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Weak policy oversight could be pushing Brazilian forests closer to a tipping point

Chief Adílio Kanamari from Bananeira Village at the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory in December 2018. Located at the westernmost portion of Amazonas state, bordering Peru, this is one of the best preserved indigenous lands in Brazil. Credits: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real.

  • Between 2019 and 2020, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit a 12-year high.
  • Deforestation, coupled with climate change and fires, are pushing the Amazon ever closer to a rainforest-to-degraded savanna tipping point, say some scientists.
  • On a broad spectrum, deforestation is putting Brazil’s energy production, food security, and economy as a whole at risk.
  • Women and Indigenous people are essential actors in the discussion and implementation of sustainable development in Brazil, but remain underrepresented at policy- and decision-making levels.

Home to more than 60% of the Amazon rainforest, the largest tropical forest in the world, Brazil is beyond rich in biodiversity and life. The country is also rife with deforestation, and violations of environmental laws and Indigenous people’s rights.

In other words, Brazil has a serious forest problem.

According to historical data gathered by the Brazilian Annual Land Use and Land Cover Mapping Project (MapBiomas) since its creation in 2015, Brazil lost 870,000 square kilometers (336,000 square miles) of native vegetation between 1985 and 2019. That’s an area the size of two Germanies and one Suriname — with plenty of space still left over. Most of this area — 720,000 km2 (278,000 mi2) — was lost in forest cover.

Over this same period, the land area dedicated to agriculture almost tripled, going from 250,000 to 640,000 km2 (96,500 to 247,000 mi2). In 2019, almost a third of Brazil, or 2.5 million km2 (965,000 mi2) — 10 United Kingdoms — was used for crops and pasture. Much of this land use change over these 34 years was carried out illegally.

From 2015 to 2019 alone, Brazil lost 80,000 km2 (31,000 mi2) in forest cover — almost the size of Austria.

This is an ongoing trend: data from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) show that between August 2019 and July of this year, the Amazon forest lost 11,088 km2 (4,281 mi2) in forest cover. This is a 9.5% increase from the same period from 2018 to 2019, and a 12-year high in deforestation.

What worries MapBiomas general coordinator Tasso Azevedo the most is that Brazilian policies for controlling deforestation have suffered serious blows in the past few years. “In 2015 there were some [positive] policies in action, but now the control over the Amazon deforestation was lost,” he said in an interview. Deforestation rates increased under Michel Temer, the president from 2016 to 2018, and much more dramatically under his successor, Jair Bolsonaro, who took office at the start of 2019.

Azevedo, who is also a former chief of the Brazilian Forest Service, identified logging, mining and cattle ranching as some of the greatest threats to the forest. And they kick off a process that’s difficult to stop. “The fire that clears deforested areas snowballs into more forest degradation such as the drying of [forest] edges and other secondary effects,” he said.

Pselaphacus curvipes, a beetle found at the Atlantic Forest, photographed at Parque da Fazenda in Araçatuba, inland São Paulo state. Credits: José Roberto Peruca/Flickr.

Under pressure

With a little less than 80% of its total area covered by forests by 2019, the Amazon is losing green cover at a rate that is worrying scientists like Carlos Nobre, one of the world’s most renowned experts on the Amazon and climate change. In several studies, he has pointed out that the forest is very close to reaching its tipping point — a point of no return at which the Amazon will turn irrevocably into a degraded savanna. This will release vast amounts of now sequestered carbon dioxide, accelerating and worsening climate change and its impacts all over the world. A loss of 20 to 25% of the forest area could start this process, according to Nobre.

Dora Villela, a researcher at the State University of Northern Rio de Janeiro (UENF), also expressed concern, saying that the ecosystem fragmentation process is impacting all six Brazilian biomes in one way or another — some more than others.

By the end of 2019, the biome with the most natural vegetation cover was the Pantanal wetlands in midwestern Brazil, with natural vegetation covering 84% of its area; 30% was covered by forests. However, more than 20% of the Pantanal burned in 2020.

In southeast Brazil, a little more than a quarter (27.3%) of the original Atlantic Forest was still standing as of 2019, with patches of forest covering 33.8% of its area. As the first biome to be largely exploited during the colonial period when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil more than 500 years ago, the Atlantic Forest is home to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the most populous cities in Brazil. It is also the country’s most degraded green area.

“This is the worst fragmentation scenario the Amazon could reach in the future,” Villela said in an interview.

The Tapajós National Forest in southwest Pará, in the Amazon Forest, had several fires in 2020, as this picture taken on September 17 shows trees wrapped in smoke. Credits: Marizilda Cruppe/Amazônia Real/Amazon Watch.

Deforestation alters water cycle; agriculture and energy at risk

Luciana Alves, a researcher at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that the Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal are the biomes losing green cover at the fastest pace in the past few years. The Atlantic Forest has not lost so much of its area because there is not much more left to lose. “The pressure is greater over the Cerrado, which is very threatened by the expansion of agribusiness,” she said.

Agribusiness, the main agent for deforestation there, is very likely to also be one of the greatest victims of its own activity, as escalating loss of native vegetation leads to reduced Cerrado rainfall. “It is like boring holes in a watering can. It still works, but little by little it loses its capacity to irrigate — in our case, to irrigate the Brazilian agricultural production,” Paulo Moutinho, a senior researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), said in an interview.

Less native vegetation means less plant transpiration and less cloud formation, which can potentially spiral into a weather system that gets hotter and drier. This is one way the loss of forests wreaks havoc on climate systems, altering rainfall regimes and affecting hydroelectric energy and food production, Moutinho said.

