Amazon, while industry agreements on soya production and cattle ranching have eased pressure on land clearances.
Conservationists argue all this means the recent forest loss may not be cause for despair: ‘This rise needs to be seen in context,’ says Rhett Butler, founder of the rainforest website Mongabay.com. ‘The rate of deforestation was ridiculously low in 2012, so it’s not that surprising that it went up in 2013, but the rise is still far below the figure for 2011. You’re going to get blips now and then.’
Those fears were to some extent allayed at the end of 2014, when Brazil’s environment minister announced rates for the year to July 2014 had dropped 18 per cent, falling to the second-lowest level in a quarter century.
Several elements may be linked to the unusual higher rate of deforestation, according to Jeff Hayward, head of the Rainforest Alliance’s climate programme. ‘The spike was disturbing but not that surprising,’ he says. ‘There has been a loosening of environmental commitment. An amnesty [for farmers and loggers] sent a signal the government was not taking enforcement seriously. Commodity prices have also been high – soya prices are at an all-time high and the Brazilian real has been low, making exports from Brazil profitable.’
Environmentalists are careful to distinguish deforestation from logging. The latter is just one of the drivers of deforestation, and a decade of relative progress in Brazil’s part of the Amazon biome has not assuaged the underlying issues, says Dias. ‘The main threats arise from the growing political and economic interests and a very short-term vision of how the land and the natural wealth of the Amazon should be used,’ he argues. ‘The threats vary from country to country – and even within a single country – but they are mainly represented by large-scale mechanised agriculture, open range cattle ranching, and small-scale subsistence agriculture. Infrastructure for hydropower and roads associated with oil exploitation are also big threats.’
LAW OF THE LAND One specific catalyst may be the bitterly disputed reform of Brazil’s forest protection laws that took place in 2012 following intense pressure from ‘The Ruralists’, Brazil’s agricultural lobby. Under the Forest Code, which dates back to 1965, Amazonian landowners were required to conserve up to 80 per cent of their land as forests. That demand remains, but environmentalists say the law has been diluted by amendments that allow cultivation of hilltops and riverbanks. A partial amnesty was also issued for farmers who had illegally cleared forests before 2008. Meanwhile, environmental ministries at federal and state level in Brazil face budget cuts that Greenpeace fears make it still harder to enforce and monitor the implementation of laws.
‘Logging is frequently the first stage in a process the culminates in deforestation,’ says Richard
George, forestry campaigner with Greenpeace UK. ‘Loggers push into intact forest to extract small numbers of high value hardwood trees. That creates access roads, which make it easier and more economical to get at the less valuable trees. This degrades and fragments the forest. Once most of the timber is gone, farmers and ranchers clear what is left for farmland.’
Smallholders, rather than large-scale farmers, provide some of the explanation for the rise in deforestation rates, according to Butler. ‘The bigger landholders have 20,000 hectares of land, they are more likely to face enforcement because it is clear from satellites what they’re up to,’ he says. ‘But it’s harder to go after 100 smallholders, each with 50 hectares of land, and bring them into line.’
The Rainforest Alliance feels Brazil’s forest laws had proved so onerous as to be counter-productive. ‘They’ve been based on command and control,’ says Hayward. ‘Most measures are punitive and involve penalties rather than strong incentives.’ Instead, Hayward argues that Brazil and other governments should reward those who observe good practices with tax breaks, access to better markets and credit, and price premiums.
OPENING SPREAD: the Xingu River flows near the area where the Belo Monte dam complex is under construction in the Amazon basin; ABOVE: combine harvesters crop soybeans in Campo Novo do Parecis, about 400km northwest from the capital city of Cuiaba, in Mato Grosso, Brazil
36 | January 2015