Deforestation soars in Brazil

Posted: 23 May 2011

As politicians consider altering longtime legal protections for Brazil’s forests, new data shows a massive increase in deforestation in part of the country.

Data published by the National Institute for Space Studies (Inpe) on Wednesday shows a 540% increase in deforestation in the month of April in the state of Mato Grosso, as compared to March.

Logging mill, Mato Grosso state, Brazil
Logging mill near Apiacás, Mato Grosso state, Juruena National Park, Brazil. Photo © WWF / Zig KOCH

Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira expressed concern over the figures, saying: “This is a very serious fact, atypical and contradictory. In a single month there has been more deforestation in Mato Grosso than occurred in the whole of last year,” she said.

The data comes as Brazil’s lower chamber is consideration altering the country’s Forest Law, saying it impedes economic growth. A proposed amendment to the law by the ‘ruralistas’, and put forward by Federal Representative Aldo Rebelo of the Brazilian Communist Party would make profound alterations to the law.

Brazil’s Forest Law (also known as the Forest Code) was first enacted in 1934 and determines how much a landowner can deforest and how much must be kept as a "legal reserve". The percentage of a forested property that needs to be set aside as a legal reserve varies from region to region. Currently in the Amazon, the law states that 80% of a property has to remain forested. For the Cerrado, this figure is 20%.

The vote is expected to come up again on May 24 or 25. Civil society organisations on May 12 addressed an open letter to the government and the House of Representatives requesting that a new parliamentarian be named to conduct the amendment process in view of the partiality and lack of equilibrium shown by Representative Aldo Rebelo throughout the process so far.

The deforestation figures released this week were produced by the Inpe’s Deter system which detects large areas of deforestation in real time and is designed to warn the government of any increases in deforestation.

In March, the system detected 74.7 square kilometres of newly deforested areas in Mato Grosso. In April however, the figure leapt up to a startling 405.6 square kilometres.

For the Amazon region as a whole, the figures show an increase of 115.6 square kilometres to 477.4 square kilometres of deforestation during that time, of which the state of Mato Grosso accounted for 85% of the deforestation surge.

The agribusiness connection

The increase in deforestation is happening in the regions where Mato Grosso’s agribusiness is expanding, and is directly linked to the expectation that the amendment to the Forest Law will be approved.

WWF-Brazil’s Conservation Director Carlos Alberto de Mattos Scaramuzza said: “The numbers reflect confidence in the promise made by the ‘ruralista’ faction (representing agribusiness interests) in parliament that there will be a general amnesty for all illegal deforestation brought about by agribusiness,” he said.

Sharing that opinion, Greenpeace’s public policies coordinator Nilo d’Ávila said that the ruralistas are placing their bets on the amnesty on illegal deforestation being extended to cover all deforestation up to the date when the amended legislation comes into force. He pointed out that: “What is symptomatic is that the deforestation in indigenous reserves and protected areas, which normally accompanies the national rates, has not increased at all.”

George Porto Ferreira is the general coordinator for environmental zoning and monitoring at the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and said that the significant increases in deforestation have been registered in the areas surrounding the municipality of Sinop which is a big soya producing area. “Previously unregistered areas of deforestation have been detected. There has been expansion from properties that are already engaged in agriculture into the neighbouring areas,” explained Porto Ferreira.

WWF-Brazil’s own analyses show that, on average, the profitability of soya is somewhere between 300 and 500 reais (US$187.50 and US$312.50) a hectare.

But at the moment that value is up to 1,000 reais (US$ 625) a hectare, so that it has become extraordinarily lucrative. “That assurance of extremely high profits associated with the expectation of generalised impunity as a consequence of the Forest Law amendment, has contributed immensely to stimulating the criminal deforestation we are witnessing in Mato Grosso today,” Scaramuzza said.

Taking action

IBAMA also made it known that rudimentary land-clearing techniques like the “big-chain” approach are being used to clear big areas in a hurry. That technique involves a long thick, heavy chain attached to a tractor at each end, and with the chain stretched between them the tractors, dozens of yards apart, advance in parallel across the land.

“The amber warning light is on in Mato Grosso” says the Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira.

More than 500 Ibama inspectors have been sent to the state to curb the environmental crimes in progress. According to Izabella Teixeira, deforestation will be vigorously combated.

Those who take part in deforestation for livestock raising purposes will be liable to have their cattle confiscated and utilised for the Zero Hunger social programmes. “Our main aim is to completely stifle these environmental crimes,” warned the Minister.

WWF-Brazil’s conservation director said that the actions announced by the Minister are important, but that the recent cuts in the Ministry’s budget may make it difficult to carry them out.

In March the Government announced a cut 398 million reais (US$ 248,75 million), equivalent to 37% of the originally budgeted amount for that Ministry for the year 2011. 

The complete set of data on Amazonian deforestation detected by the Deter early warning system can be accessed at: (Portuguese only).

See also: WWF's campaign on forests