and the protected areas network must be strengthened. Even if the current recession scenario may impose hardships for initiatives that depend on public budgets, we live in a unique moment in our history, when the population expects Brazil to finally join the ranks of Democratic Lawful States. One of the direct consequences will be maintaining the Amazon forest without diminishing our potential as a great producer of food. Only a collection of integrated actions directed at both public and private areas will be able to control and ideally to nullify the deforestation and degradation of the Amazon and other biomes.


*Carlos A. Nobre, INPE Graduate Professor, CEMADEN collaborating researcher, member of the Brazilian Academy of Science and the Nature Preservation Experts Network


Ana Paula de Aguiar Dutra, INPE researcher