Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. (Image Credit: Matt Zimmerman)

Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. (Image Credit: Matt Zimmerman)

Recently, ecologist Philip Fearnside spoke to Yale Environment 360 on the rising rate of deforestation in Brazil. Fearnside laments the government’s “perverse” incentives for illegal logging and accuses it of delaying the latest deforestation figures until after the October 2014 election. “It’s a scandal,” he told journalist Richard Schiffman.

A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years. He attributes the country’s rising deforestation rates to several factors, including a new Forest Code (passed in 2012) that both weakens environmental protections and offers amnesty to those who violated laws prior to 2008.

Until recently, Brazil led the world in cutting its greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last decade, it reduced deforestation in the Amazon by 70 percent and in the process prevented 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Its environmental turnaround was so impressive it inspired 16 other countries to implement their own anti-deforestation policies.

However, in the past year Brazil’s government seems to have backtracked significantly on its reputation. A study by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research found that carbon dioxide emissions in Brazilian rainforests are a fifth higher than previous estimates indicated, and satellites have revealed that forest clearing has increased by an apparent 190 percent. President Dilma Rousseff (currently caught up in a government-wide corruption scandal) also triggered serious concern from environmental groups when she appointed Katiá Abreu as the country’s next minister of agriculture.

Abreu is known amongst conservationists as “Miss Deforestation” and “the chainsaw queen” for her anti-green policies. Abreu has disparaged the need for greater indigenous rights, called for more roads to be built in the Amazon and wants to expand monoculture farming.

Fearnside told e360 that exchange rates and commodity prices “explain basically all of the decrease in deforestation until 2008,” after which point commodity prices recovered. The exchange rate didn’t recover until 2012, and then in 2013 deforestation began to increase.

“Deforestation went up a bit — they call it the hiccup — in 2013,” he explained, “but now in just the past six months there has been an explosion. Deforestation, as measured from images taken by Brazil’s DETER satellite system, far more than doubled from September 2014 through January 2015 over what it had been during those same months a year earlier.”

Fearnside suggests that the government delayed releasing damning deforestation figures until after Rousseff’s election in October. Normally, the deforestation data for August through September would have been released in that month. Last year, the data didn’t appear until almost December. “It’s a scandal,” he said.

Fearnside also points to the country’s faulty forest management policy as a driver of runaway deforestation.

“With forest management,” he said, “the idea is that you divide up the forest into parcels and you take the big trees out of one parcel one year and out of another in another year. After thirty years you come back to the first parcel and the trees will have grown back and you take out the big ones — so that’s the idea, you just keep on going round and round and this will be sustainable.”

Unfortunately, the reality is that no business is willing to just sit on a parcel of land for three decades, so often they will be cleared for pasture or sold off to a new owner.

Meanwhile, excessive logging is leading to a rise in forest fires: Dead, dry trees are left in the forest; spaces in the canopy allow more sunlight in; and fewer trees means wind blows through the forests more easily, drying things out and making it easier to start fires.

Fearnside also gives credence to the theory that deforestation has led to the historic drought in Sao Paulo and other parts of Brazil.

“It’s not something that you can conclusively pin on deforestation,” he said. “But a lot of the water in Sao Paulo comes from the Amazon. It’s water that has been recycled through the trees, so if you cut [the forest] down and turn it into a cattle pasture, that water isn’t going to go to Sao Paulo anymore, it is going to flow straight into the Amazon River, [then] into the Atlantic. If you keep clearing the Amazon, you’ll end up with there being a permanent drought, not just a one-year thing. You’re not going to have that transport of water vapor to Sao Paulo. It will have a big impact all the way down to Argentina.”

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