80% increase in deforestation in Brazilian conservation units linked to agribusiness and cuts to enforcement


Commodities on the move on the improved BR-163 highway Photo: Roosevelt Pinheiro

A recent study by the Brazilian environmental NGO Imazon has revealed that deforestation within conservation units in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 80% between 2012 and 2015, compared to a 35% increase in deforestation generally. A total of 237,000 hectares of forest was cleared within parks and other protected areas during the period 2012-2015, leading to the loss of 136 million trees.

The most affected conservation units are found around the “arc of deforestation”, where the agricultural frontier continues to advance, especially in the states of Para, Rondonia, Mato Grosso and Acre. As recently revealed by Mongabay, deforestation in these regions is also connected to development projects – the construction of roads, ports and waterways – meant to facilitate the transportation of agricultural commodities, especially soy, from farm to national and international markets. Most of the conservation units concerned allow human activity, so not all deforestation within them can be automatically assumed to be illegal. However, the numerous case studies documented in the report indicate that the majority of the recent increase can be attributed to a surge in illegal conversion.

Imazon’s study reveals that one of the worst affected areas is the one along the BR-163 motorway, which connects Cuiaba (Mato Grosso) to Santarem (Para). Land grabbing, farming and infrastructure projects in the region are contributing to illegal deforestation within conservation units, which were created along the motorway exactly to contain future deforestation resulting from its construction.

In order to tackle the increasing problem, Imazon is calling for urgent action by governments and campaigning organisations to force agribusiness firms to stop buying products grown on the illegally deforested land, and to ensure banks stop financing such activities. They cite an example from October 2016, when IBAMA (Brazil’s environment enforcement agency) fined a number of banks, including Santander, for having financed corn and soybean planting on land which was illegally deforested. Such actions were instrumental in driving the dramatic reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon during 2004-2009, a reduction which has recently gone into reverse.

According to O Eco, a Brazilian environmental news portal, a key factor in that reversal has been cuts in funding for enforcement of legislation at conservation areas. ICMBio, the federal agency responsible for conservation units, lost 40% of its staff between 2010 and 2016. IBAMA has seen reductions of 33% and the closure of 89 of its bases throughout the country.

Illegal conversion is not the only threat posed to the Brazilian Amazon’s conservation areas by agribusiness. Another is legal declassification. Amazonia Real, another Brazilian environmental news portal, has highlighted an increasing trend whereby successive federal governments have approved changes to the boundaries of conservation units, in response to pressure from agribusinesses.

A good example is provided by the Bom Futuro National Forest, in Rondonia. As documented by O Eco, in 2009, it had over 35,000 heads of cattle within its limits. This led IBAMA to lead a joint enforcement team of over 400 police and other federal agents into the area that year to halt the deforestation, remove the cattle and bring the area back under control. However, following lobbying by local political and business interests, the federal government changed the most deforested area of Bom Futuro (144,000 hectares) into the Rio Pardo Environment Protected Area (APA) and the Rio Pardo State Forest, creating the conditions for illegal cattle ranching to continue.

These kinds of boundary changes help drive illegal deforestation elsewhere. Elis Araújo, one of the IMAZON report’s authors, told O Eco that recent changes to the boundaries of protected areas create the perception among land grabbers that they can benefit from such measures in the future. In February, Earthsight reported on the boundary change at the Jamanxim National Forest in Para, which Greenpeace and Brazilian civil society have denounced as an amnesty to illegal farmers and land grabbers.

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