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Why we need the government to curb Amazon deforestation? (commentary)

  • Deforestation is rising in the Brazilian Amazon, with last year’s forest loss reaching the high level since 2008.
  • Brazilian lawyers Daniela Castro, the founder and CEO of Impacta Advocacy, and Silvia Gonçalves, head of projects at Impacta Advocacy, argue that combatting deforestation in Brazil requires government intervention.
  • “Without government action, there won’t be better days for the rainforest,” write Castro and Gonçalves. “The fact is only the government has the resources, institutions and power on a scale capable of halting deforestation.”
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

After getting involved in controversies and becoming the target of an inquiry into alleged interference in illegal timber seizures, Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles resigned from his post in late June. The departure was a reason for celebrations on social media, many of them hoping that this would allow a more effective fight against the ever-increasing Amazon deforestation. But, not intending to spoil the mood, it is worth remembering that the country remains under the same federal administration. And that, without government action, there won’t be better days for the rainforest.

The fact is only the government has the resources, institutions, and power on a scale capable of halting deforestation. For this reason, all the mobilization of organized civil society and businesses in favor of Amazon’s responsible stewardship should focus on influencing government policy to promote structural changes needed to combat deforestation.

Monthly deforestation alert data from INPE’s DETER system and Imazon’s SAD system. Imazon independently tracks deforestation to provide a check against official Brazilian government data.

It may seem obvious, but it’s not the norm. There is a great deal of research and data on the problem of illegal deforestation, but we need more debates on strategies to change the game. We also have many projects seeking to act on the effects of forest devastation, but what about root causes? Are we encouraging effective transformations or wasting time, energy and resources on palliative policies and actions?

Let’s examine, for example, land grabbing, one of the great agents of Amazon deforestation, alongside illegal logging, the expansion of agribusiness, mining and public works. Despite advances, registries of real estate in Brazil remain flawed. They were supposed to provide legal security and publicity to the properties, enabling an all-purpose database. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. Numerous requirements and high costs encourage illegality.

In addition, many records were carried out at a time when great technical rigor wasn’t required, nor were there any georeferencing tools. The registration of the same rural property is followed by a series of requests for registries, with different purposes (fiscal, economic, agrarian planning and environmental). All information is managed with no integration and without a single cartographic base. They are managed by different bodies with overlapping competences and no coordination between their actions. Projects to streamline this entire process, with the digitization of notary offices and data public availability, would help to reduce corruption in this matter.

Illegally logged timber seized by IBAMA environmental agents from within an indigenous reserve. Raids of this sort have been greatly reduced by the Bolsonaro administration. Image credit: IBAMA.

Bureaucracy is also a critical aspect. The delay in analyzing the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), for example, allows its use as proof of ownership, which is not its purpose. As the CAR is self-declaratory, land grabbers design supposed rural properties in non-designated public forests in the system, simulating a right to land. According to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), 30% of the 51 million hectares of unallocated public forests in the Legal Amazon are covered by illegal CAR. Allocation of these lands is an important and urgent solution to prevent environmental crimes and curb deforestation. Legal mechanisms exist, as well as goals and programs already in place, but with results below expectations and without adequate social pressure for their advancement.

The Ministry of the Environment is responsible for designing, implementing, and monitoring public policies in the environmental area, which includes policies for forests. However, the Public Forest Management Act stipulates that each state or municipality can manage its non-designated public lands. Thus, states and municipalities can plan, allocate their forests for community use, and make concessions, without relying on the federal government. This autonomy could speed up the process, but it does not occur. There are barriers to implement state plans and destination programs are moving slowly

Another known facilitator of land grabbing is poor surveillance. There is a lack of inspectors and resources, the responsible bodies have been scrapped, accusations of corruption are frequent and coordination between federative entities is low. Organized actions to expand and qualify inspection bodies are fundamental. With more data and new technologies, inspections can dramatically reduce environmental crimes, including logging authorized by fraudulent documents at legal property reserves. Unfortunately, as many of you readers may know, the government has been cutting budgets and dismissing experts of Brazilian environmental surveillance bodies, such as ICMBio and IBAMA, over the last two years.

Recently deforested and burnt area in Porto Velho, Rondônia July 29, 2021. Photo © Christian Braga/Greenpeace

Alongside the non-digitization of processes, bureaucracy and insufficient inspection, illegal possession of land is driven by factors such as impunity, lack of public and private resources, existence of a market and culture/mentality. Such aspects were also analyzed in a study we developed recently at Impacta Advocacy, trying to figure out all its inceptions.

When we become aware of the root causes of a major problem, we can map all related stakeholders and risks. Then we can outline many advocacy strategies, such as lobbying, communication, private agreements, delivery units, or policy implementation programs. And let’s not forget coalitions: they’re not just opportune; they are necessary. And they will be increasingly effective if they are guided by a masterplan or interconnected plans. There are many initiatives with similar profiles in disconnection, and fragmented actions lead to the dilution of forces. A deeper view on constructing or financing advocacy actions is critical to promote huge changes.

A large-scale green economy is unlikely to be implemented in the Amazon if deforestation processes are not restrained. Once we are aware of the root causes of deforestation, it is possible to plan strategies focused in solving the heart of the issues, and they will be increasingly effective if they are guided by a masterplan or interconnected plans. There are many initiatives with similar profiles in disconnection, and fragmented actions lead to the dilution of forces.

Amazon deforestation is a complex and multi-causal problem, with many nuances. But it is possible to fix it. Acting at the heart of the matter, with appropriate tactics, can be a game changer in this fight. There is no lack of well-intentioned projects to keep the forest standing. However, actions with a structural, long-term purpose and bringing together civil society, social investors and companies are the most likely to put pressure on governments, generating policies with potential to become a state’s policies.

Daniela Castro, a lawyer with a Master’s degree in Economics, is the founder and CEO of Impacta Advocacy. Silvia Gonçalves, a lawyer with a Master’s degree in Politics and International Relations, is partner and head of projects at Impacta Advocacy.