Recent spikes in forest loss after a decade of progress
Between 2001-18, Brazil lost almost 55 million hectares of tree cover at a rate of 5.7 soccer fields per minute. More than 84 percent of this loss occurred in the biomes of Amazon (loss of 33 million hectares of tree cover – an area bigger than Norway), while the Cerrado lost 13 million hectares despite being half the size of Amazon. In the Atlantic Forest, a biome where only 12 percent of the original forest remains, 5.4 million hectares were lost over the same period. 
Although tree cover loss in Brazil has been slowing down during the last decade (in 2013 tree cover loss was halved compared to its peak of 3.8 million hectares in 2004), it has increased since 2014 and remained high at 2.9 million hectares last year. For the Amazon, deforestation rates continued to rise in the first part of 2019 with an alarming 88 percent increase in June 2019 compared to same month last year. The recent increase in deforestation is directly and indirectly encouraged by the current Brazilian federal government. The new administration began weakening environmental regulations, enforcement, and institutions immediately after the transition in power in January 2019.
Figure 1. Brazilian biomes
Source: Global Forest Watch
Most of the deforestation in Brazil is driven by commercial agriculture, particularly soybean and beef. Brazil is the largest producer and exporter of soybeans and the second largest producer and the largest exporter of beef in the world. The growth in production of these commodities has led to them becoming the main drivers of deforestation since the 1970s.
Rolling back of enforcement and protection puts past achievements in the Amazon at risk
In the Brazilian Amazon, cattle production has been the largest driver of deforestation. Since 2014, 80 percent of deforestation has been for pasture to graze cattle. Deforestation attributed to soybean expansion in the Amazon – after high rates until 2008 – has gone down significantly since. Besides cattle and soy, other factors have also contributed to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, particularly, subsistence agriculture, infrastructure and urban expansion, mining, agricultural fires, and timber plantations (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Annual forest loss area by disturbance driver in the Brazilian Legal Amazon, in million hectares.
Source: Primary forest loss from all drivers in Brazil (2014-2018), Tyukavina, A., Hansen, M. C., Potapov, P. V., Stehman, S. V., Smith-Rodriguez, K., Okpa, C., & Aguilar, R. (2017). Types and rates of forest disturbance in Brazilian Legal Amazon, 2000–2013. Science Advances, 3(4), e1601047; Forest loss from all drivers 2001-2013, Hansen, M. C., Potapov, P. V., Moore, R., Hancher, M., Turubanova, S. A., Tyukavina, A. et al. (2013). Tree Cover Loss (Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA). Global Forest Watch database.
The Brazilian Amazon has long been hailed as a story of success in global forest conservation efforts. In the year 2012, Brazil recorded the lowest deforestation rate in the last 20 years. Several measures in the public and private sector contributed to that success. The government increased protected areas, improved enforcement through monitoring and penalties, expanded the Rural Environmental Registry (known under the Portuguese acronym CAR) to the national level, and reduced direct financial incentive for deforestation by restricting credit to embargoed areas.
Private sector actors have responded to pressure from the government and civil society and have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. Through the Soy Moratorium in 2006 and then the so-called Cattle Agreements in 2009, major soy companies stopped purchasing soy from areas in the Amazon that were linked to deforestation, and the biggest meatpackers agreed to stop sourcing from ranches with deforestation and illegal activities. As a result, soy grown in the Amazon that came from deforestation fell from 30 percent in 2004 to almost 1 percent in 2013. And while the Cattle Agreements improved property registration by ranchers under CAR and reduced sourcing from deforested areas markedly, their impact on deforestation rates has been undermined by their narrow scope.
Deforestation in the Amazon began to rise again in 2016 when it reached 3.7 million hectares – the highest rate since 2001. While it has fallen in the past two years, it is still highest since 2005. Recent numbers indicate a sharp increase in deforestation in June 2019.
A confluence of several factors can explain this surge. The increase comes after the 2012 amendment to the Brazilian Forest Code, which reduced the area required for legal reserves on rural private properties, putting more than 15 million hectares of forest in the Amazon at risk. The amendment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court last year, also pardoned illegal deforestation that happened before 2008.
The political uncertainty created during and after the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in August 2016 also played its role in the deforestation process. Indirectly, it might have contributed to a general sense of lack of control and enforcement nurturing the perception that illegal deforestation is likely to go unpunished. But political instability also made the subsequent Brazilian president (and former vice-president) Michel Temer more vulnerable to pressure from ruralists in the Congress. During his two-year term, environmental licensing requirements were softened, demarcation of indigenous lands suspended, and the size of protected areas reduced.Under the new administration, the government has further loosened environmental controls and enforcement. In its first months, the new Federal Government dissolved climate and forest departments, [a] handed-over the Brazilian Forest Services (previously housed under the Ministry of Environment) to the Ministry of Agriculture, and forcibly sought to transfer demarcation of indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture. The current president has also engaged in a dispute with the head of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), Ricardo Galvão, over INPE deforestation data, resulting in Galvão’s dismissal.
Also, fines imposed for illegal deforestation declined by 34 percent in the first five months of 2019 compared to the same period last year and are now fewer than at any other moment in the last decade. The new government is reviewing the extension and borders of several conservation units in the country, and is expected to propose changes to reduce or limit those to the Congress in 2019. Overall, law enforcement remains weak as the risks of punishment for crimes is low and most of the fines are not paid. Another recent amnesty to landholders came in 2017 with Law 13 465, intended to regulate illegal occupation of public rural lands between 2005 and 2011. This law can potentially ease land grabbing and promote further forest loss.
