Can Brazil maintain progress on addressing deforestation?

André Vasconcelos

Brazil has achieved its carbon emissions reduction target through action in the forestry sector, but are the forests under threat from the new government, photo: Karklis via, creative commons licence

There was some welcome news from Brazil at the UN Climate talks (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland, when Brazil’s Environmental Ministry announced that the country has already met its overall pre-2020 commitment to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from forestry by 60 percent relative to its emission projections set in 2009.

This was established under the Nationally Appropriated Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). The government claims that “through actions in its forestry sector alone” Brazil has reduced 1.28 billion tons of CO2 emission between August 2017 and July 2018. This is equivalent to the combined CO2 emissions of Germany, Italy, and Netherlands in 2016 (including land use change).

Nearly 60 percent of this came from a reduction in deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes — two of the most important areas for carbon storage (and biodiversity) in the country.

Just over 40 percent was due to CO2 absorption by native vegetation in areas under official protection. This includes Indigenous Territories, Federal Protected Areas, and areas set-aside for conservation purposes under the Brazilian Forest Code.

This fundamental step towards tackling global warming was also accompanied by the great news that deforestation in the Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savannah, this year reached the lowest level in the last two decades.

But all these achievements could be reversed by the actions of the incoming Brazilian government — especially if Bolsonaro, who takes up office as president in January, withdraws Brazil from the Paris Agreement, or follows through on his threat to undermine the rights of indigenous people to their territories, or to weaken environmental legislation, such as the Forest Code.

Indigenous rights remain at risk

And even though these achievements are admirable, there are still many issues to be addressed. A new study shows that currently almost two thirds of all the Protected Areas (PA) and 40 percent of Indigenous Territories (IT) in Brazil face the risks of social conflicts and environmental “shocks” primarily due to mining activities operating near indigenous and protected areas. These areas accounted for over 30 percent of the CO2 reduction claimed by the Brazilian government raising concerns about future emissions.

The study finds an alarming number of 4,536 potential social and environmental conflicts in Brazil.

Deforestation in the Amazon increasing

There are also real reasons for concern given that the figures show that although emissions have fallen against projections, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon last year increased, hitting the highest rate in the last 10 years — an increase of 14 percent in comparison to last year.

A significant chunk of this increase in deforestation in the Amazon is a result of illegal activities, but Brazil has a target of zero illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 2030, according to the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. The new government will have work to do if this target is to be achieved.

For example, research conducted by Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV) shows that an area the size of London was illegally deforested in the Amazon in Mato Grosso state. The research found that 85 percent of the deforestation within the Amazon in Mato Grosso was illegal.

And although deforestation in the Cerrado overall fell by 11 percent compared to last year, deforestation rates remain high, particularly in the Matopiba region.

In the year to August 2018, the amount of vegetation loss in Matopiba, at the agricultural frontier, was more than twice the size of London.

It is time for action

Brazil’s government cannot afford to rest on its laurels. While it is good news that deforestation has been reduced in the Cerrado and emission targets have been met, they must also be maintained — and that means no let up on action to protect the country’s forests.

Brazil’s withdrawal of its offer to host the 2019 UNFCCC climate talks suggests that Brazil might lose its leadership status on conservation. The new president must rise to the challenge and show that even though it will not be hosting the COP in 2019, it can still lead the world in addressing deforestation.