It’s a game of high-tech cat and mouse with the integrity of the Amazon rainforest at stake.
On one side are Brazil’s environmental agents, who are set to jump into their helicopters and swoop as soon as their real-time satellite surveillance system identifies deforestation.
On the other are the timber gangs, who use U.S. Navy UHF frequencies to warn cutters of the impending arrival of government teams to shut them down.
“It’s a tough battle, but one we are winning,” declared Luciano Evaristo, director at Ibama, the Brazilian environmental agency.
A month ago, Evaristo’s comment would have raised eyebrows amid concerns that clearance of the world’s largest rainforest was on the rise. In September, the government said deforestation had risen 29% in the July 2012 to June 2013 period, the first increase since 2009, and data showed a three-fold jump in the number of fires in the forest in the first eight months of 2014.
But two weeks ago, Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira announced a surprise 18% drop in deforestation in the July 2013 to July 2014 period, to 1,870 square miles, resuming the declining trend of the last decade.
While not directly involved in deforestation, Brazil’s massive agriculture sector attracts heat when numbers rise.
During the 1990s and 2000s, the expansion of soybean farming around the edges of the forest and the willingness of the beef industry to buy beef, no questions asked, in Amazon regions were key drivers of the sharp increase in deforestation. These sectors have worked to reduce their impact in the intervening period, but remain sensitive to accusations of stimulating jungle clearance.
THE LUNGS OF THE WORLD
The Amazon has been dubbed the lungs of the world because of its capacity to absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide.
Preservation of the rainforest, which covers 3.8 million square miles, is generally accepted as key in the fight against global warming and biodiversity depletion — it’s home to nearly a third of the planet’s flora and fauna.
Deforestation grew steadily in the 1990s and early 2000s until rising international outcry prompted Brazil to clamp down from 2004 onward, increasing on the ground and satellite surveillance.
As a result, clearance has fallen six-fold, but Ibama’s Evaristo vows to clamp down harder in order to squeeze the ever-innovative logging gangs.
In recent months, gangs started clearing smaller areas to more easily avoid detection by satellite. In response, Ibama will increase definition four-fold so that images can reveal clearance of as little as 15 acres, he said.
A SOCIAL ISSUE
Evaristo feels confident of long-term success in reducing deforestation.
But the squeeze creates social issues in forest communities.
While the government would like to push farmers out of the Amazon, the reality is there are too many to relocate — the nine states through which the forest cuts have a population of 20 million people — and many won’t leave.
In fact, the number of people in more remote parts of the forest is actually growing, attracted by big infrastructure projects.
The government is building a series of massive hydroelectric dams in the forest, including Belo Monte — the world’s third largest — and is also paving a number of key roads — the most important of which is the BR-163 that links Mato Grosso soybean fields to Amazon River ports.
The BR-163 project has certainly had a swelling effect on Novo Progresso, a town of 25,000 on the east of the forest which sits 425 miles north of Sorriso in Mato Grosso, the world’s biggest soybean county.
“People are coming here because they know that the roads bring development and the expansion of mining in the area,” said Agamenon da Silva Menezes, president of the farm union in Novo Progresso.
With more people in the region, the pressure to deforest grows.
Menezes explained that Ibama’s actions tend to have little effect on the poor farmers of the region, who don’t have proper land tenure and therefore have little to lose by occupying illicitly cleared land.
“We are seen as illegal anyway. Why are we going to take care with the forest? It’s a resource that we have,” said Menezes.
It seems clear that a sustainable solution has to be found for these communities, since they will likely remain in the forest.
In truth, deforestation is a social problem, just as much as a criminal issue, noted Paulo Barreto, a researcher at Imazon, an NGO focused on Amazon sustainability.
Experts agree the key to creating sustainable farming in and around the Amazon is the Forestry Code, passed in 2012.
The code creates Brazil’s first land registry, which will potentially allow legitimate farmers in the Amazon to access financing. That’s a big deal as currently farmers don’t get credit due to confusion over land titles caused by the disorderly occupation during the military government.
The funds would allow farmers to set up more efficient farms and rely less on exploiting the forest.
It will also allow Ibama to identify irregular properties more efficiently.
“The registry will allow us to implement the law better in deforesting hotspots and blacklist irregular farmers,” said Evaristo.
Some environmentalists called the code a deforesters’ charter as it pardoned past illegal clearance as long as farmers restored forest.
But the overall impact of the code is positive as it finally creates legal clarity, which will allow authorities to properly implement the law in the Amazon, said Rodrigo Lima, general manager at AgroIcone, a farm policy consultancy.
Of course, passing the code is one thing, implementing it is another.
Two years after it was passed, less than 10% of Brazil’s 5 million farms have applied to join the registry and the government faces a gargantuan task in enforcing the reforestation demands required of farmers as part of the code.
“There is an enormous amount of work ahead and it will be tough for the government to enforce the code when that time comes,” said Lima.