Brazil: Deforestation rate increase criticised by environmentalists

Greenpeace leads criticism of Brazilian government after yearly deforestation rate is revealed to have risen by 28% in one year, after a decade of steady decline amid solid forestry governance.

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Greenpeace has attacked the Brazilian government of Dilma Rousseff for what it claims is “indifference” and a “lack of political will” in the face of deforestation in the country. It was revealed last week by government figures that deforestation rates in Brazil had increased by 28% compared to last year, after nearly 6,000km² were lost in the twelve months to July 2013, with the central-western State of Mato Grosso (1,149km² cleared, a 52% increase on last year) and the northern State of Pará (2,379km²; 37%) seeing some of the worst of the deforestation. It represents a reverse in a positive trend that had seen deforestation rates fall dramatically in recent years, in line with government plans to reduce rates by 80% to 2020, compared with 1990 levels. Achieving this would mean annual forest loss of just under 4,000km², and last year the rate had fallen as low as 4,571km², the lowest since records began in 1988.

The Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon Rainforest

However, a controversial new Forest Code passed by the government last year that allows for less stringent punishments on illegal deforestation and an “amnesty” for companies and individuals who committed such crimes before 2008, appear to have had an impact on Brazilian efforts in this regard. Marcio Astrini, coordinator of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign, strongly criticised the figures, saying “You can’t argue with numbers … this is not alarmist – it’s a real and measured reversal of what had been a positive trend”. He also claimed that the results prove that “deforesters have overcome their fear of being detected” and prosecuted. Meanwhile, Renata Camargo, a policy coordinator for Greenpeace Brazil, affirmed that “the Brazilian government does not have deforestation under control” and backed up the claims that the new Forest Code is to blame.

While the government insists that it maintains a zero-tolerance approach to illegal deforestation, the new figures appear to contradict this policy, or at least make it come across as ineffective, potentially embarrassing the government as the news comes during the first week of the UN COP19 climate summit in Warsaw, Poland. Greenpeace point to the strong lobbying capacity of large-scale farmers in Congress, with Astrini saying that another explanation for the increased deforestation rate was that “the Brazilian government got themselves into a dangerous game where they formed alliances with legislators who represent those deforesters in Congress”, in allusion to the range of Brazilian parliamentarians who have ties to the farming and Big Agro industries. Greenpeace say that these industries are responsible not only for the loss of forest cover, but also for a reduction in biodiversity and threats to the traditional lifestyles of the Brazilian Amazon’s many indigenous and uncontacted tribes.

Graph showing deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon since records began in 1988. Courtesy of Mongabay.

Former presidential candidate and environment minister, Marina Silva, who may yet run for office again next year after joining the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB – Socialist Party), accused the government of leniency in terms of tackling deforestation and its perpetrators, and even went so far as to suggest that the government had been “collusive” in the rise in deforestation having passed the new Forest Code despite the warnings from environmentalists over the likely impacts on deforestation. Silva also affirmed that much of the deforestation had happened in public areas such as notionally-protected national parks and reserves, and blamed the government for failing to protect the integrity of these areas.

The government denies that the increase in the rate of deforestation is down to the new Forest Code or to “restrictions” in government resources for tackling the issue, but labelled the rise in crimes relating to illegal logging and clearing of forest as the principal cause instead. In a press conference in the capital Brasilia, Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira pointed to the overall trend of reduced rates over the last ten years, saying that it was “positive”, and attacked loggers and farmers who have illegally cleared land in saying that “it is totally unacceptable that a rise in deforestation can come about in Brazil through illegality”. She reaffirmed the government’s aim to “eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon”.

With a significant majority of Brazil’s electricity coming from hydroelectric power, deforestation is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. This comes about from both the clearing of land leading to forest fires and the burning off of carbon stored in trees, and from the loss of forest that would have served to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and water through photosynthesis. Farming is the principal driver of deforestation in Brazil, with huge areas of forest being cleared to make way for either livestock pasture or for vast soya plantations, yet even the latter is linked to livestock farming, given that some 95% of all soya cultivated in the world is used for the production of feed for cattle and other animals.

Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira, who defends the government’s record on deforestation