In a world hungry for environmental success stories, Brazil has been the closest thing we have to a golden child. The nation, Latin America’s largest economy, has been growing at an impressive clip, weathering the global financial crisis while cutting deforestation rates in the Amazon to historic lows. Citing its success in protecting the earth’s largest rain forest, President Dilma Rousseff boasted that Brazil is “one of the most advanced countries” for sustainable development, on World Environment Day last June.
But it is too soon to declare victory in the Amazon. Corruption, lawlessness and massive land fraud are now threatening those gains, and an aggressive new development push in the region may soon open remote areas of the forest to being cut.
Between 2005 and 2010, Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions plunged by 39 percent, declining faster than in any other country. Brazil accomplished this by slashing its deforestation rate by more than three-quarters, mostly in the Amazon basin. (Burning forests to clear them is the second biggest source of greenhouse gases after the combustion of fossil fuels, accounting for 30 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities, according to one U.N. study.)
But lately, the trend has reversed. After increasing slightly in 2013, the pace of deforestation has more than doubled in the past six months, according to an analysis of photographs from Brazil’s SAD monitoring system, which analyzes NASA satellite imagery and provides monthly updates on the state of the forest. Most of the recent clearing is to create cattle pasture in the “frontier states” of Para and Mato Grosso in the eastern and southern Amazon, respectively. “I don’t like to look at the Amazon forest as something that could be gone in 30 or 40 years,” says Rita Mesquita, a senior researcher with Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA). “But that may be where we are headed if we don’t change course."
Brazil still has a lot going for it. It has the largest network of protected areas of any country on Earth and strict logging rules, and it requires big landowners in the Amazon to maintain at least 50 percent of their holdings in native forest. But there is a widening gap between the stringent laws and the often-nonexistent enforcement, says Christian Poirer, a Brazil specialist with the advocacy group Amazon Watch. “There is basically a climate of impunity,” says Poirer. “Only one percent of the fines that IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources] levels on individuals and corporations for illegal deforestation are actually collected.” This agency, which is responsible for implementing Brazil's environmental laws, is, he says, “woefully underfunded and understaffed.”
A report last May by Greenpeace blames weak government oversight for “the Amazon’s silent crisis”—the widespread practice of timber laundering, in which trees are illegally harvested and then given apparently clean documentation to facilitate their sale. The Amazon watchdog group Imazon estimates that between August 2011 and July 2012, 78 percent of logging in Brazil’s largest timber producer, Para state, was illegal.
There have been some high-profile efforts to crack down on the criminal networks that control the booming trade in contraband timber. Late this past February, Ezequiel Antonio Castanha, the alleged kingpin of a huge land clearance syndicate in Para, who officials say was responsible for up to 10 percent of the illegal deforestation in Brazil, was arrested in a joint operation by federal police and national security forces. Castanha is said to have hired squatter gangs to illegally occupy and clear federal forest reserves, then sell the land to speculators in the south of Brazil.
That a landgrab in a forest reserve is even possible is a testament not just to corruption and weak enforcement, says Poirer, but to an astonishing level of legal ambiguity about land title in Brazil. “Only about 14 percent of the privately occupied land in the Amazon is backed by a secure land deed,” he says. “[Squatters] rely on the absence of genuine land titles to overburden the system with fraudulent titles, which plays into the hands of deforestation mafias seeking to avoid detection and accountability.”
Then there’s the much-lauded soy moratorium, an agreement by major food companies, in partnership with the Brazilian government, to stop buying soybeans grown on forest-cleared land. It has been one of the main drivers in slowing down deforestation, but Philip Fearnside, a research professor in the Department of Ecology at INPA, reports that farmers have routinely flouted the ban by cutting the rain forest to plant crops like rice or corn for a year or so, and then quietly changing over to soy. It is yet another loophole in Brazil’s confusing labyrinth of environmental regulations.
In her initial run for president, in 2010, Dilma Rousseff pledged a zero-tolerance policy for deforestation. But, according to Fearnside, once in office she allied herself with the so-called ruralist bloc, a coalition of wealthy farmers and agribusinesses that helped rewrite the country’s land-use laws in their own favor. Meanwhile, she continued to try to appear pro-conservation: Fearnside alleges that the embarrassing new deforestation numbers were deliberately “hidden” until after the presidential vote this past November, in which Rousseff was elected to a second term. (In an email to Newsweek, a ministry spokesman, Francisco J.B. Oliveira Filho, denied the allegation.)
