Not even the Covid-19 pandemic can curb Brazil’s emissions. Can anything?

As the world sees a record drop in emissions as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns, uncontrolled deforestation is driving them up in Brazil

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Ibama raid deforestation 2018 rates hiked since Covid-19

IBAMA officials raid the site of illegal deforestation in 2018. The agency is experiencing further staffing shortages as a result of Covid-19 (image: Vinícius Mendonça/ Ibama)

Across the world, many people saw a silver lining in the record drop in global emissions caused by the lockdowns to halt the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. But Brazilians weren’t among them. 

Reductions in traffic and industrial activity were responsible for the dips in most countries but these had relatively little effect on curbing emissions in Brazil since the destruction of forests is the source of almost half the carbon dioxide (CO2) it emits into the atmosphere every year. And the Covid-19 pandemic has made deforestation even worse.

26%

the hike in deforestation in Brazil between March and May compared to the same period in 2019

Preliminary data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) suggests that between March and May, as the virus spread across Brazil, over 1,500 square kilometres of forest were destroyed, a 26% hike compared to last year.

Brazil’s Climate Observatory estimates that the level of destruction will translate into a national increase in emissions of between 10% and 20% compared to 2018. This means Brazil could send between 2.1 and 2.3 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere this year — a drastic deviation from its Paris Agreement pledge to limit emissions to 1.3 billion tonnes per year by 2025.

President Jair Bolsonaro has often defended deforestation as an unfortunate consequence of growing Brazil’s economy. Yet although most economic activity is grinding to a halt, deforestation is up in the time of Covid-19. We explain why.

Why even Covid-19 can’t stop deforestation in Brazil

Almost all deforestation happening in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal, so law enforcement agencies are key to fighting it. 

However, IBAMA, Brazil’s main environmental protection agency, has been stripped of funds and human resources over many years. The number of IBAMA inspectors has been dropping since 2010, going from 1,311 to 730 today. 

The lack of new hires means the average age of IBAMA inspectors is going up. With many over 60, they are considered a higher risk group when it comes to the coronavirus. This has translated into fewer IBAMA inspectors in the field monitoring deforestation during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Furthermore, IBAMA inspectors have suffered unprecedented hostility under president Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. Fines by the agency went down 34% last year, a 24-year-low. Agents are often attacked by angry mobs, which, critics say, feel empowered by the president’s anti-environment rhetoric. 

When Brazil stumbled into the global media spotlight last year because of the raging fires in the Amazon, the government was forced to act. However, their chosen course of action was to send in the military, an expensive move that proved inefficient. 

What drives illegal deforestation?

While illegal logging and mining are extremely dangerous for the Amazon forest, many researchers agree one industry carries the largest share of responsibility for illegal deforestation: land grabbing.

Land grabbing in the Amazon enables a multi-billion dollar real estate market. Roughly a third of the Amazon is at risk of land grabbing, an area made up of public lands the Brazilian government hasn’t officially allocated to anyone. They aren’t conservation areas, indigenous territories, rural settlements nor private farmland. 

Researchers and prosecutors say the uncertainty over their status puts them at the centre of a destructive and often violent struggle between land grabbers, law enforcement and traditional communities — each fighting for the chance to own a piece of land that the government recognises.

When the government creates reserves, it essentially takes public land off the land grabbing market, severely lowering the chances a land grabber will one day get a title

Deforestation is key for land grabbers, paving the way for them to assert their possession over a plot. This practice dates back to the 1970’s, when Brazil’s military regime encouraged people from other states to occupy public lands in the Amazon to develop it and integrate it to the country. 

When government inspectors went to a plot to assess whether the people occupying it deserved an official title, deforestation was one of the main aspects they took note of. Inspectors used to demand that applicants deforest at least half their plot before approving their claim.

Data analysed by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute shows that over 40% of the deforestation happening in the Amazon now takes place in unallocated public lands. In the state of Amazonas, the biggest in the region, over 50% of deforestation alerts earlier this year happened in state and federal land plots that aren’t protected.

While president Bolsonaro has been clear on his policy of not giving traditional communities more land than they currently have access to, his stance against land grabbers has been far less clear. At times it has even been encouraging. 

Last year, the Bolsonaro administration presented a bill that would essentially give amnesty to land grabbers seizing territory up until 2018. The bill was defeated in Congress, but many lawmakers have demonstrated support for its core proposals. Researchers say the expectation of amnesty drives many people to keep grabbing land.

What can be done to stop it?

Prosecutors and environmentalists say any response to Brazil’s growing rate of deforestation must include strengthening environmental protection agencies and, to some, even introducing tougher penalties for environmental degradation. An improvement in the tools used to track meat, timber, minerals and other supply chains would also help sever criminal links. 

All of this would cost money and resources. Yet there is one policy that costs very little money and would have almost instant results: creating more reserves. When the government creates reserves, it essentially takes public land off the land grabbing market, severely lowering the chances a land grabber will one day get a title for that plot. 

Brazil has tried it before. Between 2003 and 2008, former Environment minister Marina Silva created 66 reserves, protecting hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of forest. The result of this policy, along with others, led to Brazil halving deforestation rates under Silva’s tenure, while agribusiness saw sales and profits skyrocket.

History shows us that economic growth doesn’t have to mean more emissions.