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Zero tolerance of deforestation likely only way to save Amazon gateway

  • In a new paper, conservationists urgently call for a policy of zero deforestation and sustainable agroforestry in Maranhão, one of Brazil’s poorest states, before its remaining Amazon forests are lost.
  • The region’s forests are home to unique and endangered species, including the jaguar (Panthera onca), Black bearded saki (Chiropotes satanas), and kaapori capuchin (Cebus kaapori), one of the world’s rarest primates.
  • It is also inhabited by some of the most vulnerable indigenous groups in the world, including uncontacted indigenous communities.
  • Though 70 percent of remaining forest lies within protected areas, illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture are persistent problems, threatening already fragmented wildlife habitat and forcing indigenous tribes off ancestral land.
An Awá mother and child survey the tree canopy on a foraging expedition in the Maranhão rainforest. Photo copyright Survival International

Perched at the easternmost edge of the Amazon rainforest is Maranhão, one of Brazil’s smallest states, and one of its poorest. Originally covered in more than 110,000 square kilometers (42,471 square miles) of forest, more than 75 percent has been logged to make way for roads, croplands and cattle ranches over the last 60 years.

Illegal logging continues to be a persistent problem, threatening already fragmented wildlife habitat and forcing indigenous tribes off their land.

In a paper published in Land Use Policy this August, the Maranhão Amazon Forest Conservation Network urged the state government to establish a policy of zero deforestation and sustainable agroforestry to safeguard remaining forests and to better protect the states’ 6.9 million residents and improve their livelihoods.

The paper’s lead author, Danielle Celentano, admits that “it is very challenging to implement a policy of zero deforestation,” but “it is possible and demonstrably in the public interest.”

Tabebuia sp. (Ipê) old tree in a conserved area of the Gurupi Biological Reserve. Photo by Guillaume Rousseau

A degraded part of the Amazon
Large-scale deforestation in Maranhão began in the 1960s with the construction of new highways, and with government initiatives that incentivized farming projects in the state.

Two decades later, the development of the Carajás iron mine in neighboring Pará state led to the construction of a railway through Maranhão. New pig iron processing facilities sprang up across the region, requiring large quantities of charcoal to fuel smelting, and putting further pressure on Maranhão’s dwindling forests.

But local people have largely not seen the benefits of this economic development. The state has some of the worst social and economic indicators in Brazil, and rural poverty is strongly associated with land degradation there, say researchers.

A large scale charcoal production facility that supplies fuel for the pig iron smelting industry. Photo by Guillaume Rousseau
Recently deforested land in Maranhão, which will be used for crops or cattle. Photo by Danielle Celentano

The value that remains

Today, 70 percent of Maranhão’s surviving forest lies in legally protected areas. One of the larger of these is the Gurupi Biological Reserve, covering 270,000 hectares (1,043 square miles) of dense Amazonian forest around the Gurupí and Pindaré rivers. It is home to many protected species, including jaguar (Panthera onca), the Critically Endangered Black Bearded Saki (Chiropotes satanas), and the Kaapori Capuchin (Cebus kaapori), which is listed as one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates.

Despite its degradation, Maranhão still boasts a mosaic of varied habitat types, including the unique Maranhão Babaçu Forests — forming a transitional zone between the evergreen Amazonian rainforests to the east, and drier woodlands and savannas that lie to the west.

“Gurupi and the surrounding indigenous lands represent the last significant fragment of Amazon” in Maranhão, said Eloisa Mendonça, an environmental analyst at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), a federal institution responsible for managing Brazil’s two million square kilometers (772,204 square miles) of protected areas.

Despite its biological and economic importance, illegal logging in the Gurupi Biological Reserve and in the Awá, Caru, Alto Turiaçu and Araribóia indigenous territories, is common, and indigenous groups say that government enforcement is dangerously lax.

Member of the Awá tribe. The Awá have lived in the northeastern Amazon for millennia. Some members of the tribe are still uncontacted, though most now have some contact with mainstream Brazilian society. Photo copyright Survival International

Indigenous groups at risk

On August 31st, it was reported that an indigenous group, the Guajajara Guardians, had taken over the local offices of FUNAI, the federal Indian bureau, in the city of Imperatriz, to protest incursions by illegal loggers. “We’re occupying FUNAI to demand our rights to the land, and protection for the environment,” said a protest leader. “We need help, urgently. Our land is being invaded as we speak. The Brazilian government has forgotten us — it’s as if we don’t exist.”

“The Guardians are putting their lives on the line … but they desperately need help from the Brazilian authorities – resources for their expeditions and support from government agents who can arrest the loggers”, says Sarah Shenker, senior campaigner for Survival International.

Illegal logging comes hand-in-hand with human rights abuses and violent encounters with indigenous people. “In every region of this mosaic of protected areas we have … a history of conflicts,” over land and timber, said Mendonça.

Brazil is the deadliest country on Earth for activists protecting land rights and natural resources, and nearly half the victims are indigenous. In 2015, the death of Raimundo dos Santos Rodrigues, a volunteer on the advisory council of the Gurupi Biological Reserve, made headlines round the world.