Recently, she has become more brazen. In a clear signal of the government’s new priorities, Rousseff appointed Kátia Abreu, a former rancher from the Amazonian border state of Tocantins, as minister of agriculture in December. Abreu, the former head of Brazil’s Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, is nicknamed the “chain saw queen” by environmentalists. Abreu says the nation has been listening to those environmentalists for too long. “There are many things holding back progress—the environmental issue, the Indian issue and more,” Abreu says. “But even with these problems, we keep producing high levels of productivity. Imagine how high it might be without those obstacles.”
Equally worrying is the man just chosen to be Brazil’s minister of science, technology and innovation, Aldo Rebelo, who has been saying that talk of global warming is “scientism” not science, calling it a tool used by Western imperialists to control poor countries. Without the support of the scientific community, Amazonia would be doomed: One of the main arguments for not cutting the rain forest is the devastating effect the increased carbon emissions would have on the global climate.
The government’s saving grace might be the fact that it also employs scientists like Fearnside, who are conducting cutting-edge research on the impact of global warming on tropical climate systems. The handlebar-mustached scientist occupies a basement office in Brazil’s sprawling Amazon research facility in Manaus, with a Greenpeace map, streaked in red to mark newly deforested areas, pinned to the wall. He blames the growing rise in cutting, in large part, on the Forest Code, enacted in 2012, which rolled back crucial protections for the rain forest and declared an amnesty for those who violated environmental laws before 2008. “If you cleared illegally, you got away with it,” Fearnside said. “And the expectation is that if you clear illegally now, sooner or later there will be another amnesty that will forgive your past crimes. On the other hand, if you actually obeyed the law, you lost money. So the incentives are very perverse.”
Then there is the recent spate of dam construction. Fearnside has been a leading critic of the Belo Monte dam on the remote Xingu River, which he claims has been a technological boondoggle and will be an environmental nightmare when it is completed in 2019, converting flooded vegetation in the vast reservoir into the potent greenhouse gas methane. The Brazilian government counters that tapping the vast hydropower potential in the Amazon is helping to keep it a world leader in alternative energy. The natural resource-rich country produces 85 percent of its power from renewables.
“The government now plans to build 29 major dams and 80 smaller dams on the Tapajos River, which is amongst the last free-flowing tributaries in the Brazilian Amazon,” says Poirer. The proposed São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric project would be the third biggest in the country and cost an estimated $11.2 billion to build. The dam would flood large tracts of land controlled by the indigenous Munduruku people, one of the largest culturally intact native groups remaining in the country, numbering 13,000 individuals. In addition, dam construction brings in large new populations to the Amazon. Once the projects are complete, unemployed construction workers often fan out into the hinterland and clear the jungle for farms, greatly increasing deforestation.
Despite protests from the Federal Public Ministry (an independent agency of the Brazilian government that defends the rights of minority groups), the Tapajos dam project seems likely to go ahead. So too does the plan for a major new highway that would run from the city of Manaus through the still-pristine heart of the Amazon to the so-called arc of deforestation, a large swath of the southern Amazon largely cleared for soy plantations. The new road is part of an ambitious five-year plan for development in Brazil. “In the Amazon, 95 percent of the deforestation takes place next to roads or next to navigable rivers,” warns Poirer. “These roads mean access, they mean forest destruction.”
And a relatively new threat, hydrocarbon development, is booming in the western Amazon, where oil and natural gas fields are being discovered every year. The pressures on Brazil to further develop Amazonia for energy and agriculture are enormous. And so are the stakes for a region that is on the front line of the global fight to control climate change and to preserve the world’s diminishing biodiversity.
It’s too soon to concede defeat, says Fearnside. “There are lots of groups working here putting pressure on the government to change course,” he says. “Brazil is a very diverse place, including the Brazilian government, which includes many people who are very concerned about [the environment], so it’s important not to become fatalistic. “
Still, it’s hard to be optimistic. “The Amazon’s destiny is extremely fragile at the moment,” warns Fearnside, adding that the gains of previous decades are in the hands of lawmakers and bureaucrats who have shown little love for environmental protection. “It can all be changed with the stroke of a pen.”