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Deforestation sweeps national park in Brazil as land speculators advance

Image by Valdir Hobus via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Image of white-nosed saki by Valdir Hobus via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 2.0).

  • Between January and early September, 3,542 deforestation alerts have been confirmed in primary forest within Campos Amazônicos National Park, according to satellite data, representing a 37% jump over the average amount of forest loss for the previous five years.
  • Much of the occupation of the Campos Amazônicos park is happening through illegitimate land claims, fueled by hopes that protections on the park may be loosened in the future, environmentalists say. Even though the park is under federal protection, this hasn’t stopped invaders from falsely registering slices of it as their property.
  • Environmentalists warn the social and environmental impacts could be devastating. Campos Amazônicos wraps around the Tenharim do Igarapé Preto Indigenous Reserve, which was until recently under attack by illegal miners who descended on the territory in search of cassiterite; sources say the fresh incursions into Campos Amazônicos could put the area back at risk.
  • The park also holds one of the most striking enclaves of cerrado in the Amazon rainforest, housing stretches of shrubs, grasslands and dry forest typical of the savanna biome. Campos Amazônicos is also part of the Southern Amazon Conservation Corridor that represents one of the best-preserved stretches of the rainforest.

Deep in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, the emerald canopy of the Campos Amazonicôs National Park sprawls across nearly a million hectares of land. Within it, dense forest hugs stretches of savanna shrubs – a rare sight that has turned the park into a biologist’s treasure. Yet, along its edges, trees are being razed at a breakneck pace as invaders rush to claim swaths of it.

The Campos Amazonicôs National Park is officially under strict federal protection, with all exploration and activity barred within its limits. The area was designated as a conservation unit in 2006, with the aim of shielding the savanna – or cerrado – enclave that lies nestled within it, which scientists believe      holds crucial clues about how both ecosystems evolved over time.

The park was also intended as a buffer from the deforestation radiating from the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which runs 4,260 kilometers (2,647 miles) from the coastal state of Paraíba to the southern edge of Amazonas. The park’s creation was meant to protect the region’s rich biodiversity and the rivers that snake through it from the destruction next door.

“It’s an area that is really important for conservation,” said Fernanda Meirelles, co     ordinator at Idesam, a Manaus-based nonprofit focused on conservation and sustainable development of the Amazon. “The diversity is really rich, there are species that are only found there.”

The park stretches through Amazonas state and crosses into neighboring Rondônia and Mato Grosso, where cattle and soy fields are fast replacing rainforest. Most of it is nestled within the municipalities of Novo Aripuanã, Manicoré and Humaitá in Amazonas, with small sections spilling into Machadinho d’Oeste in Rondônia and Colniza in Mato Grosso.

But this lush corner of the Amazon is under threat at the hands of loggers, cattle ranchers and speculators, environmentalists say. So far this year, 3,542 deforestation alerts have been confirmed in primary forest within Campos Amazônicos, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch. While this is a bit lower than the same period in 2020 when deforestation spiked particularly dramatically in the park, it still represents a 37% jump over the average amount of forest loss for the previous five years.

Satellite data show clearing activity encroaching into Campos Amazonicôs National Park.

This is in step with the wider destruction sweeping through the Brazilian Amazon. From January until July, deforestation surged to its highest level since 2012, according to a recent report by Imazon, an NGO monitoring the clearing. For the first time, parts of the rainforest are even contributing to climate change rather than offsetting it: researchers found some areas are now emitting more carbon than they are capturing.

As the devastation advances deeper into Campos Amazônicos, advocates fear the impact on the rare plant and animal species it houses could be devastating. The advancing deforestation also risks opening up the broader area to invasions, threatening a mosaic of pristine protected forests that lie beyond the park.

“It will generate pressure on this conservation corridor,” said Antônio Victor Fonseca, a researcher at Imazon. “The only way to stop this advance is for authorities to act, to send a firm signal that deforestation won’t be tolerated.”

Illegal logging advancing

In the region around the park, invaders have been chipping away at the rainforest for decades. The incursions began in the 1970s with the construction of the BR-230 highway, which sliced through the heart of the Amazon and opened up access to the remote area.

The road was part of a broader plan hatched by the military dictatorship that governed Brazil at the time: fearing invasions on its sovereignty, it pushed to populate the vast rainforest, dubbing it “land without men for men without land.”

