is a social scientist, freelance consultant and author and was the office manager of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Rio de Janeiro until 2010.

Deforestation remains Brazil’s biggest environmental problem – but the trend has been downward in recent years. But can these successes last in the face of pressure from large-scale projects and resource extraction?

alt="Cleared rainforest in the Amazon" width="620" height="413" /> Cleared rainforest in the Amazon region (&copy picture alliance/WILDLIFE )

The destruction of the last rainforests is one of the biggest global environmental problems. The rainforests concentrate a good part of the planet’s biodiversity and with the destruction of the forests, the habitat of indigenous peoples is also disappearing. It is now also recognized that the burning of tropical forests accounts for a significant proportion – estimates vary between 10-20 percent – of greenhouse gas CO2 emissions. Stopping the deforestation of tropical forests has thus also become the subject of international climate negotiations. Brazil, as the country with the largest tropical forest areas in the world, is at the center of this attention.

In 2012, the eyes of the world turned to Brazil – Rio hosted Rio+20, the UN summit to take stock twenty years after the 1992 Rio Conference, often referred to as the Earth Summit. This year, of all years, Brazilian politicians argued over a revision of the forest law. Under existing law, landowners in Amazonia are only allowed to clear 20 percent of their forest land – the rest must be preserved as forest reserves. Although these regulations have not always been respected, they have been a thorn in the side of many landowners. In parliament, a powerful alliance of landowners – known as the bancada rurarlista – sought to "flexibilize" the existing legislation. National and international environmental organizations sounded the alarm. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who wanted to boast about her country’s forest policy successes in Rio, found herself under pressure. After tough wrangling, reform of forest law ends in compromise. The president vetoed many provisions, so the requirement to protect 80 percent of forest land has largely been preserved-although its implementation is now more flexible. One of the most controversial provisions was left untouched by the president: a quasi-amnesty for deforestation in the past.

The forest gives way to cattle

Where there was forest before, there are mostly pastures after its destruction. This can now be determined quite reliably by satellite observation. According to the respected Brazilian Government Institute for Remote Observation (Inpe), 62.2 percent of the deforested area is cattle pasture. Only 4.9 percent is used for agriculture, and 21 percent is not used at all, with secondary vegetation spreading here.

In fact, cattle farming is the big consumer of land in Brazil. 194 million people live in the country, but even more cattle: 212.8 million counted by the official statistics institute IBGE in 2011. An unimaginable 172 million hectares are used as cattle pastures, 70 percent of the country’s agricultural land. Brazil is now the world’s largest beef exporter. Part of this export success comes at the expense of the rainforest. For the last twenty years, the expansion of cattle ranching has mainly taken place in and around the Amazon region.

Besides cattle breeding, at least in some parts of the Amazon, especially in the boom state of Mato Grosso – soybean cultivation also plays an important role in the conversion of forest areas. Soy is the fastest growing of all crops. Brazil is also now the world’s largest exporter of soy, most of which is processed into animal feed. So it’s rising meat consumption worldwide that’s increasing pressure on the rainforest.

Roads and major projects

But it’s not just livestock and agriculture that are increasing pressure on forests. Since 2003, when Inacio Lula da Silva came to power, the Amazon has once again become a focus of national development policy. The clearest signal of this is the resumption of construction of controversial large-scale projects in the Amazon region. Brazil is currently building the world’s third-largest dam in the middle of the rainforest, on the Xingu River – despite numerous national and international protests. But with the construction of the Belo Monte mega-dam, the ambitions are far from being satisfied. Most of the potential for new hydroelectric power plants is in the Amazon, which therefore has a strategic role for the future of energy policy: 38 dams are to be built in the region in the next few years according to government plans.

The construction of new roads or the expansion of existing ones – for example in the soy-growing regions of Mato Grosso – and the global commodities boom, which is also driving the exploitation of mineral resources in the Amazon region, are further factors threatening the rainforest.

Deforestation is declining

Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest (as of 2013) License: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/en/ (bpb)

Although deforestation remains Brazil’s central environmental problem, there have also been important successes in recent years. After deforestation increased in 2003 and 2004 at annual rates of more than 25.000 km², policymakers reacted with some success: since 2009, annual deforestation rates have been significantly lower than 10.000 km². This development is partly the result of increased controls and punishments of illegal activities, but also due to the expansion of protected areas in Amazonia. 43.9 percent of Amazonia is protected, about half of it as indigenous territories. Between 2003 and 2006, when the renowned environmentalist Marina Silva was still minister, the network of protected areas was expanded; today there are about 2.5 million km² under protection. For comparison: the land area of France is 543.000 km². Even though many of the protected areas are the scene of conflicts and small-scale final deforestation, they have proven to be an effective brake overall. In addition to government policies, civil society initiatives have also helped turn around deforestation rates. This is how Greenpeace agreed on a moratorium with the most important soy traders. Signatories pledge not to buy soy from land deforested after 2006. The moratorium has been in place since 2006 and has been extended until the end of 2014.

But no all-clear

During the 2013 climate negotiations in Warsaw, the Brazilian government had to announce an unpleasant statistic: Deforestation rates had risen again in 2012/13 – by 28 percent to 5.843 km², still twice the area of Saarland. No country in the world is destroying more forest than Brazil. Analyses by Brazilian NGOs see a link with the 2012 amendment to the forest law. In particular, the amnesty for past deforestation can be seen as an encouragement for future deforestation. Another reason is the construction of the Belo Monte dam, where deforestation is increasing. The recommendation of the environmental expert for the construction of the dam to compensate for this damage by creating new protected areas was not implemented.

The government, on the other hand, sees no sign of a trend reversal and points out that the figures are still far below those of ten years ago. But in fact, it remains to be seen whether the successes of recent years can endure in the face of pressure from expanding large-scale projects.

In addition, the forest and its inhabitants face new challenges. A bill (PEC 215) is being discussed in the Brazilian parliament that would have far-reaching effects on the legal status of indigenous territories. The recognition of indigenous territories would then have to be decided by parliament – a fundamental right in the constitution would thus become a claim to be negotiated politically.

The rainforest thus remains a scene of manifold disputes. It is noteworthy, however, that the protection of the rainforest is no longer primarily a concern of international organizations. In Brazil, an alliance of critical civil society, indigenous and local groups has formed to advocate for the conservation and sustainable use of the rainforest, no longer accepting the old dichotomy of conservation versus development.


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