The Brazilian Amazon lost 6,624 sq km of forest between August 2016 and July 2017, an area about twice the City of London.
This week, president Michel Temer’s administration said the 16% reduction from the previous period was a victory against illegal clearing. But environmental groups cautioned against such optimism and criticised the government for stripping protections from forests to aid farmers.
The figure, calculated by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has been used for a range of environmental policies. It is also the base to calculate the level of Norwegian aid to fight deforestation in the Amazon – if the rate increases, the funding dwindles.
In a press conference held on Tuesday, environment minister José Sarney Filho said the reduction showed Brazil had regained control over deforestation in the Amazon as a result of more effective enforcement of the law.
“When people who do illegal deforestation know that the Brazilian state is present, they reduce their activities. This is what’s happening”, said Sarney Filho.
The minister also defended the federal government’s record from heavy criticism by environmentalists. He said the government abandoned the idea of opening a 46,450 sq km area in the Amazon for mining and refused to grant an environmental license to build a big hydroelectric dam in the Tapajós river.
But in the long term, Sarney Filho warned the state could not combat deforestation only through enforcement measures. There are about 25 million people living in the Amazon under strict environmental laws. The best option, he argued, is to promote environmental forest services that bring profit through conservation, such as the UN’s REDD+ carbon credit programme.
The reduction in the deforestation rate came as a relief for Temer, who came to office last year after the controversial impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, faces several corruption charges and has an approval rate as low as 3%.
In order to avoid the same fate as his predecessor, Temer made an alliance in Congress with the powerful “beef caucus”, which according to investigative journalism website Agência Pública controls 207 out of 513 lawmakers in the lower chamber. Ultimately, it’s this alliance that keeps him in office. But it has come at a price.
Among other measures, Temer signed a generous legislation to regularise more illegal claims, froze indigenous lands demarcations and has tried to reduce conservation units in order to legalize land-grabbers. As recently as this week, facing a new vote in Congress that could end Temer’s rule, the government relaxed the definition of slave labor, an old demand of the beef caucus.
Brazilian environmentalists showed little, if any, enthusiasm at the lower deforestation rate. They argued the reduction was not enough after a 29% increase in 2016 and said the negative effects of many Temer policy decisions were still to be felt.
NGO Observatorio do Clima published a list of ten reasons of why the announcement should not be celebrated. Besides the government’s embrace of the beef caucus agenda, it mentions this year’s long drought, with a record of 106,000 forest fires in September alone, as well as a lack of policies beyond enforcement, as the Sarney Filho himself admitted.
“The 2017 Brazilian Amazon deforestation rate released by the federal government is still alarming. We lost 6,624 sq km, despite the fact that there is already nearly 100,000 sq km of pastureland under-utilised in the Amazon,” said Paulo Barreto, a researcher with NGO Imazon, which has a parallel deforestation monitoring that had already forecast the slowdown of the deforestation. “The burning of this area released greenhouses gases equivalent to 2.3 times all the 49 million cars in Brazil during a year.”
“The drop is likely to be the result of some restoration of enforcement efforts by the government, but also due to the reduction of cattle prices associated with the Brazilian recession. Several studies have shown that the cattle price is a good predictor of the deforestation rate since pastureland occupies nearly 65% of the cleared areas,” said Barreto.
According to the researcher, the government’s July decision to pardon grileiros, or land-grabbers, “sends a clear signal to grileiros and environmental criminals: Keep deforesting illegally. Politicians will pardon you.”
Compounding the grim picture painted by environmentalists, on Wednesday, researchers at the University of Vermont released a study that found mining operations were an alarming new driver of deforestation in Brazil. Mostly illegal, mines were responsible for 10% of Amazon rainforest deforestation between 2005 and 2015.
A Climate Home News investigation in September showed how diamond miners, with the aid of the Catholic church, had devastated one indigenous reserve.