Furthermore, the pick-up in deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon coincides with heavy budgetary cuts in the Ministry of Environment. From 2013, surveillance and patrolling by enforcement agencies had to cope with overall budget decrease of about 25 percent. Allocation of resources for some specific climate-related programs were reduced up to 95 percent. For the Bolsa Verde, a 2011 environmental services program for communities living in conservation areas in the Amazon, budget allocation declined progressively from 2015, disappearing completely in 2018.
Slow progress in forging an agreement to support the ecosystems of the Cerrado
In the Cerrado, agriculture expansion through cattle and soy production has also led to a substantial decline in native vegetation, with about 11 percent of the vegetation area lost since 2000. Annual vegetation loss in the Cerrado has remained high since 2012, reaching one million hectares in 2016. By now, 50 percent of the biome has already been converted to agriculture and grazing land. In recent years, land conversion linked to soy expansion has been particularly problematic in the MATOPIBA, a region that covers the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. Between 2000 and 2017, soybean cultivation area expanded by 9.5 million hectares in this region, a third of which was at the cost of native vegetation.
The Cerrado also enjoys less legal protection than the Amazon. The Forest Code allows deforestation to take place in 65 percent of private rural areas and conservation units protect only 8 percent of the biome. In addition, the above-mentioned voluntary agreements involving key supply chain actors – the Soy Moratorium and the Cattle Agreements – are restricted to the Amazon and no similar comprehensive agreement has been brokered yet for the Cerrado. In 2017, 70 global consumer goods companies endorsed a Cerrado Manifesto that calls for immediate action in defence of the Cerrado. However, companies have so far resisted converting the manifesto into an agreement on how to halt deforestation in the Cerrado. In July 2019, Cargill, one of the biggest traders of soy in Brazil announced that it will not support a soy moratorium in the savanna biome of Cerrado but pledged USD 30 million to limit forest loss in the Cerrado.
One study has presented evidence that the 2006 Soy Moratorium and the 2009 Cattle Agreements were effective in reducing deforestation the Amazon, but concurrently contributed to increase vegetation loss in the Cerrado. The analysis shows spillover effects from the Pará State in the Amazon to the Cerrado portion of the Tocantins State. While the annual rate of deforestation in Pará reduced from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 2.5 percent in 2015, in Tocantins it climbed from 0.36 to 0.8 percent in the same period. After 2009, average annual vegetation loss in Tocantins was roughly twice the rate seen before the Soy Moratorium.
Furthermore, the opening of the Chinese market for Brazilian agricultural commodities drastically increased demand for soybean and beef from Brazil. Between 2013-17, China purchased 42 percent of Brazil’s soybeans which accounted for a loss of 223,000 hectares of forest – an area two times the size of New York City – mostly in the Cerrado. Chinese investments in transport infrastructure in Brazil for soybean and beef exports have also increased access to forests for further expansion of these commodities.
The recent trade tariff spat between US and China can further accelerate this process. The tariffs imposed by the US administration on Chinese products and China’s retaliation, particularly on American soybean imports, may result in Brazil increasing soy production to meet the surplus demand from China. A recent study highlights that if Brazil were to meet this new demand alone, soy production in the country could increase up to 39 percent and convert another 13 million hectares of natural vegetation. This soy expansion could affect both the Cerrado and the Amazon, either directly or through displacement of pasturelands.
Efforts aimed at restoration of deforested areas and degraded pastures across Brazil can help recover some ecological functionality over time as well as promote conservation. Studies in Brazil show that improving the use of pasturelands can free-up enough suitable lands for strategic expansion of agriculture until 2040 and avoid further conversion of natural habitats.
The revised Forest Code in Brazil, although substantially reducing the obligation to restore forests, still requires that around 21 million hectares of native forests to be restored in private lands. Sound management of private lands, including forest restoration, is thus crucial to mitigate climate change and secure that the country achieves its climate pledges.
Brazil established a national policy and a specific plan for native vegetation recovery. The Plan proposes a stepwise implementation beginning in 2017, concentrating most of the restoration efforts in the Amazon and the Atlantic Forest (amounting to 9,5 million hectares or 76 percent of the total restoration effort).
The Atlantic Forest – one of the world’s most threatened biodiversity conservation hotspots, with only 12 percent of the original area left – is the region where quantification and prioritization of areas targeted for restoration are most advanced. Since 2006 this biome has a dedicated forest law requiring that landowners restore illegally deforested areas.
The Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact 2009 is a successful large-scale restoration initiative, with potential for replication to other regions and biomes. Members have pledged to restore 15 million hectares of degraded and deforested lands by 2050. Preliminary estimates suggest that almost 300,000 ha of restored forests have been established through restoration interventions by about 350 members of the Pact. It is estimated that a total of 1.35–1.48 million ha will be recovering by 2020. The Pact can be deemed a successful large-scale restoration initiative, with potential for replication to other regions and biomes. It relies on effective engagement with local stakeholders, transparent monitoring through remote sensing and field data made available on-line, and a bottom-up approach that integrates multiple layers of governance.
Outlook for Brazil
Deforestation in Brazil persists and has on average been increasing again in the past five years. Under the Paris Agreement, Brazil pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by 2025, with an indicative (i.e. conditional) reduction of 43 percent by 2030. Brazil’s NDC also commits to restore 15 million hectares of degraded pasturelands and reforest 12 million hectares for multiple uses by 2030. However, deforestation in Brazil has continued to see an uptick over the past five years, with average tree cover loss since 2014 exceeding the prior 12 years by 28 percent.
While the Cerrado has also seen higher deforestation rates, the Amazon’s relapse particularly stands out, with deforestation climbing steadily since 2016 and reaching a record high in June 2019. Urgent action must be taken to confront recent deforestation trends and avoid a reversal of the Brazilian success story. Without an immediate course correction, the Amazon may reach a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover.
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