The changing face of Brazil’s deforestation

As Brazil reins in its deforestation of the Amazon, other regions are bearing the brunt of rapid economic expansion.

Brazil''s Controversial Belo Monte Dam Project To Displace Thousands in Amazon
While deforestation of the Amazon basin, above, has slowed, the Cerrado region is taking a hit [GALLO/GETTY]

Teresina, Brazil –
As a global power, Brazil has been a key player in the COP18 climate talks on the emissions reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol. And because Brazil is home to the majority of South America’s rainforest, it is pivotal to some of our planet’s most pressing environmental questions.

The United Nations’ Panel on Climate Change has estimated that “deforestation and forest degradation contribute globally to approximately 17 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions” – the third-largest human cause of emissions into the atmosphere.

In the Brazilian Amazon, the deforestation rate is now lower than it has been in decades. The Brazilian Space Research Institute, INPE, has found deforestation in Amazônia Legal is down nearly 80 per cent from the late 1980s, and has fallen steadily every year since the mid-2000s.

But outside the Amazon, the country’s forests are being cut much faster, according to multiple governmental and non-governmental research institutions. Brazil’s vast inland savanna, the Cerrado, is experiencing a wave of economic expansion, and Brazil’s laws do not give it the same protections as the Amazon region.

The Cerrado is the largest savanna in the world, and, according to Lara Montenegro, governance and public policy co-ordinator of The Society, Population, and Nature Institute, it is home to a huge diversity of species, many endangered.

It is estimated that the Cerrado’s flora stores only about half as much carbon as the dense Amazon rainforest, but it is being chopped down twice as fast. “So in the balance, it ends up releasing the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere,” Montenegro told Al Jazeera.

Eyes in the sky

Brazil’s satellite monitoring project for the Amazon photographs the land at a high enough resolution to distinguish between original canopy forest and deforested landscapes.

However, in the Cerrado, the topography of the land shows less clearly the difference between healthy and degraded habitats. The tropical savanna’s overlapping and changing categories of grasslands, scrublands, and forests are simply not as clearly identifiable from above.

Smoke from forest fires smears this satellite
photo taken over Tocantins state [INPE]

“It is harder, but not impossible,” said INPE’s head of Amazon Monitoring, Dalton de Morrison Valeriano. “It’s just a matter of using all the tools available.”

Seasonal fires are an integral part of both the savanna’s natural cycle and the agricultural calendar. But the fires change the face of the landscape, making satellite images much less effective for telling the difference between naturally burnt grasslands and those destroyed by human activity.

Yet seasonal changes in the Cerrado can be incorporated into monitoring efforts. One method that INPE is developing is comparing dry and rainy season photos, revealing what type of vegetation covers the ground – and when.

Because of the length of time between the seasons, this technique is not as effective for catching small-scale illegal loggers. But it does help INPE hold large landowners and producers accountable to Brazilian environmental law.

Another way to map deforestation in the savannas is by looking at the ground itself, rather than at the trees that cover it. “Soil maps help us a lot,” said Valeriano. With maps of different soil types, INPE can verify that the type of vegetation that covers the land seen in satellite photos actually matches the appropriate type of soil found there.

Unlike in rainforests, researchers estimated that seventy per cent of the Cerrado’s biomass is below ground. To survive the droughts and fires of the dry season, trees and bushes store most of their water in their roots – which can reach 30 metres deep. The ISPN’s Montenegro said “the Cerrado holds much more carbon than it would appear”.

INPE is finding that, as they get better at mapping Brazil’s forests from space, large landowners are having a harder time getting past the law – but illegal land grabs still persist. “What predominates now is smaller deforestation sites,” said Valeriano.

Protecting forests at grasslands’ expense

For conservation groups, the Amazon basin is a global priority, and activists have played an important role in fortifying Brazil’s environmental practices. But this in turn has produced a dilemma in the conservation agenda.

According to David Cleary, director of agriculture at The Nature Conservancy, international attention on the Amazon “has had a perverse result: success in the Amazon means more problems for the Cerrado”.

“The reality is that comparatively little beef and soy comes out of the Amazon, while huge volumes are produced in the Cerrado.”

He thinks that Brazil is jeopardising its natural habitats by not distinguishing between deforestation, which only involves forests, and habitat conversion, which involves both forests and grasslands.

The Nature Conservancy’s work in Brazil began in the Cerrado, and only later became involved in the Amazon. Cleary told Al Jazeera that the group’s successes in Brazil have come “with the development of satellite monitoring systems and working with companies and local and state governments to get more producers into compliance with the Forest Code”.

Earlier this year, Brazil made the first changes to this code [O Código Florestal] – the country’s body of environmental legislation – since it was written in 1965. The controversial changes pitted the pro-agribusiness political bloc in congress, the Ruralistas [“Ruralists”], against social movements, indigenous groups and environmentalists.

President Rousseff vetoed some of the most unpopular proposals, but ultimately passed the bill in May. One law that did not change was that in the Amazon, at least 80 per cent of the forest on every plot of land must remain standing. In the Cerrado, however, landowners are only required to leave 20 per cent of their property untouched.

This flexibility for producers has helped stimulate an agribusiness boom visible from space. Valeriano said that INPE has observed cattle-ranching and industrialised agriculture spreading by the day. “We can see the repercussions of external forces, like changes in international commodity prices, on the land,” he said.

Boots on the ground

The states of Maranhão, Piauí, and Tocantins are currently experiencing some of the fastest deforestation in the country, according to The Nature Conservancy, but few of the habitats in these states are rainforest.

In the far south of Piauí state, in Northeastern Brazil, the air is dry, much of the soil is sandy, and it is one of the hottest parts of the Cerrado. But armed with genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilisers and heavy machinery, large-scale soy producers are changing the landscape.

With few vehicles, Piaui’s Environmental Battalion rarely
patrol outside of main cities [Rob Sawers/Al Jazeera]

Captain Ivanilde Alvez de Melo of Piauí’s is part of the military police’s “Environmental Battalion”.

“In the south of Piauí, all you see is soy plantations, no forests,” she said.

Violations of environmental law are dealt with by the military police, and in most states the force has a specially dedicated Environmental Battalion. But in Piauí, the battalion admits it has no way to police deforestation.

The police have no direct contact with INPE, so it has no eyes in the sky. With only a handful of trucks and motorcycles, they rarely make patrols outside the capital city Teresina and its surrounding municipalities.

“I don’t know if [the laws] are being respected, but I don’t think they are,” Captain Alvez admitted.

Gaps in law enforcement allow producers in the Cerrado to clear the land and intensify production. So, despite the high-tech monitoring that has slowed deforestation in the rainforest, Brazil has brought a mixed scorecard to the climate talks in Doha.

Having worked in both the Amazon and in the Cerrado, Cleary remains doubtful that such climate meetings can address the core issues of habitat loss in Brazil, and believes that economic forces will continue to drive deforestation.

“Much of the Amazon is remote and we can be confident that it will still be, around a century from now pretty much as it is today. But you can’t say that about anywhere in the Cerrado. The pressures are much greater there.”

Follow Rob Sawers on Twitter: @RobSawers

Source: Al Jazeera