Agents from FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, handling confiscated logs in the Arariboia indigenous territory, Brazil. Photo copyright Survival International

Perhaps the worst of the atrocities have been directed towards the Awá Indians. One of an estimated 240 indigenous tribes in Brazil, the Awá is unusual in that many of its members have never made contact with the outside world. Survival International has listed the Awá as the most threatened indigenous group on Earth. “The uncontacted Awá are one of the most vulnerable peoples on the planet,” says Shenker. “If their land isn’t protected, they face catastrophe”

When outsiders first made contact in the 1970s, the meetings were quickly followed by outbreaks of influenza, malaria, pneumonia and other illnesses for which the Awá had no resistance. Entire families were decimated in a matter of weeks, and many of those that survived understandably withdrew from further contact. However, their right to remain undisturbed is being repeatedly violated as loggers encroach on indigenous land and devastate the forest resources they rely upon.

Slash-and-burn agriculture is another threat to Maranhão’s forests, says the study. The ancient technique is the main livelihood for many small farm holders, but the fires often burn out of control and spread into protected areas. Loggers also deliberately use fire to force indigenous people from their land. In 2016, over 30,000 separate heat foci were visible in satellite images of Maranhão, according to the government.

A logging truck carries fresh timber harvested from Maranhão’s forests. Photo by Danielle Celentano

Current forestry laws inadequate

At the COP-21 sustainable innovation forum in Paris in 2015, Brazil made an international commitment to cut illegal deforestation in the Amazon to zero, and to restore 12 million hectares (46,332 square miles) of cleared forest by 2030. Despite these promises, some government representatives in Maranhão have pursued legislation to reduce protection of protected areas and indigenous lands.

While most of the states’ remaining forest lies in protected areas, around 20 percent exists as small fragments on privately owned rural properties. These fragments are steadily being degraded and lost, even though the owners of properties in Amazon forest are required under the federal Native Vegetation Protection Law to protect 80 percent of their land as a legal reserve, and are limited as to the area they can legally use for agriculture or cattle ranching.

The Native Vegetation Protection Law came into effect in 2012, replacing the more stringent Forest Code from 1965, but it has been criticized by conservationists for weakening environmental protection, by offering an amnesty on fines due for past violations under the old Forest Code, and by removing protections for some fragile environments such as lakes and periodic springs.

The new code also relaxes requirements for land restoration on rural properties with a deficit of legal reserve land, by allowing landowners to compensate with native vegetation on another property. The compensating land could be located in another watershed or even another state, ignoring the impact of the loss of forest on local ecosystem services and on local biodiversity.

Cattle ranching, one of the principal industries in Maranhão state. Photo by Guillaume Rousseau
Eucalyptus, as seen here, and soybeans are among the common crops to replace forests in Maranhão. Photo by Guillaume Rousseau

Sensible land management solutions

In its recent paper, the Maranhão Amazon Forest Conservation Network, a multi-institutional group of researchers, called for a policy of zero deforestation in the state, going well beyond the requirements of the 2012 Native Vegetation Protection Law. The network also called for the enforcement of environmental laws in existing protected areas and for the restoration of damaged forests.

The easiest way to restore degraded land, say the researchers, is to remove the cause of degradation — illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture — and allow natural succession to replace the original vegetation, a process which can take anywhere from 30 to 80 years.

Recovering secondary forests now cover nearly 20,000 square kilometres (7,722 square miles) in the state — 27 percent of the deforested area — and those areas are seen as essential to the recovery of Maranhão‘s forests.

Secondary forests also help maintain connectivity between patches of primary forest, offer refuges for wildlife, and provide vital natural services.

“In a very degraded and fragmented landscape, [regenerating] secondary forests plays a fundamental role both in conserving biodiversity and in providing ecosystem services,” such as carbon sequestration and water regulation, said Celentano.

An Awá tribe member. Brazil’s Maranhão state is inhabited by some of the most vulnerable indigenous groups in the world, including uncontacted indigenous communities. Photo copyright Survival International
The extent of deforestation in Maranhão state. Figure from Celentano et al.

However, these secondary forests are currently completely unprotected by law. But in 2015, Pará state instituted a ban on clearing older secondary vegetation in the middle and late stages of restoration, setting a precedent that Celentano hopes can be mirrored in Maranhão.

The paper also advocates for the implementation of sustainable agroforestry systems, which pair agricultural plantings with a complementary mixture of local trees, as an alternative to native forest restoration. Such systems employ a mix of fruit and timber trees, along with nitrogen-fixing plants, resulting in a functioning ecosystem that enriches rather than degrades soil, while also producing valuable crops and commodities.

Done right, sustainable agroforestry can replace subsistence slash-and-burn methods, and offer alternative livelihoods in rural areas.

A combination of approaches is needed, say the scientists, to protect the vulnerable people, wildlife and forest habitat of Maranhão state. Remaining primary forest and indigenous land must be protected from illegal logging, and government incentives are needed that favor agroforestry techniques over slash-and-burn. Secondary forest fragments should be protected, and recovery programs targeted toward creating ecological corridors to connect up large primary forest fragments.

Notably, such a proposal goes largely against the policies of large scale agribusiness and cattle ranching presently being applied by the Brazilian government under President Michel Temer. However, agree scientists, a sustainable agroforestry approach — which encourages zero deforestation — could change the lives of some of Brazil’s poorest farmers for the better, and may be the only hope for the Awá and other indigenous groups in Maranhão.


Celentano, D., Rousseau, G. X., Muniz, F. H., van Deursen Varga, I., Martinez, C., Carneiro, M. S., … & Adami, M. (2017). Towards zero deforestation and forest restoration in the Amazon region of Maranhão state, Brazil. Land Use Policy.

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The future of the Awá and other indigenous groups remains uncertain, as developmental pressures grow in Maranhão state. Photo copyright Survival International
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