Magazine article Newsweek

Brazil's Deforestation Rates Are on the Rise Again; Corruption, Land Fraud and Lack of Government Oversight Could Lead to an Ecological Disaster in the Amazon

Magazine article Newsweek

Brazil's Deforestation Rates Are on the Rise Again; Corruption, Land Fraud and Lack of Government Oversight Could Lead to an Ecological Disaster in the Amazon

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Schiffman

In a world hungry for environmental success stories, Brazil has been the closest thing we have to a golden child. The nation, Latin America's largest economy, has been growing at an impressive clip, weathering the global financial crisis while cutting deforestation rates in the Amazon to historic lows. Citing its success in protecting the earth's largest rain forest, President Dilma Rousseff boasted that Brazil is "one of the most advanced countries" for sustainable development, on World Environment Day last June.

But it is too soon to declare victory in the Amazon. Corruption, lawlessness and massive land fraud are now threatening those gains, and an aggressive new development push in the region may soon open remote areas of the forest to being cut.

Between 2005 and 2010, Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions plunged by 39 percent, declining faster than in any other country. Brazil accomplished this by slashing its deforestation rate by more than three-quarters, mostly in the Amazon basin. (Burning forests to clear them is the second biggest source of greenhouse gases after the combustion of fossil fuels, accounting for 30 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities, according to one U.N. study.)

But lately, the trend has reversed. After increasing slightly in 2013, the pace of deforestation has more than doubled in the past six months, according to an analysis of photographs from Brazil's SAD monitoring system, which analyzes NASA satellite imagery and provides monthly updates on the state of the forest. Most of the recent clearing is to create cattle pasture in the "frontier states" of Para and Mato Grosso in the eastern and southern Amazon, respectively. "I don't like to look at the Amazon forest as something that could be gone in 30 or 40 years," says Rita Mesquita, a senior researcher with Brazil's National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA). "But that may be where we are headed if we don't change course."

Brazil still has a lot going for it. It has the largest network of protected areas of any country on Earth and strict logging rules, and it requires big landowners in the Amazon to maintain at least 50 percent of their holdings in native forest. But there is a widening gap between the stringent laws and the often-nonexistent enforcement, says Christian Poirer, a Brazil specialist with the advocacy group Amazon Watch. "There is basically a climate of impunity," says Poirer. "Only one percent of the fines that IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources] levels on individuals and corporations for illegal deforestation are actually collected." This agency, which is responsible for implementing Brazil's environmental laws, is, he says, "woefully underfunded and understaffed."

A report last May by Greenpeace blames weak government oversight for "the Amazon's silent crisis"--the widespread practice of timber laundering, in which trees are illegally harvested and then given apparently clean documentation to facilitate their sale. The Amazon watchdog group Imazon estimates that between August 2011 and July 2012, 78 percent of logging in Brazil's largest timber producer, Para state, was illegal.

There have been some high-profile efforts to crack down on the criminal networks that control the booming trade in contraband timber. Late this past February, Ezequiel Antonio Castanha, the alleged kingpin of a huge land clearance syndicate in Para, who officials say was responsible for up to 10 percent of the illegal deforestation in Brazil, was arrested in a joint operation by federal police and national security forces. Castanha is said to have hired squatter gangs to illegally occupy and clear federal forest reserves, then sell the land to speculators in the south of Brazil.

That a landgrab in a forest reserve is even possible is a testament not just to corruption and weak enforcement, says Poirer, but to an astonishing level of legal ambiguity about land title in Brazil. …

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