Worse-than-anticipated deforestation jolts Brazil


Brazil’s Amazon deforestation rate for Aug. 2003 through July 2004 ran an estimated 6% higher than during the previous 12-month period, officials here say, a result that has surprised the government and fueled harsh criticism here and abroad.

Unveiled May 18, the estimates have undermined confidence in forest-conservation initiatives launched by the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in March of last year. Amid the fallout, the government has pledged to boost forest protection in Mato Grosso and Rondônia, two of the Brazilian Amazon states where deforestation is heaviest.

As if to demonstrate renewed resolve, the government recently announced it had broken a major Amazon illegal-logging ring that included both the federal and state environmental enforcement chiefs for Mato Grosso.

The preliminary deforestation figures, to be updated with final results by the end of the year, show an estimated 10,080 square miles (26,130 sq. kms) of Amazon rainforest were cleared from Aug. 1, 2003 through July 31, 2004, an area larger than the U.S. state of Maryland. That would rank as the second-highest deforestation rate since the government began issuing such figures in 1989.

Experts say 262,252 square miles (679,240 sq kms), or nearly 17%, of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest have been destroyed since European settlement of the region began. That’s an area larger than the U.S. state of Texas.

The latest estimate appears to have taken Brazilian officials by surprise, far outstripping the 2% rise the government projected last December. Environment Minister Marina Silva called the new figures “high and unacceptable,” attributing them to the country’s 5% economic growth in 2004—an expansion that followed three years of negligible growth.

Claudio Langone, the ministry’s second-ranking official, said the government would boost deforestation monitoring and enforcement in Mato Grosso and Rondônia states, which account for nearly 63.9% of the deforestation reported.

The state-specific initiative is meant to complement a US$136 million national anti-deforestation program launched in March of last year. That program features land-use controls, sustainable-development initiatives and tightened forest monitoring and enforcement. (See “Brazil launches Amazon forest-protection steps,”—EcoAméricas, April 2004.)

Still, Brazil’s Green Party (PV) was so outraged by the deforestation report that its seven congressmen left Lula’s ruling, multi-party coalition the day after the figures were announced.

“Given the government’s dismal environmental record—from allowing transgenic crops to be planted and sold in Brazil to promoting mega-projects, like paved roads and dams in the Amazon—this was the last straw,” says Green Party member Fernando Gabeira, a leading environmental advocate in the Brazilian Congress.

Governor under fire

Abroad, the criticism was strong, too. London’s Independent ran a story titled “The Rape of the Rainforest...and the Man Behind it,” focusing on Blairo Maggi, the millionaire governor of Mato Grosso state and a major soy farmer. It accused him of helping to fuel the boom in Brazilian soy output, which has become a prime cause of deforestation as more land comes under cultivation.

Land clearing in Mato Grosso accounted for no less than 48.1% of the Amazon deforestation that occurred from Aug. 2003 through July 2004, national authorities say.

Appearing before reporters last month, Maggi called the government’s numbers “misleading,” arguing that overall deforestation in Mato Grosso—including non-Amazon areas—declined by 2%.

Though it recorded the heaviest Amazon deforestation, Mato Grosso ironically has pioneered an innovative forest-conservation system under which local property maps are superimposed on satellite images to better focus enforcement action. (See “State agency brings satellite data down to earth,”—EcoAméricas, May 2003). The system, however, lacks state support, officials say. One problem is that while Fema, the state’s environmental-enforcement arm, needs new satellite images monthly, it only can afford them once a year. Another problem is that weak state legislation allows many offenders to avoid steep penalties.

“The problem is that Maggi doesn’t believe the deforestation of his state is a problem,” says Paulo Adário, the Greenpeace environmental group’s Amazon campaign coordinator. “So he does nothing to make state laws strong enough to discourage illegal cutting.”

Adário also blames illegal loggers, agribusiness and the Lula government’s reliance on agribusiness for the export earnings needed to service Brazil’s foreign debt.

Set-asides and enforcement

The government has tried to curb deforestation by earmarking large tracts as protected areas, a strategy green groups have praised, albeit guardedly. (See “Will Brazil’s new reserves be protected?”—EcoAméricas, March ’05).

Some of the US$136 million recently appropriated for Amazon protection has been used to build 12 bases for enforcement personnel in the so-called Deforestation Arc, a swath of 60 municipalities in the states of Pará, Mato Grosso and Rondônia, where illegal clearing is severe. Seven more bases are expected by year’s end.

And the recent enforcement action, a six-state effort involving the arrest of loggers, executives and some 40 employees of Ibama, the federal environmental-enforcement agency, demonstrated a new willingness by the government to crack down on corrupt enforcement officials. Among those arrested were Hugo Werle, Ibama’s chief for Mato Grosso, and state Fema Director Moacir Pires de Miranda, both of whom have been removed from their jobs.

But despite such moves, Brazil’s enforcement structure simply is not yet extensive enough to make a major dent in the deforestation problem, says Kleber Ramos Alves, Ibama’s assistant director of environmental protection.

Critics doubt Amazon protection will improve until the Lula administration shows more internal support for it. The Agriculture Ministry, for instance, does not withhold its financing from soy farmers who deforest the Amazon, notes André Lima, coordinator of biodiversity and forests at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), a leading green group here.

Says Lima: “Until the entire government gets behind curbing Amazon deforestation, don’t expect any reduction in the rate.”

- Michael Kepp

Paulo Adário
Amazon campaign
Greenpeace Brazil
Manaus, Brazil
Tel: +(55 92) 4009-8001
Fax: +(55 92) 4009-8003
Email: padario@amazon.greenpeace.org
Gilberto Câmara
Director for Earth Observation
National Space Research Institute (Inpe)
São Jose dos Campos, São Paulo state, Brazil
Tel: +(55 12) 3945-6499
Fax: +(55 12) 3945-6468
Email: gilberto@dpi.inpe.br
João Paulo Capobianco
President (interim)
Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation
Tel: +(55 61) 3316-1460; 3317-1205
Fax: +(55 61) 3316-1648; 3317-1770
Email: ascomchicomendes@icmbio.gov.br, joao.capobianco@mma.gov.br
Website: www.icmbio.gov.br
André Lima
Public Policy Coordinator
Socio-Environmental Institute
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 3035-5114
Fax: +(55 61) 3035-5121
Email: alima@socioambiental.org.br
Kleber Ramos Alves
Asst. Director
Brazilian Institute for Environmental Protection (Ibama)
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 316-1334
Fax: +(55 61) 226-4991
Email: kleber.alves@ibama.gov.br