Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

Amazon Deforestation in Brazil: What Does it Mean When There’s no Change?

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | September 7, 2018, 11:54 am EDT
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I was recently invited by the editors of the journal Tropical Conservation Science to write an update of a 2013 article on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon that I had published with Sarah Roquemore and Estrellita Fitzhugh. They asked me to review how deforestation has changed over the past five years. The most notable result, as you can see from the graph in the just-published article (open-access), is that overall it hasn’t changed. And that’s actually quite surprising.

During the late 90s and early 2000s the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon averaged about 20,000 square kilometers per year, driven by the rapid expansion of cattle pasture and the commercial soybean industry. Then, starting around 2005, it began to drop rapidly, falling by 70% in just half a dozen years. This dramatic drop cut Brazil’s national global warming emissions very substantially, in addition to having important benefits for biodiversity and for the people of the Amazon basin.

Since then – essentially no net change. There have been small fluctuations up and down in the annual measurements of deforestation (up in three years and down in three years, to be specific) but it remains at basically the same level. In 2017 the annual loss of Amazon forest was 6,947 km2; that compares to 6,418 km2 in 2011.

Why is this surprising? Because in the same period, Brazilian politics has been incredibly chaotic. To cite the most striking developments during this turbulent period: one President has been impeached and removed from office; an ex-President (during whose administration the decrease in deforestation was achieved) has been jailed and prevented from running again; and politicians across the political spectrum have been implicated in the corruption scandal known as “Lava Jato” – or Car Wash. Not to mention a major economic depression, the passage of legislation weakening of Brazil’s Forest Code, and the indictment of the world’s largest meatpacking company, JBS S.A., on charges relating both to deforestation and to selling tainted meat.

Why then, did deforestation remain essentially the same?

While there are many factors involved, the lack of change does seem to reflect the institutionalization of the reasons that caused deforestation to drop in the earlier period. These include regulations (and prosecutions) limiting the sale of beef and soy from deforested areas; increased transparency concerning who is deforesting and to whom they’re selling their beef and soy; improvements in efficiency which allowed farmers and ranchers to raise output without clearing more land; and underlying these, the development of a political movement, led by Brazilian NGOs, that made deforestation an important issue in national politics.

If the lack of change in deforestation is interesting, so is the way that the international media have covered it. My co-author Dora Chi and I reviewed news stories on Amazon deforestation (using Lexis-Nexis; our search found 134 print articles from 2013 through 2017) and discovered a common theme: the idea that although deforestation had fallen in earlier years, now it had gone back up. As our review showed, even though this interpretation isn’t borne out by the data, it was nonetheless quite frequently used in the media narratives about deforestation.

Perhaps this mis-interpretation simply reflects a common journalistic tendency to write “on the one hand… but on the other hand…” stories. Or maybe it’s that you can’t get a story into print if it says that there’s nothing new. It may also reflect our tendency to present data such as deforestation rates as percentages, without realizing how they can be misleading because they’re using different denominators. A quick example – if my income dropped by 50% last year, then turned around and increased by 50% this year – am I now back to where I was two years ago? No – I’m actually still 25% below that level.

So, both the lack of change in the data, and the mis-communication of its stability in the media, are notable phenomena. But there’s a third (non-)event worth noting, and that’s the fact that deforestation hasn’t dropped to zero, as it would have if the earlier trend had continued. This is a major failure in terms of its effect on climate change and efforts to reign in global emissions. It shows that Brazil’s political turbulence has had important consequences for the global environment.

Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming, Tropical Forests Tags: , , , , ,

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  • solodoctor

    Thanks for an informative update on the situation in Brazil. Is this another one of those on one hand and on the other hand kinds of stories?

    On the one hand, we should be impressed, if not grateful, that things have not returned to the way they used to be given all the political turmoil the country has gone through?

    On the other hand, we should be concerned that progress has stopped? And what more can be done to get the rate of deforestation going down in the coming years? I prefer this second perspective. What can UCS and its members do to help Brazil keep moving things in the needed direction?

    • Thanks for your comment, solodoctor. Yes, I suppose you could see it as that kind of a story — the drop in deforestation hasn’t been reversed, but it hasn’t continued either. Not simply bad news, but not good either.

      You’re right to ask what we can do to help change this situation. In the short run, I’m afraid, the possibilities are limited, because of the weird political situations that exist currently in both the US and Brazil. Both countries are in the midst of turbulent election campaigns and have political leaderships with little interest in reducing tropical deforestation, to say the least. Those of us in the US lack credibility for the moment in urging Brazil to do anything, even if it’s something that would benefit people throughout the world by countering climate change.

      But in the medium and longer term, I think we can have a limited but positive role by following the model pioneered by Norway, which negotiated a deal with Brazil a decade ago which paid them in proportion to their reductions in global warming pollution from Amazon deforestation. Under this arrangement, Norway has paid Brazil more than a billion dollars for its successful actions. But perhaps more important than the money itself has been the international recognition that it represented for Brazil’s leadership on climate.

      So, that’s something we could encourage the US government to do — once we get our own house in order!

      • Mlema

        It should be a part of getting our own house in order. Today, every national policy is a global policy. We’re wasting money on useless initiatives that benefit global corporations, We don’t just need to reform here, but everywhere at once. It’s too late to be waiting for “credibility”. Just as states are starting to institute their own environmental (meeting Paris agreement on their own), wage and even election practices (Maine for example) WE (the people) can influence big change by working through outside-the-federal gov’t organizations. If Norway is bolstering conservation in Brazil, maybe we need to find a way to get more money to Norway for that purpose!