The Future of the Amazon


You might have noticed that the Brazilian government announced recently that, compared to 2011, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon increased by 28% in 2012. Two things came to mind based on the headline. First, the announcement reminded me of my own inability to grasp what these deforestation rates mean in the big picture. Fortunately, that’s been resolved by the creation of a new website, also trumpeted in the news in the past few days, that shows a really detailed, interactive map of deforestation and reforestation since 2000, put together by a partnership of the University of Maryland and Google Earth. Now, you can relegate the necessity of comparing the magnitude of forest losses in the Amazon to the sizes of U.S. states to your local bar’s trivia night.

The headline also had the paradoxical effect of making me realize how much progress Brazil has made against deforestation in the last decade. The interactive map helps you understand how it is possible that Brazil went from cutting down 40,000 square kilometers per year in 2000 to cutting down only 20,000 square kilometers in 2012 – the biggest improvement of any country in the world in that period. Even though humans still managed to obliterate a net area of forest the size of Mongolia in that time, Brazil warms many a crunchy-granola-environmental-enthusiast heart for taking the initiative on the environment. You can dig up a number of reasons for the improvement in Brazil. Part of it is owed to the Scandinavians, as usual: Norway, through REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, some sort of international program focused on developing new policies and financial incentives to slow deforestation), committed $1 billion to compensate Brazil for its emissions reductions. But really, the Brazilians are responsible for their success. The Brazilian government pledged in 2009 to reduce deforestation by 80% by 2020, and it has taken a hard line by expanding indigenous reserves and protected areas to encompass more than half of the Brazilian Amazon. Lula’s (former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known popularly as Lula) and Dilma’s (current Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rouseff) governments have also reinforced collective indigenous land tenure rights to halt encroachment by ranchers, farmers, miners, and other outsiders.

The stark contrast between the deforested area and the lush Amazon Rainforest in Brazil.  (CIFOR/Flickr Creative Commons)
The stark contrast between the deforested area and the lush Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. (CIFOR/Flickr Creative Commons)

Other sectors beyond the government have jumped into the environmental fray too. Broad movements like Desmatamento Zero (Deforestation Zero), launched in 2008, have united environmental activists, NGOs, indigenous leaders and allies, human rights organizations, and rubber-tappers in coalitions to pressure for greater protections. Brazilian NGOs also exposed the culpability of the beef and soy industries in deforestation, and the industries subsequently committed to not selling products associated with felling trees. Research institutes like IPAM and IMAZON (which already do fascinating work on Brazil’s indigenous populations) have also done work researching alternative practices for the usual guilty parties of ranchers, farmers, and loggers. Strangely, I haven’t read as much about deforestation’s connection with migration from Brazil’s impoverished Northeast to Amazonia, which I’ve heard also contributes to the problem.

But why the increase in deforestation of late? Part of it is because of infrastructure projects like road building – previously remote forest can be accessed after road improvements, and not surprisingly, the worst deforestation was along government-improved roadways. However, it’s extremely important to know what’s going on in Brasilia to understand what’s going on in the Amazon Basin. There’s a powerful agriculture lobby in Brazil’s legislature whose adherents are known as the ruralistas. They’re a little difficult to define because they’re not a formal organization; “ruralista” refers broadly to politicians who ascribe to a certain set of opinions on agricultural issues. At this point they’re estimated to control about a quarter of Brazil’s congress, and they’ve pushed back hard against tough environmental laws that they believe unfairly target the agricultural sector. In recent times they’ve imposed their own Código Florestal (Forest Code) that calls for amnesty for deforestation prior to 2008, fewer limits on new developments near key waterways, a reduction of indigenous lands and the transfer of the right to demarcate indigenous lands from the executive to the legislative branch, and crucially, an expansion in available agrarian land. They’re looking to overturn rules requiring 80% of any holding of private land in Amazonia to be preserved, and they also have a bone to pick with the current federal definition of slave labor in Brazil (they think it accuses pretty much any rural employer of slavery-like practices). The Amazon has taken a major hit because of ruralista reforms.

It is always interesting how accessible information is to those outside the country, so it was notable that the Wikipedia page for the ruralistas is only available in Portuguese. I imagine that could change now that the ruralistas’ changes are being blamed for the 2012 spike in deforestation. Research on the ruralistas also had the happy consequence of leading me to Marina Silva, one of the Brazil’s leading politicians for environmentalism. She has a column in the Folha de São Paulo (one of Brazil’s major newspapers), was the environment minister under Lula, and is the vice presidential candidate on the Brazilian Socialist Party’s ticket for the presidency in 2014 (this was unexpected for the Brazilian public). She might be one of the people to watch in the response to the newest findings on deforestation.

At any rate, I am confident about Brazil’s environmental crusade. I remember that, as an elementary school student, I developed a sense of Amazonian deforestation as entailing infinite tracts of a finite forest being wiped out, regardless of what we tried to do about it. A lot of that sentiment lingers with me, but it’s really heartening to see a huge green mass in Brazil on the interactive deforestation map, along with some small, but still existent, areas where reforestation has begun to take shape as well. Above all, it’s worth remembering that 2012 still saw the smallest area of forest being cleared since data started being tracked in 1988, trailing only 2011, and I’m going to bet these news releases will only reinvigorate Brazilian environmentalists against recent losses.

Paul Elish ’15 is in Saybrook College. As a Notebook blogger, Paul covers Latin American politics and culture, both regionally and in New Haven. Contact him at