“The destruction of Brazilian biomes puts our food security at risk,” he said. “Taking into account that an important part of our gross domestic product comes from agricultural production, our economy is also at stake. GDP losses could come faster than we imagine.”

Moutinho’s concerns don’t end there.

Besides putting Brazil’s food security and economy at risk, a quickening pace of deforestation could also bring harm to energy production and water security. “We must keep our forests from reaching a tipping point at all costs,” he said. “If that happens, we won’t have drinking water because rivers will be either dry or dead as a consequence of mining and other activities.”

Since most of the electricity produced in Brazil comes from hydropower, energy deficits can also be added to a bill about to be charged. And it might be quite expensive. “There are projections showing that dams like Belo Monte will never reach its peak energy production because of deforestation,” Moutinho said. The Belo Monte dam on the Amazon’s Xingu River is one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric projects.

Flyby over the Belterra municipality in southwest Pará, where in September 2020 there were alerts of fires, deforestation and mining in conservation units in the Amazon forest. Credits: Marizilda Cruppe/Amazônia Real/Amazon Watch.

Environmental challenges and policy imbroglios

The main cause of this deepening environmental crisis, according to the experts interviewed by Mongabay, is loose governmental deforestation oversight and inspection, alongside toothless law enforcement.

Most of the deforestation that takes place in Brazil is concentrated on public lands, Moutinho said. “Around half of it is the result of illegal usurpation of these lands. Some groups occupy them, tear trees down and forge documents to sell them as private lands,” he said.

This process, however, is not normally undertaken by small-scale farmers and ranchers who invade land for self-subsistence or to sell small plots to that end. Rather, large-scale deforestation is an expensive activity, demanding heavy machinery. It requires chainsaws and tractors to tear down and remove large trees from a forested area — and it takes large trucks to move timber to sawmills. To be carried out in the proportions that it is in Brazil, deforestation is mostly fueled by powerful political and economic elites.

Importantly, these land grabbers and illegal loggers have indirectly benefited from municipal, state and federal public administration, according to researchers.

“The digital timber certification given by Brazilian states facilitates illegal extraction. Loggers with connections to politicians have pressured for looser legislation, and this is exactly what happened,” UCLA’s Alves said. “Loggers super estimate the amount of timber they’ll extract from an area that can’t [possibly] yield as much wood — they then fetch timber in other areas [illegally] until they reach the volume they’d calculated. So timber leaves the forest as a doctored product from the very start.”

There is similarly little control of mining activities, especially in the Amazon, Alves added. Instead of curbing these activities, the Bolsonaro government has encouraged mining and logging in forested areas, while also pressing forward with bills that would allow mining and agribusiness within conservation units and Indigenous territories.

“The federal government can be accused of prevarication for not protecting public forests and land,” IPAM’s Moutinho said.

Alves said current forest legislation is under dispute by various parts of the agribusiness sector, who are feuding over the definitions and scope of permanent preservation areas and legal reserve areas — the size of which vary according to the biome in question.

“The greatest discussion is related to how much of their area landowners must restore; there’s a lot of noise as to when they should start doing it — but the biggest problem is the little knowledge of [the baseline of] how land cover was in the 1960s, which is when aerial images started being made,” Alves said.

UENF’s Villela said owners of preserved areas within private lands need more support and environmental education from the public administration. “These are very important areas here in Rio de Janeiro, as they maintain fragments of Atlantic Forest,” she said.

A truck takes tree logs through secondary roads in the Amazon in 2010. Credits: A. Duarte/Flickr.

A window to the future

Despite all the challenges and threats, Indigenous and traditional peoples and local communities are resisting illegal deforesters and looking for ways to better manage Brazil’s forested areas.

“Indigenous peoples such as the Kayapó, Tembé and Ka’apor are developing alternatives to halt deforestation and improve land management, besides discussing Indigenous rights,” said Ima Célia Vieira, senior researcher at the Emilio Goeldi Museum in the Amazonian region of Belém do Pará.

An interesting initiative, she said, is the creation of the Origens Brasil seal, a certification of sustainable management of natural products that has the participation of almost 30 Indigenous peoples in the Xingu, Calha Norte and Rio Negro territories. These peoples sustainably extract, transform and commercialize natural resources that are used by a network of Brazilian companies.

Besides Indigenous groups, women are also taking the lead in sustainability and conservation initiatives, Vieira said. “They are the most vulnerable to poverty and the most affected by climate change,” and have raised their voices in these discussions.

“Indigenous women have an important role in preserving agrobiodiversity and in their people’s health,” Vieira said. “There has been more participation of Indigenous women in the universities and in environmental movements, and they also have been active in social media, amplifying their local discussions.”

However, Vieira noted that there’s a long way to go until women are well represented in Brazilian politics. Figures like Joênia Wapichana, the first Indigenous woman to take a seat in the Brazilian Congress as an elected representative in 2018, and Sônia Guajajara, the first Indigenous woman to run as a vice presidential candidate (to left-wing candidate Guilherme Boulos, in 2018), are still a rarity.

“Women have an important role in social movements, but there’s a long way to grant more participation for them in politics,” Vieira said, noting that this participation could be key to changing environmental policies and granting more room to the discussion of sustainable development in Brazil.

Banner image: Chief Adílio Kanamari from Bananeira Village at the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory in December 2018. Located at the westernmost portion of Amazonas state, bordering Peru, this is one of the best preserved indigenous lands in Brazil. Credits: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real.