With the road, came an explosion in deforestation. Migrants flooded into the region from other states, lured by promises of plentiful land that they could clear, plant and call their own. Loggers eager to extract valuable tree varieties carved dirt roads branching off the highway, encroaching deeper into the forest. Timber and cattle became the economic engines of municipalities like Novo Aripuanã, where much of the park lies.

Campos do Amazônicos was at the front lines of the pressure. When it was converted from an undesignated public forest to a protected national park in 2006, it topped the list as the most deforested federal conservation unit in Brazil. Much of the destruction was coming from within, as squatters poured in and laid claim to areas of forest along the Estrada da Estanha, a roughly-carved informal road slicing through the conservation area.

When authorities placed the park under protection, they relocated some of the settlers to an area just outside of its boundaries, according to documents detailing the plans for the park’s creation.

Flooded forest in Campos Amazonicôs National Park. Image by Nat13attack via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

But, even with strict limits on exploration, keeping deforestation in check remained elusive. The owners of at least three rural properties were granted permission to remain, government land registry data shows. And, by 2011, at least 10 cattle ranches had been established within the park, said Pablo Pacheco, a researcher at Idesam who has analyzed deforestation in the park.

“When the park was created, there were already some people occupying parts of it,” Pacheco told Mongabay in a phone interview. “And once the land is cleared and these properties are established, it’s harder to expel them.”

Deforestation slowed in the years following the park’s creation, in step with a broader decline across the Amazon. But, now, the destruction has intensified again as new logging settlements emerge just outside the park’s limits. Increasingly, loggers are encroaching deeper into the forest in search of untapped areas to explore, according to an environmental enforcement agent who asked to remain anonymous as he is not allowed to speak to the press.

“The process begins with selective clearing – the logger goes in to extract the trees that have the highest commercial value,” the environmental source said. “And when the area loses its appeal to loggers, that’s when the occupation comes in the form of invasion or land-grabbing. Eventually, cattle ranching follows. It all happens completely illegally.”

Much of the incursion into Campos Amazônicos is now coming from the village of Santo Antônio do Matupi, a timber and cattle hub in Manicoré, the enforcement source said. Pressure is also mounting along the park’s southern boundaries where the village of Guatá, in Mato Grosso’s remote Colniza municipality, is fast turning into an illegal logging hub too, the source added.

“The park is under pressure both from the north and the south,” the source said. “The economy of this region, in these communities, revolves completely around timber and the raising of cattle. It’s a new frontier that’s being explored.”

Renewed plans to pave a stretch of another highway that slices through this part of Amazonas are also fueling a fresh surge in deforestation. Local sources say outsiders are illegally invading forests, in the hopes that they will soon be able to transport timber from the area via the BR-319 highway running from Rondonia’s capital of Porto Velho to Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city.

A speculative land rush

Much of the occupation of the Campos Amazônicos park is happening through illegitimate land claims, fueled by hopes that protections on the park may be loosened in the future, environmentalists say. Even though the park is under federal protection, this hasn’t stopped invaders from falsely registering slices of it as their property.

“This deforestation has much more to do with occupation, than with agricultural use,” said Fonseco. “Here, it’s deforestation that’s speculative. They are occupying the land and speculating that their claim to it will eventually be recognized.”

Some 411,474 hectares of the Campos Amazônicos park have been falsely claimed as private property through the national system of rural land registration, known as Sistema de Cadastro Ambiental Rural (CAR), according to Pacheco’s analysis of Rede Simex data. This represents nearly 43% of the park, with some slices of land even registered more than once by different owners.

“There is intense land speculation in the park,” Pacheco said. “Even though it is a protected area, the person registers this land, clears it and puts some cattle on it. And once the property is consolidated, it becomes harder to expel them from there.”

Map showing illegitimate land registration areas in Campos Amazonicôs National Park. Courtesy of Pablo Pacheco, Idesam/Rede Simex.

The surge in land speculation within the Campos Amazônicos park has been driven in large part by a steady stream of friendly signals from authorities over the last two years, environmentalists say – from local politicians all the way up to the president himself.

In neighboring Acre, lawmakers are mulling a bill that would change the designation of the Serra do Divisor National Park, weakening restrictions on its use and paving the way for a road to cut through the pristine area. The move would also permit loggers, ranchers and farmers to move into the park and legally clear swaths of it.

In Rondônia, meanwhile, state representatives passed a law this year slashing the size of two protected areas, the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve and the Guajará-Mirim State Park. This removed protections on some 219,000 hectares, benefitting ranchers illegally claiming the land. It also fueled hopes among land-grabbers that the same could happen in Amazonas.

