Brazilian deforestation speeds up

Posted: 13 October 2008

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased 69 per cent in the past 12 months as high commodity prices have driven forest conversion for ranches and cropland, according to preliminary figures released by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in September. The increase comes after three consecutive years of declining deforestation in Brazil.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo © Google Earth
With commodity prices hitting recent highs and loggers and soy farmers pushing ever further into the Amazon jungle, satellite images captured by a real-time monitoring system, known in Brazil as Deter, showed that deforestation was once again on the rise after three years on the wane.

But a Brazilian Minister has blamed a government agency involved with land distribution to the poor for being the largest driver of deforestation since 2005.

Speaking in late September, Environment Minister Carlos Minc said that the Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) was responsible for the clearing of 220,000 hectares (550,000 acres) of rainforest on six Amazon properties. The six properties are the largest deforested areas in the entire Brazilian Amazon since 2005.

INCRA, an agency that is supposed to help poor communities find land to settle and develop, has been harshly criticized by scientists and environmentalists in recent years. Last year an eight-month investigation by Greenpeace found that INCRA may be working with logging firms to profit from land reform initiatives.

The land reform agency allegedly collaborated with logging companies to identify areas of interest for timber extraction then set up large settlements in these tracts of rainforest instead of placing them in already deforested areas. Timber firms then purchased the land on the cheap for logging.

Amazon fires August 2008
Amazon fires August 2008
Amazon fires August 2008. Photo credit: Greenpeace
Greenpeace says the scheme gave loggers access to attractive timber, while helping INCRA meet President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva's land reform targets just prior to his re-election campaign. Settlers won land and payments for selling holdings to loggers. In his remarks Minc also said that deforestation in August 2008 was 760 square kilometres, more than three times the 230 square kilometres lost in August 2007, and twice the area lost in July 2008.

Brazil is releasing a plan to reduce net forest clearing to zero by 2015. The plan is expected to rely heavily on the conversion of natural forest to industrial forest plantations to meet its goal.


According to a recent FAO report (the Forest Resources Assessment 2005), Brazil suffered the largest area of deforestion in the world between 1990 and 2005. The country lost over 42 million hectares of forest, more than one and a half times the size of the United Kingdom.

One strategy for monitoring this, put forward recently by Professor Heiko Balzter, Head of Geography at the University of Leicester, involves the use of modern radar technology. Addressing a conference of space scientists in Curitiba, Brazil, he said that "With modern radar technology and knowledge of tree structures we can produce spatial carbon maps." The radar uses microwaves to penetrate through the forest canopy, to measure how much wet plant matter and indirectly how much carbon is there in the forest.