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FEATURE: Brazil deforestation – Politics, crime and logging endanger Amazonia


In a wide-ranging report, CDKN’s Miren Gutierrez says there is no time for complacency about the condition and threats to the Brazilian Amazon.

Statistics show that some indicators of Amazon destruction have been rising for quite some time, and illegal logging is a key factor. In fact, illegal timber activity in the Brazilian Amazon “spiked since 2015, bringing the rate to its highest level in eight years,” says a Nature report. This trend should ring alarm bells and convince Brazilian society it’s no time to be complacent about the Amazon forest ecosystem.

In Brazil, deforestation overall has been falling since 2004, thanks in part to sturdier government enforcement of the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon. A number of Brazilian political leaders and Brazilian NGOs “created the political dynamics that encouraged governments and businesses to act,” says an assessment by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Among Brazilian politicians, Marina Silva, former Minister of the Environment, led the effort to reduce deforestation, but after several years in office, she resigned from Lula´s cabinet, and became the Green Party’s presidential candidate in the race to succeed him in 2010. She won nearly 20% of the vote in the first round. Before leaving office, Lula agreed to move the deadline for Brazil’s target to reduce deforestation rates by 80% forward from 2020 to 2016. And the Brazilan Zero Deforestation Campaign, going further, urged an end to all deforestation by 2015 (see Solutions).

Forest target in danger

However, the aspirations to achieve zero deforestation are now in danger.

The Brazilian Congress relaxed the country’s forest protections in 2012, and some Brazilian lawmakers “are pushing to further relax environmental laws to promote development across the Amazon,” says Nature. “Conservative lawmakers want to weaken the country’s environmental regulations to clear the way for rapid development of energy facilities, mines and agriculture — in the Amazon and beyond. Their push comes at a time of economic and political turmoil following the impeachment in August of former President Dilma Rousseff,” adds another report published by Nature.

As of November 2016, more than 20 legislative proposals were “circulating in the Brazilian Congress to loosen regulations governing activities such as building roads and hydroelectric dams or expanding agricultural businesses. One proposed constitutional amendment would ensure approval of a project once its developers have submitted an environmental-impact analysis — essentially eliminating government review,” says Nature.

“The debate comes during Brazil’s worst recession in decades, and follows corruption scandals that brought down Rousseff and her leftist Workers’ Party –adds the report. The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party has taken the reins but it, too, has been tainted. Several cabinet members have resigned, and corruption investigations are continuing — with (Michel) Temer in the crosshairs.”

To cope with curb a rise in public debt and deal with the crisis, Brazil’s Senate has just approved a major constitutional amendment limiting public-spending increases for up to 20 years.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered Temer has promised to honour Brazil’s environmental and climate agenda, including its commitments under the Paris climate agreement. But agricultural and business interests are pushing back.

Integrated approach needed for Amazon resource pressures

A CDKN assessment – undertaken by Global Canopy Programme in broad consultation with stakeholders in the Brazilian Amazon – concludes that drivers of deforestation in the Amazon are related to hydroelectric expansion (from Belo Monte, Balbina and Tucuruí, for example), road infrastructure such as the Transamazonica and Cuiabá-Santarém, and local roads, and land use dynamics for agricultural and livestock activities. The assessment also suggests that the interrelationship of these factors, as well as other external elements, are not always clear and need to be better understood. For example, deforestation in the Cerrado –a vast tropical savanna ecoregion— can interfere with important rivers (e.g. Xingu) that flow to the Amazon. In addition, land use in the Cerrado can shift other crops to the Amazon.

The study recommends an analysis of the water-energy-food nexus to identify gaps and inconsistencies in governance of natural resources, and suggests that there is a need for integrated, strategic and systemic planning to address these problems. This understanding, accounting and systematisation should also inform strategic decision-making at all levels, and improve governance and transparency through adoption of coherent, realistic goals.

Tackling forest crime will be essential

Illegal logging is not only connected to biodiversity loss and climate change. It generates big profits as well as violence. “There are probably thousands of small illegal logging camps across the Amazon. Men armed with machetes and chainsaws, cutting down valuable Brazilian hardwoods are the foot soldiers in a highly profitable and dangerous trade,” says a report published by the BBC.

For example, Greenpeace reported last year that illegally logged timber in Brazil is being laundered and then sold on to unaware buyers in the UK, US, Europe and China (see the Greenpeace report, 2015). “Loggers in Brazil are not only able to harvest Amazon timber illegally; they have elaborate systems to launder the wood, label it as ‘legal’, and then send to consumers around the world,” the report states. After a two-year investigation, the environmental campaign group uncovered evidence of systematic abuse and a faulty monitoring systems that contradicts the Brazilian government’s claims to be coping with the problem of deforestation in the Amazon.

The timber, unlike other wildlife trade, it is “closely linked to industrial-scale profits, national income and development. Unsurprisingly, incidents of illegal logging correlate geographically with the world’s remaining tracts of forest: mainly the Amazon basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia. Found in developing countries, often with poor governance and corrupt businessmen and politicians, the scene is set for unscrupulous companies to take advantage, often with the greatest loss to the poorest of society who lose land and livelihoods,” says a report published by The Global Response to Transnational Organized Environmental Crime.

Environmental crime is a relatively unknown issue, and there is significant “inconsistency” between the ways it is treated under international and national legal frameworks, says the report. “For example, the trade in fauna and flora is regulated by comparatively robust international law, with penalties to non-compliant parties. Illegal logging and fishing however mainly rely on national laws and agreements… Such ambiguities currently present a challenge.”

The CDKN-supported Amazon study recommends strengthening compliance with environmental legislation regarding the granting of funds to public and private financial institutions, and identifying business opportunities that are free of deforestation as well.

This accords with similar recommendations from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who conclude: “A strong response from all Brazilian sectors – including the private sector – is needed to reverse this emerging trend of increasing deforestation rates. Otherwise, the country’s capacity to control destruction of the largest forest on the planet will, undoubtedly, be greatly hampered”.

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