Site icon Conservation news

Enforce Brazilian laws to curb criminal Amazon deforestation: study

  • Recent research finds that a failure to track environmental infractions and to enforce environmental laws and regulations is aiding and abetting ever escalating rates of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado.
  • Researchers studied the failings of three environmental initiatives: the TAC da Carne, blocking cattle sales raised in deforestation embargoed areas; the Amazon Soy Moratorium, stopping sales of soy grown on deforested lands; and DOF timber permitting, which allows logging only in approved areas.
  • The study found that timber, soy and cattle producers often subvert Brazil’s environmental laws by illegally “laundering” harvested logs, beef and soy to conceal illegal deforestation. These practices have been largely helped by the weak governance of the Jair Bolsonaro administration.
  • The scientists recommend the closing of illegal soy, cattle and logging laundering loopholes via the strengthening of Brazilian environmental agencies, the improvement of monitoring technologies, better integration of policies and systems, and putting market pressure on producers.
Confiscated timber harvested illegally within a Brazilian indigenous reserve in Roraima state. Law enforcement raids like this one have largely become a thing of the past under President Jair Bolsonaro. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

Brazil’s deforestation control agreements and environmental legislation — once considered strong and successful — now require an “urgent” upgrade as soy planters, cattle ranchers and timber merchants have found ways to easily circumvent regulations, experts warn in a recent scientific study.

At the center of the problem are the country’s current inadequate enforcement and legal system — weakened first under President Michel Temer, and now further under Jair Bolsonaro — which provides multiple opportunities for environmental law infractions to go undetected or unpunished, according to the findings published by the Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation journal.

“It’s a priority not only to keep what already exists, but also to consider new and better policies,” said Philip Fearnside, a research professor at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) and one of the six authors of the study.

Through their findings, the scientists shed light on the limitations of three key Brazilian environmental initiatives; the researchers also listed measures that could help the nation reverse the upward trend in deforestation occurring since 2012, as clearing rates rise in the Amazon and Cerrado savanna biomes.

These recommendations include the strengthening of Brazilian environmental agencies, improvement of monitoring technologies, better integration of environmental policies, and putting market pressure on producers, along with other measures.

Ranching in Pará state, Brazil. The nation is home to more than 200 million head, with “cattle laundering” made easy by weak monitoring and enforcement. Photo credit: acmoraes on Visualhunt / CC BY.

TAC Agreement bypassed via “cattle laundering”

In 2009, meatpacking companies, cattle producers and the Brazilian government signed a voluntary agreement known as the TAC da Carne, aimed at blocking the sale of cattle produced within areas embargoed due to illegal forest clearing.

However, since then, producers have learned how to bypass the agreement by “laundering” their cattle — raising and fattening them on ranches responsible for deforestation, then shifting them to ranches where no deforestation has occurred, from which middle-men sell to slaughterhouses who only track the final sale. This finding is according to audits made by federal prosecutors.

Despite this rampant illegal process, there has been no punishment for slaughterhouses or producers routinely using the cattle tracking loophole. Nor has the government made any effort to close that loophole by demanding better reporting and enforcement. The result is a weak TAC agreement, the study showed, which fails to curb deforestation.

A viable solution, Fearnside said, is tracking the cattle continuously from origin to slaughterhouse. “In England, since the mad cow crisis, they started tagging the cattle,” he noted. “Each animal has an individual code that tracks all the farms where the cattle have been. It is also possible to be done in Brazil.”

The integration of systems that track complementary regulatory regimes is another solution proposed by the authors. The federal government, for example, could link its animal transit permit (GTA) system — a legally required hygiene check of transported livestock — to its rural environmental register (CAR) — which identifies all rural properties and their location within mandatory forest preservation areas. Tying together those two systems would enable monitoring compliance with environmental legislation and livestock agreements.

An IBAMA agent measures timber volume and confirms botanical identification at a sawmill suspected of receiving illegal Ipê logs in Pará state. Fraud occurs along the entire timber supply chain according to experts. Image © Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace.

Timber harvesting plagued by permit fraud

As with cattle producers, timber merchants regularly launder trees logged in the Amazon and elsewhere to conceal illegal deforestation.

