The substantial expansion of agriculture into certain natural regions of Brazil has long threatened the country’s vast forestlands. Cattle ranching and soy cultivation continue to encroach on the Cerrado, a large woodland savannah ecosystem, while paper and pulp plantations in the Atlantic forests — a region already devastated by cocoa plantations — have replaced the original flora with fast-growing non-native eucalyptus trees. The Amazon rainforest, the so-called “lungs of the Earth,” is plagued by illegal farming and deforestation, a problem that has proved difficult and dangerous for police, due to the strength and violence of the criminal elements involved, poverty and desperation among poor farmers and the isolated, inaccessible location of many illegal farms and ranches.
However, reports in recent years indicate that Brazil may be making considerable headway against deforestation. The government recently announced an expansion of federally protected areas by 3.2 million hectares in various states. This measure is just the latest in a series of policies that have resulted in a decreasing rate of deforestation in the country, which reached its lowest point on record in 2012, though the latter part of that year saw it increase again.
According to a 2014 report by the Union Of Concerned Scientists, 80 percent of the original Amazon forest remains standing, and deforestation rates in Brazil are down 70 percent in 2013 compared with the 1996–2005 average.
These numbers are heartening, but we must remember that only around 21 percent of the Earth’s original old-growth forests remain and, once gone, they are gone forever.
We must also consider the global economic system that perpetuates deforestation in developing countries. It is no use simply pointing the finger at those countries that still have original forestland to destroy, when developed countries fuel deforestation in the developing world after having eradicated most of their own forests. For example, 40 percent of Brazil’s bleached pulp is exported to Europe, while much of their soy crop is exported to the US as cattle feed.
Of course, laws are one thing, while what happens on the ground can be entirely different. Brazil has long had progressive conservation policies on the books, but lacked the resources or motivation to enforce them, while efforts have been crippled by corruption and incompetence.
But this may be changing as well. A police operation in four states has possibly dismantled a criminal organization touted by authorities as the “biggest destroyer” of the Amazon. A federal judge issued warrants for 14 gang members, resulting in six arrests so far in the northern state of Pará.
A statement by the Brazilian police comes via the BBC:
The Federal Police carried out today Operation Chestnut Tree designed to dismantle a criminal organisation specialising in land grabbing and environmental crimes in the city of Novo Progresso, in the south-western region of Para.
Those involved in these criminal actions are considered the greatest destroyers of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
The accused may face sentences of up to 50 years, though jail terms can only be served up to 30 years, according to Brazilian law. And who is to say that other figures won’t just pop up to replace their jailed predecessors, as is so often the case with criminal organizations? Nonetheless, any progress in the fight against deforestation — particularly of the illegal, unregulated variety in the Amazon forests — is better than nothing.