How Brazil Cut Deforestation Rates to Record Lows

Traveling from the heart of the Amazon rainforest to the Tropical savannah climate of the Brazilian capital of Brasilia offers a lesson in contrasts -- patches of forest and deforestation are replaced with monolithic white government buildings, poor villagers of the Amazon with well-dressed politicians and businesspeople. But as little as these two places have in common, policies and practices enacted in Brasilia will be key in determining the fate of the Amazon. That said, I recently had the chance to sit down with the director of IBAMA, Brazil's Environmental enforcement agency, to discuss what was being done to protect the world's largest rainforest and to get the scoop on the latest deforestation figures.After seeing, firsthand, the impact that deforestation has on the landscape in the Amazon, it was nice to get a bit of good news.

Over the last few years, deforestation rates throughout the Amazon have been in steady decline -- some say in part to the work of NGOs, others suggest it was the global economic downturn -- but officials from IBAMA, Brazil's Environmental enforcement agency, think they should get most of the credit. Improvements in their ability to detect and offer consequences to deforesting farmers and ranchers, insists IBAMA director Luciano Evaristo, have been crucial to curbing the rate at which the rainforest is lost.

Between 2000 and 2008, the Amazon rainforest lost an average of 18,786 km² annually; last year, that number was down to 7,464 km² last year -- evidence of a shift in tactics. Ten years ago, says Evaristo, IBAMA was "looking blindly for deforestation," with "no tools" to catch deforestation operations before it was too late. Even simple factors like cloud cover would make monitoring parts of the Amazon virtually impossible, and those cutting down the trees knew that.

In the past, IBAMA agents would essentially just drive around, trying to catch farmers and ranchers in the act. But even if a farmer or ranger was found to be illegally deforesting their land, the fines imposed on them were often contested in an endless legal battle. Amazingly, less than 1 percent of fines for deforesting have ever been paid.

After 27,772 km² of forest was deforested in 2004, the highest rate ever recorded, it became clear that these old enforcement methods really weren't effective.

Since then, advances in technology and better enforcement methods have changed the way IBAMA operates. A recently launched satellite, developed with the help of the Chinese, allows the enforcement agency to peer through clouds, greatly enhancing their monitoring ability. Every 15 days, IBAMA receives new satellite imagery showing the latest spots where deforestation is taking place, allowing officers to close down such operations much more quickly than they could before.

Photo via IBAMA

Those caught illegally deforesting their land, usually farmers and ranchers making room for cattle or crops, can now expect a harder hit to their pocketbooks. Instead of only imposing fines, now enforcement agents seek to "decapitalize the crime," says Evaristo. Deforesting cattle ranchers can now expect to have their livestock seized, while farmers' crops will be forced to rot in the ground. Those caught with illegal timber operations, too, may be squeezed out of business; IBAMA posts the names of those landowners on their Web site for the world to see.

"[Their] days are numbered," the director of IBAMA promises. "Zero illegal deforestation is possible."

While it may be possible, zero illegal deforestation is not yet a reality -- though the figures are expected to keep on falling dramatically due to the latest efforts of IBAMA, and the 700-800 enforcement agents on the ground in the Amazon at any given time. The latest deforestation rates are slated for release on July 31, likely to show that around 5,000-6,000 km² of forest was lost -- beating out the record low of 2009, and furthering a trend we'd very much like to see continue.

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Tags: Amazonia | Brazil | Deforestation