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Amazon deforestation soars

SourceJan Rocha

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The government sees it as a blip but admits that organised crime has moved into the forest

Official figures show that deforestation in “Legal Amazon”, as the the Amazon basin is called in Brazil, rose by 28%  from the beginning of August 2012 to the end of July 2013.

Greenpeace immediately blamed the controversial Forestry Code approved by Congress in May 2012. Under pressure from the “bancada ruralista” ­– the agribusiness lobby in Congress – and in defiance of scientific advice,  the government watered down the penalties for illegal deforestation and reduced protected areas in this code.

Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign coordinator,  Marcio Astrini, said: “They did a deal with the ruralistas. We can feel it in the field. There’s a climate of  `we’ve won`, it’s OK to fell forest.” 

Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira denied the connection between the approval of the new Forestry Code and the increase in deforestation, blaming instead organised crime and the failure of local administrations, both municipal and state, to combat illegal deforestation.  She also claimed that the rise was not linked to the recent reduction in the budget for Ibama, the official environment agency responsible for monitoring forest clearance.

“What is happening has been an increase in criminal activity. There are 3,921 police investigations underway, some of them involving civil servants. [To get rid of corruption], we are cutting our own flesh.”

She also said that the much higher figure  – a 92%  increase in  deforestation  – given  by the non-governmental  organisation  Imazon, one of the most respected environmental institutes in the Amazon, was “mistaken”, claiming  it had overstated  deforestation by 228% . 

The minister said that her figures came from the government agency, INPE (National Institute for Space Research), which uses a different methodology from the one used by Imazon. She stressed that:  “what happens in Brazil and what will be recorded in official data is what INPE says.”

Cleared area. Big photo credit: European Environmental Bureau.INPE’s figures put total deforestation in Legal Amazon at 5,843sq.kms from August 2012/July 2013, compared with 4,571 sq. kms in  the previous period. The state of Mato Grosso recorded the biggest increase, up from 700 sq.kms to over 1,000 sq.kms, while the state of Pará had the largest deforested area, over 2,300 sq.km., an increase of 37% over the previous period. Once again,  Minister Teixeira played down the increases in these states, saying  that deforestation had returned to these states in a “residual” manner, and that over a thousand monitoring operations had been carried out in the region.

The Environment Ministry’s determinedly upbeat attitude was reflected in its press release, which ran as its the headline:  “Amazon deforestation is at the second lowest level since records began [in 1988]”.  It said that its forecasts suggest that deforestation will continue its downward decline in future years. Even though  Mato Grosso and Pará are two of the biggest states in the Amazon basin, it referred to them  as “isolated cases”.  It said that the government  had  begun to use intelligence operations to put an end to the activities of “the mafias, involving landgrabbers and civil servants , who are behind  the advance in devastation”.

Over the last year  Ibama has increased  by 120% the value of  the fines it has imposed for illegal deforestation .  However, the institute has not said how many of these fines have  actually been paid and it is known that, in practice, many are simply ignored by landowners.

Despite the official optimism, the figures are a cause for considerable concern among environmentalists.  Even if the increase in felling is 28% , rather than the 92% estimated by Imazon, this is still a huge rise. Moreover, the official acknowledgement that organised crime and mafias, including civil servants, are behind the increase, is highly significant. The government is admitting that some of the people meant to be protecting the forest are working with farmers and loggers to destroy it. If this is the case, then felling is a fast growing criminal activity and there is little sign that the Brazilian government  is  properly prepared to deal with it.