By Samuel Elliott Novacich, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last week the Brazilian Minister of the Environment, Izabella Teixeira, reported that in the nine month period from August of 2010 to April of 2011, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest had increased by 27 percent, a reversal of the previous year’s decrease. The greatest increase in deforestation is believed to have occurred in the State of Mato Grosso, the country’s largest producer of soy, where there was an unprecedented 47 percent increase in deforestation as compared to last year.
The alarming information is provided by satellite imagery collected through the Deter monitoring system of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (National Institute of Geographic Research, INPE).
Both INPE and the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, IBAMA) analyzed the data, finding that in this nine month period, a total of 1,848 square kilometers of rainforest had been destroyed, as compared to 1,455 square kilometers that had been deforested during the same period a year earlier.
Past observation has shown that large portions of the Amazon rainforest have been deforested to make way for cattle and soy production. IBAMA officials speculate that this years’ severe increase in deforestation may be a result of speculation regarding a bill currently under consideration in the Brazilian congress that would relax regulations on landowners in the region.
In anticipation of the bill, that would require farmers to preserve smaller percentages of forested land, IBAMA found that many landowners have increased deforestation under the assumption that their actions may soon be within the boundaries of the law.
Izabella Teixeira, who has called the increase “frightening” and “atypical,” is cautious of blaming the trend entirely on bill speculation, claiming “We still don’t know what is happening. State environmental secretaries will inform us on details.”
Teixeira left clear however, that regardless of motivation for deforestation, the penalty for the crime will be severe: “Those who gamble on deforestation to raise cattle will have their cattle confiscated and turned over to Fome Zero [Zero Hunger, a federal program to combat malnutrition]. Those who gamble on deforestation to plant crops will have their production confiscated and turned over to Fome Zero. This order is meant to suffocate environmental crime.”
To combat illegal deforestation, Teixeira has created an emergency task force to follow the problem and provide daily updates on deforestation trends, primarily in the state of Mato Grosso, where the greatest increases have been seen. The government has also announced plans for additional anti-deforestation operations to be made by the Federal Police and National Force, increases that will involve up to 546 federal law enforcement officials, as well as speculation that the Brazilian Army will be deployed.
In addition to predictions regarding alteration to the Código Florestal (Forestry Code), officials have pointed to increased soy prices as motivation for landowners to clear land for greater cultivation. Soy, as well as cotton, is one of Brazil’s principle export commodities, creating a delicate balancing act between efforts towards environmental protection and agricultural prosperity.