They typically do so by subverting a compulsory license, known as a DOF, intended to track and control the origin and transportation of native forest products and by-products. Illicit merchants conceal the illegal cutting of trees by purchasing black market invoices and DOFs from locales where the government has authorized extraction, the report showed.

The fraud scheme also relies on overestimating the high volumes of commercially valuable timber species found within approved extraction areas, and then tagging trees of that same species illegally cut elsewhere to the permit, according to the findings.

Impunity fuels criminal action in both the cattle and timber industries, agrees Ricardo Abad, a long-term remote sensing expert at the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), an NGO. “The problem,” he notes, “is that there is no oversight, no punishment for those producers caught in an irregular situation; fines are never paid, the system is bureaucratic, and people are corrupted along the way.”

New soy fields and neighboring forest in the Brazilian Cerrado. Image by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth.

Amazon Soy Moratorium evaded

A third environmental initiative subject to both “laundering” and “leakage,” the study notes, is the Amazon Soy Moratorium, a voluntary agreement between producers, commodities companies, environmental NGOs and government, by which major soy traders have agreed not to purchase soybeans grown in Amazon areas deforested after July 2008.

However, soy laundering is carried out in much the same way as cattle laundering, via fraudulent tracking that allows soy produced in embargoed areas to be listed as being produced in “regularized” areas free of recent deforestation, or under the names of laranjas, or “oranges,” poor people who pretend to hold land deeds in order to conceal actual ownership by large landholders, according to the findings.

Thanks to such scams, researchers say, a commodity company making a final soy purchase may not know the true source of the beans. Indeed, since many producers own multiple farms, soy produced in an embargoed area can easily be moved from an embargoed plantation to one with regularized status, before sale to a trading firm.

Meat for sale in São Paulo, Brazil. Cattle aren’t tracked from their point of origin in Brazil, so deforestation can easily be concealed along the supply chain as livestock is resold before arriving at a slaughterhouse. Photo credit: wallyg on / CC BY-NC-ND.

The consumer’s role

Ricardo Abad, an expert who dedicated the last 10 years to assessing Brazil’s supply chains, says that the most successful approach for achieving environmental enforcement is through market pressure to create a more sustainable commodities industry. He notes that transnational companies, especially those in the European Union, have been changing their supply chain requirements to include social and environmental factors, and this is key to ensuring that promises made under agreements such as the TAC da Carne and Amazon Soy Moratorium are kept.

According to the study, eight years after TAC da Carne’s creation, 63 meatpackers — responsible for the processing of approximately 70 percent of cattle produced in the Amazon — had joined that agreement, with some positive results. However, there remains no real market pressure for non-signatory companies to join TAC, with many importers, including the increasingly key Chinese market, not requiring any kind of monitoring and enforcement of rules regarding cattle origin and deforestation.

For Abad, it’s not only a matter of having the enforcement tools but using them to prevent buyers from accessing these products. He believes that “big traders, such as Walmart and Carrefour, are also responsible [for deforestation within their supply chains] and need to be really held accountable.” This can best be done by raising consumer awareness.

A tractor ploughs up newly deforested land in the Cerrado, Brazil’s savanna. While fines are often issued for illegal deforestation, few are ever paid due to lax government enforcement. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth.

Political challenges ahead

According to Carlos Souza, a Research Associate at Imazon, a Brazilian NGO that independently tracks Amazon deforestation, there is already available technology to monitor and identify environmental infractions. The problem, he says, resides in the government’s failure to enforce and punish.

Recent rising deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon, Souza says, should serve as a wakeup call to trigger action to halt forest degradation and destruction, but, he adds, “we have an even bigger challenge now under this government,” a reference to the Bolsonaro administration.

Still, Souza hopes to see improvements in Brazil’s current environmental agreements. “As a society, we all expect a new 2.0 version of these agreements to fight deforestation,” he concludes.

Without these enhancements, the researchers agree, escalating deforestation and the loss of all habitat types will continue across Brazil’s biomes, turning the country into an ever more fragmented patchwork of soy plantations and cattle pastures.

Banner image caption: An IBAMA raid on illegal deforesters within a Munduruku indigenous reserve under a previous administration; President Bolsonaro has greatly diminished the agency’s law enforcement capacity. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

Amazon rainforest cleared by burning, the primary means of converting forests into pastureland. Photo credit: bbcworldservice on / CC BY-NC.