The number of fires this year in the Amazon is the highest since 2010, reaching more than 90,000 active fires. Farmers and ranchers routinely use fires to clear the forest. But this year’s number reflects a worrisome uptick in the rate of deforestation, which had started to drop around 2005 before rebounding earlier this decade.
Many people blame the Brazilian government and its pro-agriculture policies for the current crisis. But as an environmental researcher who has worked in the Amazon for the past 25 years, I can say the seeds were planted before the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. And the prospects of slowing deforestation remain dim, an issue that matters to people around the world.
That’s in part because the current administration has only aggravated the situation with its anti-environmental agenda. Unless the Brazilian people succeed in making Bolsonaro retreat from his stated goal of developing the Amazon, deforestation will surge again. Adding fuel to the fire is the quickening pace of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA), a multi-nation plan to build road, dams and rail lines across the Amazon.
Brazil managed to significantly reduce deforestation rates at the turn of the millennium with effective environmental policy and voluntary efforts by the private sector. Deforestation, which started in the 1970s, began climbing again in 2015 due to political turmoil and an economic recession that paved the way to policy reversals.
The Amazonian deforestation rate dropped from about 10,700 square miles in 2004 to 1,765 square miles in 2012, and remained low until its resurgence a few years ago. This was because of effective environmental policy, which in Brazil is mostly based on protected areas, such as national parks, and a forestry code limiting the amount of land that can be cleared on individual properties.
Over the years, the Brazilian government has developed a system of protected areas for ecological protection and indigenous reserves. In 2002 it expanded their coverage to about 43% of the entire Amazon. It also created protected areas in zones of land conflict as a means to tamp down rampant fire and deforestation.
Adding to this, enforcement of the forestry code was enhanced by the development of a satellite monitoring system that enabled Brazil’s environmental protection agency to identify law-breaking property owners from space. In addition to government, the private sector helped lower the rate of deforestation. Soybean farmers stopped planting new fields in the forest, and retailers demanded that the goods they sold come from lands already cleared so they could certify them as “green,” especially beef.