In Brazil, not all deforestation is illegal — but that doesn't make it better
Share this on

In Brazil, not all deforestation is illegal — but that doesn't make it better

Finding the most effective means to curb deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is a difficult and complicated task.

Brazil is a country of vast differences in income, regional development and rule of law. Many of the areas in which the most deforestation occurs are remote and difficult for authorities to access. A pervasive atmosphere of extensive corruption and violence creates an extremely dangerous situation for those who live on the land as well as for those whose job it is to protect it. A combination of social conditions including desperate poverty, powerful organized illegal land grabbing and unenforced environmental and human rights regulations only make matters worse.

Currently, an estimated 5,000 square km of the Amazon are lost each year. While overall deforestation rates have dropped over the past several years (save for a resurgence in 2013) and law enforcement has made some progress in fighting some of the largest criminals in illegal deforestation, the problem continues — and it is one that has an impact far beyond Brazil’s borders. Domestic and international demand for beef and soya (used as cattle feed in the U.S. and other countries) — two of the industries most responsible for large-scale clearing — fuel the continuing deforestation.

Deforestation worse than thought

A new study has suggested that previous methods of gauging the loss of carbon sinks (natural spots that absorb and store carbon) through deforestation were not accurate because they did not measure the health of the vegetation that remains after neighboring trees are cleared. Rainforest fragmentation, or the “lonely tree problem,” causes trees to be less effective as carbon sinks than they would be if they were in denser forestland, according to research by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Germany.


To estimate the additional carbon emissions at the forest edges, the UFZ scientists developed a new approach that integrates the results from remote sensing, ecology and forest modelling. For their study, they initially modelled the percentage loss of carbon in forest border after the deforestation of the surrounding area.

The carrot vs. the stick

There are different methods to discourage deforestation, but most fall into the categories of incentives or law enforcement.

Incentives, like those recommended by the Environmental Defense Fund, include strengthening cooperation between the private and public sectors, along with international and domestic financial aid. This can take the form of essentially paying ranchers and communities not to cut down forestland, or to work in more sustainable ways.

Enforcing the law, on the other hand, may seem straightforward, but it is hardly as simple as police chasing criminals. In the largely lawless Amazon, it can often look more like war. Land speculators track the police, organize revolts, set forest fires from helicopters and use the nearly impenetrable forest to hide their activities.

The New York Times reports:

When the security forces here find new signs of illegal deforestation, they often act swiftly, arresting and fining those responsible. They destroy encampments and equipment, setting fire to tractors and logging trucks. Such methods helped lower annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by about 70 percent since 2000.

The best strategy may be a mix of these carrots and sticks, depending on the situation. Sometimes, monitoring deforestation is simply more practical and effective than incentivizing sustainability. However, laws need to be coupled with positive incentives not to break them, which is one of the keys to making sustainability work. Another aspect of this daunting task involves incentivizing the world’s wealthiest nations (and consumers) to recognize that their future also depends on a healthy “lungs of the Earth” and to take appropriate action.

Legal crimes

Of course, not all deforestation in Brazil is illegal. Significant deforestation is permitted by the government, which claims it is monitoring the process to limit any adverse effects. During the United Nations General Assembly in September, Brazil notably refused to sign a declaration to end deforestation, insisting its own local efforts are sufficient to control the problem.

Regardless of which candidate triumphs in Brazil’s presidential elections on October 26, the nation’s next president will most likely continue the exploitation of resources in the Amazon — including massive hydroelectric dam projects — that have been a hallmark of the administrations of current President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.