“Once there is recent precedent of the margins of protected areas being redrawn, inevitably, the invasion ends up advancing,” Fonseca said. “It creates the expectation that it could happen in other regions too… Those illegally occupying the park are trying to put pressure on authorities to reduce the limits.”

On a federal level, President Jair Bolsonaro has also encouraged invaders, railing against environmental protections and vowing to open up protected areas to ranchers, loggers and miners. He has also slashed environmental enforcement budgets, curbing the capacity of federal agents to combat invasions and deforestation within the park, advocates say.

“The narrative of the federal government … ends up giving a license to those who want to deforest in broad daylight,” said Virgílio Viana, superintendent at Fundação Amazonas Sustentável (FAS) and a former environmental secretary for the state. “What we’re seeing within the park speaks to a broader trend across the Amazon – and it’s directly linked to the environmental policies on the federal and state level.

Arc of deforestation nearing   

The frenzied destruction seen in Campos Amazônicos is emblematic of a broader explosion of illicit logging in the Amazon. Timber extraction swallowed up 464,000 hectares of forest between August 2019 and July 2020, according to an analysis by Rede Simex, an environmental research network made up of Imazon, Idesam, Imaflora and the ICV, which all monitor deforestation in the Amazon.

“Logging is the first step in the opening of agricultural frontiers,” said Pacheco, who took part in the study. “We are seeing new agricultural frontiers emerging      in this area. And the money generated from timber is used to finance this opening.”

Mato Grosso state accounted for the bulk of the destruction, with 236,000 hectares of forest lost to logging – or just over half of the total area logged across the Amazon. But the study shows Amazonas is emerging as an important new frontier, with 71,000 hectares cleared by loggers, most of it in the southern stretch of the state.

Now, the fear is that logging may be laying the groundwork for industrial agriculture, as the “arc of deforestation” – a crescent-shaped strip running along the southern and eastern edges of the Brazilian Amazon where agribusiness is displacing forest – creeps closer.

“We have observed this shift in the arc of deforestation to this area in the state of Amazonas,” Fonseca said. “It’s encroaching on this region and it’s advancing more and more each day.”

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs captured August 2021 shows large areas of forest loss in the northern portion of Campos Amazonicôs National Park.

Steep price

Environmentalists warn the social and environmental impacts could be devastating. The park holds one of the most striking enclaves of cerrado in the Amazon rainforest, housing stretches of shrubs, grasslands and dry forest typical of the savanna biome. Scientists believe it offers evidence that the two biomes naturally existed side by side some 10,000 years ago.

Campos Amazônicos is also part of the Southern Amazon Conservation Corridor that represents one of the best-preserved stretches of the rainforest. The block includes the Mosaico do Apuí and the Juruena National Park, with the trio of parks together making up a protected zone stretching some 9 million hectares.

In addition, the park wraps around the Tenharim do Igarapé Preto Indigenous Reserve, which was until recently under attack by illegal miners who descended on the territory in search of cassiterite. In 2018, Brazil’s main environmental agency, Ibama, succeeded in expelling the miners – but sources say the fresh incursions into Campos Amazônicos could put the area back at risk.

“There are a lot of conservation units in this region – but the enforcement within them is weak,” Meirelles said. “And there is no buffer zone around them. So these conservation units remain really vulnerable.”

Deforestation could also weaken the banks of several important rivers that also run through the park, including the Rio Jiparaná, Rio Branco and Rio Guaribas. This could lead to sedimentation of the rivers and even reduce the water levels within them, increasing the risk of drought in the future.

Notably, the invasions threaten the exceptional diversity in flora and fauna found within the park. The Campos Amazônicos is home to species like the white-nosed saki (Chiropotes albinasus), as well as a dazzling diversity of bird species. The Manicore marmoset (Callithrix manicorensis) – a type of tamarin endemic to Brazil – was discovered in the park in 2000.

“The destruction of this region puts an end to all this diversity – and it undermines the very role that the park was serving in protecting the area,” Pacheco said. “It’s a very steep price to pay.”

Update (September 13, 2021): This article was updated to reflect the pattern of deforestation that existed within the park in 2011. Researcher Pablo Pacheco clarified that there were at least 10 cattle ranches in the park at that time, rather than several large consolidated properties as conveyed by him in a previous interview.

Banner image: white-nosed saki by Valdir Hobus via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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