CURITIBA, Brazil – An area four times the size of the city of São Paulo – South America’s largest metropolis – was deforested in 2011 in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon rainforest.
Even when compared to the vast expanse of the world’s largest tropical rainforest – 5 million km2 (1.93 million square miles) in Brazil alone – the 6,238 km2 (2,408 square miles) destroyed between August 2010 and July 2011 are significant.
Yet the figure represents a decrease in deforestation levels in the Amazon, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the agency that has been monitoring regional damage every month since 1988.
For the first time since it began collecting data nearly 25 years ago, the INPE also has mapped the areas affected by deforestation as of 2008 – a territory estimated to cover 720,000 km2 (277,993 square miles), roughly four times the size of Uruguay.
Of the total affected area, 62.2% is currently used as pasture, with 4.9% being used for agricultural activities, according to the “Terra Class” survey published in September 2011 by the INPE and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Agency (EMBRAPA).
The small percentage of agriculture came as a surprise to the INPE team, even though it expected livestock would be responsible for causing the most damage in deforested areas, says the head of the INPE, Cláudio Almeida.
“The survey covers only the areas that were previously forests and does not include the Brazilian cerrado (savannah) regions,” Almeida adds. “The expectation is the savannah regions would account for a higher proportion of agricultural operations.”
The remainder of the Amazon territory deforested as of 2008 is occupied by secondary vegetation (21%), urban areas (0.5%) and mining (0.1%). There are also areas with multiple uses (3.4%), others that have not been surveyed (6.3%) and 1.7% being used for other purposes.
“It’s the first time that we know exactly how this deforested land is being used,” Almeida says. “Now, it’s possible to make plans, both in order to implement recovery measures in certain areas, as well as to apply technology and maximize its utility.”
The new data is crucial to understanding how the cycle of deforestation occurs, according to biologist Carlos Alberto de Mattos Scaramuzza, superintendent of conservation for World Wildlife Fund-Brazil.
“The next step is to broaden the research in order to find out which areas have potential for agriculture and for grazing, as well as to identify those in need of immediate recovery,” Scaramuzza says.
Precarious livestock operations
The destruction of tropical rainforest in order to raise livestock has accelerated with the growth of Brazil’s livestock industry.
The country is the world’s second-largest producer of beef, according to 2008 figures from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Brazil is also the world leader in beef exports, according to a 2010 survey from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In 2010, Brazilian cattle herds grew by 2.1% over the previous year to 209.5 million heads, 37% of which are concentrated in the nine states – Acre, Amazonas, Roraima, Rondônia, Mato Grosso, Pará, Amapá, Maranhão and Tocantins – that comprise the Brazilian Amazon, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
Even worse than deforestation itself is the misuse of deforested areas, environmentalists say.
Of the deforested areas used for grazing in the Amazon, 15.5% are misused – 8.7% are so-called dirty pastures, 6.7% show some signs of forest recovery, and 0.1% are pastures where at least half the land has no vegetation.
Assuero Doca Veronez, president of Brazil’s Agriculture and Livestock Confederation (CNA) National Environmental Commission, says the precariousness of livestock operations in the region worries the CNA.
The regional producers maintain, on average, only one head of livestock for every hectare (2.47 acres), Veronez adds. Without the income and technology necessary for the rehabilitation of grazing areas, livestock owners inflict further deforestation by creating new pastures, leaving the damaged land behind.
“The logic is simple: Agriculture needs to transport raw materials, but cows can walk by themselves. In the less prepared regions, the initial occupation of deforested areas with livestock is normal and traditional,” Veronez says. “Agriculture comes after years of livestock operations. Given the conditions in the Amazon, it’s not impossible, but it is somewhat impractical to engage in agriculture at the moment.”
Yet, agriculture is more profitable, Veronez points out, which is why he’s in favor of government incentives to subsidize other forms of production, as well as rehabilitating the damaged environment, to break the cycle of damage caused by Amazonian livestock operations.
