What is driving Brazil’s Amazon deforestation rates up?

and . Nov 19, 2019
What is driving Brazil Amazon deforestation rates up? Destroyed forest area by slash-and-burn. Photo: Guentermanaus/Shutterstock

Published on Monday, Brazil’s official annual Amazon deforestation numbers show evidence of a long-anticipated tragedy. Between August 2018 and July 2019, the rainforest lost a total of 9,762 square kilometers of forest coverage—the equivalent of the entire surface of Cyprus.

</p> <p>This is the <a href="">highest annual deforestation rate</a> since 2007–2008, during Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva&#8217;s presidency—when the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) registered 12,911 square kilometers of deforested land. It also represents a 29.5-percent increase from the previous 12 months. Only at two other points since records began has the year-to-year increase in deforestation been so high.</p> <p>NGOs blame the Jair Bolsonaro administration and its laissez-faire stance on the environment for the surge in deforestation.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/659590"></div><script src=""></script> <p>The state of Pará boasts the inglorious pole position in deforestation rates, accounting for 40 percent of the total scrapped forest coverage in the Amazon. The state of Mato Grosso, one of Brazil&#8217;s leading agricultural powers, comes second, with 17 percent.</p> <p>Environment Minister Ricardo Salles promised to discuss the issue with governors of the region but offered no plan to deal with the situation.</p> <h2>Context</h2> <p>The deforestation data published this week is the most accurate measure produced by the Brazilian government and confirms a trend flagged in recent months, with satellite imagery alerts showing that the advances of human-induced fires had been sharply on the rise.</p> <p>These monthly alerts, also produced by Inpe, are the product of the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (Deter), implemented in 2004. This system came under heavy scrutiny in August when the government itself cast aspersions over its reliability, as a strategy to dodge criticism. The strategy backfired, and Brazil emerged in recent months as the world&#8217;s environmental pariah, even if Brazil&#8217;s per capita pollution rates are much lower than countries such as the U.S., China, or Russia.</p> <p>The Deter system is indeed less accurate. Its main purpose is not to produce pinpoint accurate data, but rather to flag alarming trends on a monthly basis, in order to allow authorities to react—which has not happened this time. Yearly figures, which use U.S. LANDSAT satellites, are far more accurate. But if Deter-produced numbers are not the best, it is not necessarily because it overstates occurrences of deforestation. In fact, its reduced accuracy actually<em> reduces</em> its capacity to monitor smaller devastated surfaces.</p> <p>As proof, we can compare the official Amazon deforestation numbers to the monthly alerts.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <h2>Dismantling the structure</h2> <p>International organizations have not hesitated to point the finger at President Jair Bolsonaro. A defender of landowners, he has accused Brazil&#8217;s environmental agencies of being &#8220;fine-issuing factories,&#8221; and promised as a candidate to reduce controls. Data shows he has come through on this promise, crippling government agencies through budget cuts, downsizing, and political pressure. Since Mr. Bolsonaro took office, the number of environmental analysts has dropped by 17 percent and many instruments of control have been transferred to the Agriculture Ministry, which has time and again proved it has interests conflicting with the agenda of preserving the environment.</p> <p>Between January and September 2019, the number of environmental fines issued by the Brazilian government was the lowest in a decade. In July and August, 522 notices were served, against 1,752 one year before. And that despite the massive fires observed by the region—with abundant evidence that loggers coordinated their actions to set the forest on fire through WhatsApp Messenger.</p> <p>(On the following interactive map, you can see all environmental fines issued in the Amazon region in recent years.)</p> <div class='tableauPlaceholder' id='viz1574169152534' style='position: relative'><noscript><a href='#'><img alt=' ' src='https:&#47;&#47;;static&#47;images&#47;mu&#47;multas_15741338719800&#47;Painel1&#47;1_rss.png' style='border: none' /></a></noscript><object class='tableauViz' style='display:none;'><param name='host_url' value='' /> <param name='embed_code_version' value='3' /> <param name='site_root' value='' /><param name='name' value='multas_15741338719800&#47;Painel1' /><param name='tabs' value='no' /><param name='toolbar' value='yes' /><param name='static_image' value='https:&#47;&#47;;static&#47;images&#47;mu&#47;multas_15741338719800&#47;Painel1&#47;1.png' /> <param name='animate_transition' value='yes' /><param name='display_static_image' value='yes' /><param name='display_spinner' value='yes' /><param name='display_overlay' value='yes' /><param name='display_count' value='yes' /></object></div> <script type='text/javascript'> var divElement = document.getElementById('viz1574169152534'); var vizElement = divElement.getElementsByTagName('object')[0]; if ( divElement.offsetWidth > 800 ) {'420px';'650px';'100%';'587px';'887px';*0.75)+'px';} else if ( divElement.offsetWidth > 500 ) {'420px';'650px';'100%';'587px';'887px';*0.75)+'px';} else {'100%';'827px';} var scriptElement = document.createElement('script'); scriptElement.src = ''; vizElement.parentNode.insertBefore(scriptElement, vizElement); </script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>But even the fines the government <em>does</em> issue don&#8217;t seem to matter. As <a href="">we have shown on October 26</a>, most fines go unpaid.</p> <p>Since January 1980, Brazil’s environmental agency Ibama issued over 603,400 fines. One of them, worth BRL 10,000, was slapped on President Jair Bolsonaro, who in 2012 was caught illegally fishing in an environmental reserve. The total amount of fines adds up to BRL 75 billion when adjusted for inflation, but a total of BRL 59 billion remains unpaid (an amount equivalent to 21 times the annual budget for the Environment Ministry).</p> <p>Norte Energia, the company responsible for the construction of the <a href="">Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant</a>, has 36 fines alone, worth over BRL 106 million. Companies are able to delay court cases without paying their dues for years (sometimes decades) thanks to myriad legal loopholes. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the data shows an excessive “administrative delay” in Brazil’s justice system when it comes to deciding on environmental matters.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Marcelo Soares

Marcelo Soares is a Brazilian journalist specializing in data journalism and reader engagement.

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