Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is up 190 percent for the months of August and September compared to the same period last year according to the non-profit Imazon, which monitors deforestation via satellite imagery. This marks a steep reversal in what was an otherwise declining trend in deforestation rates observed over the past decade. Official land clearance figures for the past two months, usually released on a monthly basis by the Brazilian federal government, will only come out after the decisive round of Brazil’s heated presidential elections take place next Sunday.
The reason for the delay was made clear over the weekend, when Imazon released a report showing an alarming growth in the deforestation rate. The figures dispute the incumbent Dilma Roussef’s claim that conservation is a priority of her government. In total, 838 square kilometers of rainforest were cleared over the past two months, an area almost ten times the size of Manhattan. Much of the timber obtained from illegal land-clearance is disguised as legal and sold in the U.S., Europe, China, and Russia.
Roussef’s party, the PT (Worker’s Party), has been in power for 12 years, and was credited for an unprecedented decline in Amazon deforestation — a decrease of 80 percent between 2004 and 2013. More importantly the government was able to curb deforestation while observing very high economic growth. Now the situation has reversed, with the Brazilian economy lagging and deforestation rates back up.
More effective monitoring by the government and a stricter crackdown on illegal logging and farming were the main reasons for the progress of the past decade. Now it appears farmers and loggers have found ways to subvert monitoring by clearing smaller sections of forest below the range of 25 hectares that government satellites can detect. A new more precise monitoring system will be put in place by the end of the year, and is expected to show even greater rates of land clearance.
Roussef has done much to anger environmentalists, who accuse her of adopting a development at all costs approach to the Brazilian economy. She was widely criticized for signing into law a new forestry code that is friendly to agribusiness and weakens many forest protection measures. Ten former environment ministers came together at the time to voice their concerns in a letter to the President that called the revision of the code a blow to “the single most relevant institutional basis for the protection afforded to forests and all the other forms of natural vegetation in Brazil.” Roussef has also been criticized by some environmentalists and human rights groups for adopting an aggressive policy toward hydropower expansion in the Amazon, the centerpiece of which is the infamous Belo Monte dam, which will flood 1,500 square kilometers of rainforest and displace 40,000 indigenous people.
The environment has not played a key role in Brazil’s disputed Presidential elections, despite the fact that arguably Brazil’s most prominent environmental figure, Marina Silva, was in contention. Silva, who got her political stripes as an environmental activist in her native Amazon, was minister for the environment under the previous administration, but resigned in disagreement with the government’s environmental policies. At one point projected to win it all, Silva placed third in Brazil’s presidential elections and has endorsed center-right candidate Aecio Neves in the run-off. Neves has promised to make conservation a priority in return for Silva’s potentially pivotal support.