Many people across the world saw a silver lining in the record drop in global emissions caused by the lockdowns to halt the spread of Covid-19. Brazilians were not among them.
Reductions in traffic and industrial activity were responsible for the dips in most countries but these had relatively little effect on CO2 emissions in Brazil since forest destruction is the source of almost half of them. And the pandemic has made deforestation even worse.
Preliminary data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) suggests that between March and May, as the virus was spreading across the country, over 1,500 square kilometres of forest were destroyed, a 26% hike on last year.
Importing countries could also be doing more to ensure the legality of their supply chains
Over 40% of this year’s deforestation occurred in plots of land vulnerable to land grabbers, much of which will likely end up being used to raise cattle and produce other commodities.
Yet Brazil’s past experience shows it could be meeting international demand without deforestation. And environmentalists say importing countries should also be doing more to ensure the legality of their supply chains.
Brazil’s Climate Observatory estimates that the level of destruction will translate into a national increase in emissions of between 10% and 20% compared to 2018. This means Brazil could send between 2.1 and 2.3 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere this year – a drastic deviation from its Paris Agreement pledge of a maximum 1.3 billion tonnes per year by 2025.
President Jair Bolsonaro has often defended deforestation as an unfortunate consequence of growing Brazil’s economy. But most economic activity has ground to a halt. So why is deforestation up in the time of Covid-19?
The protectors are overstretched
Almost all deforestation happening in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal, so law enforcement agencies are key to fighting it.
However, IBAMA, Brazil’s main environmental protection agency, has been stripped of funds and human resources over many years. In 2010 it had 1,311 inspectors. Today the figure is 730.
The lack of new hires means the average age of inspectors is going up. With many over 60, they are at higher from the coronavirus. This has translated into fewer inspectors in the field monitoring deforestation during the pandemic.
Those inspectors who are active have suffered extraordinary hostility under President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. Agents are often attacked by angry mobs, which, critics say, feel empowered by the president’s anti-environment rhetoric. Fines by the agency went down 34% last year, to a 24-year low.
When Brazil stumbled into the global media spotlight last year because of the raging fires in the Amazon, the government was forced to act. However, their choice of sending in the military was an expensive move that proved inefficient.
The land grabbers have free rein
While illegal logging and mining are very damaging to the Amazon forest, many researchers agree that the largest share of responsibility for illegal deforestation falls to land grabbing.
The practice in the Amazon enables a multi-billion dollar real estate market. Roughly a third of the Amazon is at risk. This area is made up of public lands the Brazilian government hasn’t officially allocated to anyone. They aren’t conservation areas, indigenous territories, rural settlements or private farmland.
Researchers and prosecutors say the uncertainty over their status puts them at the centre of a destructive and often violent struggle between land grabbers, law enforcement and traditional communities – each fighting for the chance to own a piece of land that the government recognises.
Deforestation is key for land grabbers, paving the way for them to assert their possession over a plot. The practice dates back to the 1970s, when Brazil’s military regime encouraged people from other states to occupy public lands in the Amazon to develop it and integrate it with the country.
of the Amazon is at risk from land grabbers
When government inspectors went to a plot to assess whether the people occupying it deserved an official title, deforestation was one of the main aspects they took note of. Inspectors used to demand that applicants deforest at least half their plot before approving their claim.
Data analysed by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute shows that over 40% of the deforestation currently happening in the Amazon takes place in unallocated public lands. In the state of Amazonas, the biggest in the region, over 50% of deforestation alerts earlier this year happened in state and federal land plots that aren’t protected.
While President Bolsonaro has been clear on his policy of not giving traditional communities more land than they currently have access to, his stance against land grabbers has been far murkier. At times it has even been encouraging.
Last year, the Bolsonaro administration presented a bill that would essentially give amnesty to land grabbers who seized territory up until 2018. The bill was defeated in Congress, but many lawmakers have demonstrated support for its core proposals. Researchers say the expectation of an amnesty drives many people to keep grabbing land.
What can be done to stop the deforestation?
Prosecutors and environmentalists say any response to Brazil’s growing rate of deforestation must include strengthening the environmental protection agencies. Some also want to see tougher penalties introduced for environmental degradation. Improving the tools used to track meat, timber, minerals and other supply chains would also help sever criminal links.
While these important actions would cost money and resources, there is another policy that would cost very little and have almost instant results: creating more reserves. When the government creates a reserve, it essentially takes public land off the land-grabbing market, severely lowering the chances of a land grabber one day getting a title for that plot.
Brazil has tried it before. Between 2003 and 2008, former environment minister Marina Silva created 66 reserves, protecting hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of forest. The result of this policy, along with others, led to Brazil halving deforestation rates under Silva’s tenure, while agribusiness saw sales and profits skyrocket.
History shows us that economic growth doesn’t have to mean more emissions.
This article was originally published on our sister site Dialogo Chino.