Brazil: Surge in Amazon deforestation sets alarm bells ringing

June sees sharp rise in deforestation in Amazon, taking gloss off other recent news on deforestation reduction and study suggesting Brazil can meet growing food demand without clearing more rainforest.

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The Amazon rainforest, as seen from space. Areas of deforested land are clearly visible as brown patches in the bottom (southern) half of the picture. Photo courtesy of NASA via Flickr.

The Brazilian Amazon basin suffered an alarming rise in deforestation during the month of June, according to an investigation by the Instituto Amazônia (Amazon Institute) which used satellite images to reveal the scale of the deforestation. According to the monitoring organisation, more than 800km² of forest was lost over the month – a 358% increase on May, when 184km² was cut down, and more than double the amount that had been lost during the first five months of 2014.

The majority of the newly deforested area – 54% – could be found in the northern state of Pará, while 16% is in Amazonas, the country’s largest state which also holds the greatest concentration of rainforest. Rondônia and Mato Grosso also contained similar portions of the newly deforested area (15% and 14%, respectively). 59% of the deforestation that took place in June was in private land, with 27% in conservation units, and 1% in indigenous territories.

The figures come at the same time as a new study into land use in Brazil suggests that the country could meet all of its food demand by 2040 without having to clear any more rainforest to make way for crop and cattle plantations, a process which is the leading factor in Amazonian deforestation today. Mongabay reports that the study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, shows that “better utilization of its vast areas of pasturelands could enable Brazil to dramatically boost agricultural production without the need to clear another hectare of Amazon rainforest, cerrado, or Atlantic forest”.

The article uses research from several Brazilian organisations, including the agricultural research agency Embrapa, to show that Brazil could transform more than 30m hectares of land currently used for pasture into areas used for more productive crops, thus boosting overall agricultural output sufficiently to meet the food needs of its 200m citizens. It also suggests that boosting the productivity of 115m hectares already used for cattle pasture by 50% could save up to 14.3bn tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2040. Such a transformation would help to reverse a trend that sees 54m tons of carbon released each year from the Amazon rainforest due to land use changes such as logging, burning and developing plantations.

“Our analysis shows that Brazil already has enough to absorb the largest expansion of agricultural production in the world in the next three decades, without deforesting an additional hectare of natural areas and agricultural livestock areas”, said the article’s lead author Bernardo Strassburg. “The fact that the country poised to undergo the largest expansion of agricultural production over the coming decades can do so without further conversion of natural habitats provokes the question whether the same can be true in other regional contexts and, ultimately, at the global scale”.

Graph showing deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon over the past 25 years: since a 2004-2005 peak, a significant reduction in overall levels is apparent. Courtesy of Mongabay.

After years of declining deforestation rates, in 2013 the levels of net deforestation in Brazil rose by 28% compared to 2012, with nearly 6,000km² destroyed. However, longer-term trends remain favourable, with deforestation rates down considerably since the 1990s and a government plan in place to reduce overall rates by 80% by the year 2020, compared with 1990 levels.

Meanwhile, another recent report from Mongabay shows how targeted law enforcement on deforestation resulted in over 10,000km² being spared between 2009 and 2011. The green municipalities programmes, which impose stiff penalties on districts that fail to curb deforestation, is said to have prevented the emission of 1.23bn tons of carbon during this time, while Brazil’s deforestation monitoring system is credited with nearly 60% of the reduction in net deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between 2007 and 2011, according to Mongabay.

However, a highly controversial new Forest Code, passed by the Brazilian government in 2012, is blamed for the apparent upswing in deforestation between 2012 and 2013, and could be a contributing factor to the spike observed last month. The law is criticised by activists and commentators for having been sculpted in favour of the agri-business lobby, which has considerable influence in the Brazilian Congress through links between large-scale farmers and politicians.

brazil soy plantation mato grosso flickr leonardo f freitas
The clearing of rainforest to make way for soy plantations, such as this one in Mato Grosso state, is a key driver of deforestation, and may be behind the recent signs that deforestation in Brazil is on the rise again. Photo courtesy of Leonardo F. Freitas via Flickr.
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