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As its end looms, Cerrado tracker records 6-year deforestation high

  • The satellite-based deforestation-monitoring program focused on Brazil’s vast Cerrado savanna may end in April because of lack of funding, with some members of the team reportedly already laid off.
  • Unlike the monitoring program for the Amazon, the one for the Cerrado isn’t included in the government budget and relies on external financing, which dried up in August 2020; since then, the program team has had to scrounge for funding from other projects and institutions.
  • Sharing the scientists’ concerns is the agribusiness sector, which relies on the data to prove that its commodity is deforestation-free, and which has blasted the government’s “blurred” vision with regard to failing to fund the monitoring program.
  • News of the impending closure of the monitoring program comes a week after its latest data release showed an area six times the size of the city of São Paulo was cleared between August 2020 and July 2021 — the highest deforestation rate in the Cerrado since 2015.

Under threat since 2020, the 20-year satellite monitoring program for deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna, a global biodiversity hotspot, may end in April due to lack of funding.

“Part of the monitoring team has already been dismissed,” Cláudio Almeida, coordinator of monitoring programs for the Cerrado, Amazon and other biomes at the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), confirmed to Mongabay in a phone call.

Almeida has been warning of the need for a new source of funding for the program since August last year. But the situation has only seemed to deteriorate, and the new warning came a week after the announcement of the highest deforestation rate in the Cerrado since 2015: 8,531 square kilometers (3,293 square miles) from August 2020 to July 2021, or six times the size of the city of São Paulo, according to data released by INPE on Dec. 31. The Cerrado has already lost nearly half of its area to cropland and cattle pasture.

“This is symptomatic of the type of treatment that the federal government has given to environmental issues,” Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), told Mongabay in a phone call. “As if, by not having the data, the problem doesn’t exist.”

This contention — that no longer having deforestation data for the Cerrado is a deliberate move by the government — is echoed by Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Observatório do Clima, or the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations advocating for climate action. “The government knew about the risk [of the data blackout] and decided not to act, which only allows us to conclude that, once again, this is a deliberate action by the [Jair] Bolsonaro regime to prevent society from having access to crucial information, as it did with COVID-19 data,” Astrini said in a statement. He referred to recent hacking attacks on government systems tracking Brazil’s COVID-19 data, including vaccination information.

Nearly half of the Cerrado’s native vegetation, 44.2%, has been converted into cropland and cattle pasture, according to an analysis by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) based on the latest deforestation data from the National Institute of Space Research (INPE). Growing pressure from the international market for transparency and deforestation-free commodities has prompted major soy traders to push the Brazilian government to keep the biome’s monitoring program in place. Image courtesy of Fernanda Ligabue/Greenpeace.

As in the Amazon, the monitoring program for the Cerrado comprises a system that tracks the annual deforestation rate (known as PRODES and in place since 2001), another that gives updates about forest loss every five days (DETER, since 2017), and one that shows the location of fires. The cost of keeping these databases running, employing the team that analyses the satellite images, and maintaining the information online in INPE’s public and free database is 2.5 million reais ($442,000) per year. That’s only slightly more than the 2.4 million reais ($424,000) it cost Brazilian taxpayers for Bolsonaro’s vacation last year, according to a survey from Brazilian environmental news website ((o))eco.

But unlike the Amazon monitoring program, the one for the Cerrado isn’t included in the government’s budget and depends on external financing. Financing for the program from the World Bank came to an end in August 2020, and since then Almeida and his team managed to stretch the budget until December 2021. With the start of the new year, however, he’s had to lay off some of the team members due to lack of money, and is relying on short-term funds from other projects to rehire the staff and keep the monitoring alive until April, possibly even May, in an effort to avoid stopping the Cerrado monitoring program.

At the same time, the INPE staff are fighting for a permanent funding solution. Almeida said one possibility is the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FNDCT), which is maintained by the private sector (mainly energy and infrastructure companies). Last year, the fund approved a project to finance the Cerrado monitoring, but it was hampered due to a budget cut in the fund. “There are several institutions interested in helping, and theoretically the FNDCT resource approved last year can no longer be contingent,” Almeida said.

Another institution that has expressed its willingness to help is MapBiomas, a network of NGOs, universities and tech firms, which includes Google, that tracks the changes in land use in Brazil and that relies on INPE data to produce its own reports. “We are working to have a system ready to go online in case the DETER system is interrupted,” Tasso Azevedo, the MapBiomas coordinator, told Mongabay in a text message. “We will not be without alerts in the Cerrado.”