“But what type of agriculture is appropriate for the Amazon?” Scaramuzza asks. “That’s the question that needs to be asked instead of only looking at the lack of infrastructure needed to support agricultural activities. Products such as [the fruit of the açaí palm] have already been shown to be viable in the region.”
One solution for the region’s expanding agricultural operations would be the introduction of technological institutes in medium-sized cities, Scaramuzza adds.
“That’s the proposal from the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, which would bring specialists to the region to analyze a viable production chain and outline ways to consolidate it,” he says. “That way, when deforestation occurs, there would be other alternatives.”
New Forest Code
Even with the historic reduction in the levels of destruction taking place in the Amazon, Brazil still lags behind many countries.
Among the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), Brazil ranks first in deforestation and last in the replacement of lost forest areas, according to the Summary of the Status of Forests in Selected Countries, published in November 2011 by the Brazilian institute Imazon and ProForest, which is connected to England’s University of Oxford.
While the other BRIC members are introducing policies to protect the environment and replace what has been destroyed, Brazil continues to deforest more than it reforests, the study shows.
In Maplecroft’s 2012 Deforestation Index, Brazil is ranked eighth, which indicates “extreme risk.” The index calculates the destruction of forest covers 180 countries from 2005 to 2010.
Between 2000 and 2005, deforestation accelerated world-wide, reaching historic levels as about 6.4 million hectares (15.81 million acres) were destroyed, according to the FAO.
During those years, South America was the leader in converting forests into agricultural areas, with Brazil accounting for 75% of the destruction.
But by the middle of this year, the country is expected to introduce new rules governing environmental preservation on rural properties.
After two years of debate, the Forest Code was passed by the House of Representatives in May 2011 and the Senate in December. However, because the Senate altered the text, the bill has returned to the House, where it is expected to receive another vote during the middle of this year.
The bill calls for a reduction in the boundaries of the so-called Permanent Preservation Areas (APPs), such as riverbanks, mountaintops and mountainsides.
The current regulation requiring 30 meters (98.4 feet) of recovery area, established by Law 4771 of 1965, was reduced to 15 meters (49.2 feet) for rivers with a width of up to 10 meters (32.8 feet).
The change was introduced by the House and maintained by the Senate. Senators added the recovery areas should not exceed 20% of the total property, in the case of producers with up to four fiscal modules – land units that range from 20 hectares (49.42 acres) to 440 (1,087.2 acres) hectares (acres), depending on the state.
“It might seem like a victory for agribusiness, but now the bill is far more balanced and conciliatory,” Veronez says. “We don’t have to snatch away productive agricultural land in order to replace forests. That would translate into lost income and lost jobs.”
For Scaramuzza, the halving of the APP recovery area is a step backward that encourages deforestation.
“The figure is below the minimum standard set by Brazil’s own National Water Agency,” he says.
The Code also establishes the percentage of native area to be conserved on each property, known as the Legal Reserve: 80% in the Amazon, 35% in the Brazilian cerrado (savannah) and 20% in other regions.
Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira applauded Congress’ decision to maintain the clauses governing the APPs and Legal Reserve.
“They do not pose any threat to the development and expansion of farming and livestock operations in Brazil,” she said. “The bill also includes an economic incentive program for farmers, with subsidies for those who preserve native forests, conserve biodiversity and obey the guidelines regarding the APPs and the Legal Reserve.”
But Scaramuzza points out that the Code does not cover disasters, such as a mandate for the recovery of areas struck by landslides, for example.
The bill is not ideal, and the current law needs to be updated, Veronez says.
“Placing the issue on the public agenda and discussing the strategic and historic importance of farm owners are major steps forward,” Veronez says.
But Scaramuzza stresses guidelines will be essential once the law is passed.
“If there isn’t an immediate effort to establish the guidelines for its implementation, it will be just another law that exists only on paper,” he says.