The organization has also issued a statement saying that its team “has been developing a Deforestation Alert System (SAD) specific to the Cerrado, which can be activated at any time to ensure monitoring of deforestation in the biome.”

According to the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), 8,531 square kilometers (3,293 square miles) were deforested in the Cerrado from August 2020 to July 2021, the highest rate since 2015 and an area six times the size of the city of São Paulo. More than 60% of this deforestation took place in the so-called Matopiba area, the new agricultural frontier in the border region between the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. Image courtesy of Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

INPE’s director, Clezio De Nardin, denied that part of the team had been dismissed, in a video posted to Instagram on Jan. 8. “We are seeking FNDCT resources to continue this program. We have resources until April this year and, if the [annual government budget] is approved this year, we will have resources through the Ministry of Science and Technology to fund this program for another four years,” De Nardin said in the video.

The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovations (MCTI), which oversees INPE, did not respond to Mongabay’s request for information.

Data blackout worries agribusiness

The most biodiverse savanna in the world, the Cerrado is an immense biome covering 2 million km2 (772,000 mi2), an area the size of Mexico, straddling 10 Brazilian states. Monitoring an area that big isn’t an easy task, made harder by the fact that most of its vegetation is composed of grasslands dotted by dry forest patches, experts say.

INPE’s database is the most-used resource for monitoring deforestation in the Cerrado, not just in scientific research, but also in international programs like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and REDD+. It’s also the benchmark when it comes to business agreements in which Brazilian companies have to prove their products are deforestation-free.

That’s why the largest soy traders have been warning the government about the economic risks of ending the Cerrado monitoring program. “Without INPE, Brazil will lose its official survey and we will be at the mercy of third parties,” the Brazilian vegetable oil industries association, ABIOVE, whose members include top soy traders like ADM, Bunge and Cargill, said on Twitter. “The vision at MCTI is blurred.”

In a statement to Mongabay, the association added that it “deeply regrets the discontinuation of the Cerrado monitoring project,” noting that the funding needed to maintain the tracker “can be considered low cost if one takes into account the value that the data and information generated have for the market, especially for the soybean production chain.” Bernardo Pires, the sustainability manager at ABIOVE quoted in the statement, added the decision “gets worse for having been taken precisely at a time when international markets are signalling restrictions on Brazilian agricultural products that are related to deforestation.”

In December last year, 160 groups, including Tesco, McDonald’s, Unilever and Lidl, signed the Cerrado Manifesto demanding an end to the trade in soy grown on areas cleared after 2020. In November, the European Union proposed a set of rules to forbid imports of products from deforested areas, like soy and beef.

“Certainly, the sector most affected by the Cerrado data blackout will be agribusiness,” said IPAM’s Alencar. “Today, what the market is most demanding is transparency and traceability.”

The Cerrado is the source of eight of the country’s 12 river basins, including the Amazon, and an important carbon sink, storing the equivalent of 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. But the combination of global warming and deforestation means it could collapse within 30 years, scientists say. Image courtesy of Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

The Cerrado has already lost 44.2% of its native vegetation to agribusiness, according to a report issued Jan. 5 by IPAM. Of the 8,531 km2 deforested between August 2020 and July 2021, more than 60% is located in a part of the biome dubbed Matopiba, the border region between the four states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. The region has become the heart of Brazil’s new agricultural frontier.

According to Alencar, the end of INPE’s monitoring would also affect actions to fight deforestation, since the DETER alerts are used by Brazilian environmental agencies like IBAMA and ICMBio to identify when and where deforestation is happening, and develop prevention and control actions.

The Cerrado is considered the heart of Brazil’s headwaters: it’s the source of eight of the country’s 12 river basins, including the Amazon, and is an important carbon sink, storing the equivalent of 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. But the combination of global warming and deforestation means it could collapse within 30 years, scientists warn.

“Brazilian biomes represent gigantic environmental assets, both for their biodiversity and for the ecosystemic services they provide, including for agribusiness, such as water generation,” INPE’s Almeida said. “We can’t delegate something so strategic for the country to third parties.

“Today I don’t have [resources],” he added, “but I am confident that I will manage to get it.”

Banner image: The Cerrado is the most biodiverse savanna in the world. It covers an area of 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles), the size of Mexico. The National Institute of Space Research (INPE) runs the main monitoring system for the biome, with the data used as a reference for international agreements (as in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and REDD+) and in scientific studies. Image courtesy of Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

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