Climate change and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: the complex scenario and difficulties in moving towards sustainable solutions

by Victoria Gómez – Department of Social Analysis – Universidad Carlos III; and Jose J. Gómez – Sustainable Development and Human Settlements Division of ECLAC

A crucial biome for Brazil and the planet

Despite its continuous presence in the media, it is not easy to convey the complexity of the processes taking place in the Amazon. If we focus on the Brazilian Amazon, also called the Legal Amazon [1], we are talking about an area that covers approximately 60% of Brazil’s territory, i.e. just over 5 million km2 or about ten times the size of Spain. It is home to a great cultural, social and diversity wealth represented by hundreds of indigenous ethnicities, encompassing around 180 languages and thousands of quilombola communities (African descendants of slaves who achieved emancipation) and other traditional communities, such as artisanal fishermen, riverside and extractivist communities, rubber tappers, among others (MMA, 2015).

In environmental terms, the Amazon encompasses the largest tropical forest in the world, which plays a determining role in the provision of ecosystem goods and services at different territorial scales. The main contributions of the Amazon on a global scale refer to climate regulation, both in water production and recycling and carbon storage, as well as in biodiversity conservation (it is estimated that the Amazon biome harbors at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity) (Piotrowsky M., 2019). Amazon forests account for 10% of all biomass on the planet and thus provide an important ecosystem service of climate stabilization, capturing and storing organic carbon in biomass and soil and thus keeping some of the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (Foley J. et al., 2007). The Amazon produces immense quantities of water. They are known as “flying rivers”, formed by air masses laden with water vapor that carry moisture from the Amazon basin to Central-West, Southeast and South Brazil, feeding the country’s two main river systems (Fearnside P., 2019). These rains are the main sources of water for hydroelectric power generation, agricultural production and consumption in São Paulo and other large cities in the southeast and south of the country [2]. As deforestation increases in the Amazon, the resulting reductions in evapotranspiration on the one hand and atmospheric warming on the other may weaken the recycling of atmospheric moisture, with serious repercussions for the South American climate (Foley et al., 2007). A recent article published by Nature (Teixeira A. et al., 2021) shows how deforestation is already reducing agricultural production in the southern Amazon, the most dynamic and important productive area in this region. According to the authors, “Brazilian agribusiness and its global partners are testing the limits of nature by expanding their activity by eliminating natural forests with the risk of reducing the rainfall that sustains their productivity. The trajectory of land-use change in the Brazilian Amazon, therefore, leads to an unsustainable path for most of the country’s rainfed agricultural systems.”

Greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

The evolution of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions is closely linked to deforestation in the Amazon [3]. As shown in Graph 1, the main source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions until 2009 was the land use change sector due to deforestation. Brazil has an energy matrix with a high share of renewable energies, especially hydroelectricity, and with widespread use of ethanol generated from sugarcane for road transportation. Since 2009, the agricultural sector has been the source of most GHG emissions (one third of total emissions). The reduction in deforestation since 2005 explains why 2016 GHG emissions are only 43% of 2004 emissions. At the same time, most of the increase in GHG emissions between 2010 and 2016 was due to the increase in emissions caused by deforestation (UN, 2020).

Figure 1. Evolution of Brazil’s total GHG emissions by sector (1990-2016) in TgCO2e.

Source: UN (2020)

The intense occupation of the Brazilian Amazon began in the 1960s (Becker B., 2009) with deforestation as its immediate consequence. From that period to the present, changes of every order and magnitude have taken place. From a chronological perspective, if we go back to the 1970s and 1980s, it is crucial to pay attention to geopolitical issues, such as the role played in Brazil by the occupation of the territory in terms of defense of national sovereignty (against potential occupations by other countries), the search for food self-sufficiency, or the prevailing paradigms at the time, such as the idea that “the standing forest has no value”.

Deforestation and the conversion of soils to agriculture and, above all, to livestock production, favored land ownership claims in a context in which the extension of the territory, logistical difficulties and available technologies greatly limited the institutional capacity to guarantee the proper functioning of the system of property rights and land management. This process was boosted by strong state support to the agricultural sector in the 1970s-80s through tax incentives, subsidized credits and infrastructure, especially roads, which play a key role in spearheading the deforestation process. In addition, land became a refuge value due to the prevailing hyperinflation. Property rights were often acquired and consolidated by illegal means. Thus, deforesting land and dedicating it to productive activities was the main way of demonstrating property rights over land (Margulis S., 2004).

The globalization process that intensified in the 1990s further reinforced the existing productive model, increasing the areas destined for soybean and above all for meat production, until then limited to the domestic market. Most of the deforested areas (around 75% of the surface area) are dedicated to cattle production (Margulis S. 2004; IPAM, 2004). In the 1990s, the number of cattle in the Amazon doubled to 52 million head (IPAM, 2004). Currently, the presence of cattle in the Brazilian Amazon is estimated at about 90 million head (IBGE, 2021). The transformation of the production system from the combination of these elements resulted in Brazil becoming the second largest soybean producer in the world [4].

Change of paradigm

At the same time, however, there was growing concern about deforestation in the Amazon, both within Brazil and the international community, first because of the associated loss of biodiversity and later because of the climate imbalances generated both regionally and globally by greenhouse gas emissions.

The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) marked a paradigm shift in the treatment of forests and, consequently, a different perception of the Amazon. This paradigm shift resulted in an increase in resources for environmental protection. Even so, 1995 recorded the highest deforestation rate in the Legal Amazon in recent decades (see Graph 2).

The launching in 2004 of the Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm) with political support at the highest level in Brazil (Civil House of the Presidency) was a new milestone since its development along three axes: land titling and agrarian and territorial planning, monitoring and control, and promotion of sustainable productive activities. As can be seen in Graph 2, deforestation has been drastically reduced since that year. In terms of monitoring and control, the INPE (National Institute for Space Research) had for the first time systems to detect deforestation in real time from satellite images. Various federal institutions such as police forces and environmental institutions were involved in surveillance, further reinforced by legislation that allowed for the confiscation of equipment and machinery, products and other assets of offenders. All of these were very clear signals that the rules of the game had changed and that there would be no tolerance for illegal deforestation.

The measures deployed ranged from limitations on credit for activities that involved deforestation, credits for soil recovery, subsidies for certain products from agroforestry systems, minimum prices for socio-biodiversity products, promotion of agroforestry systems, etc. There was also increased vigilance regarding the origin of timber and livestock production. An important fact was that the private sector itself signed an agreement with NGOs for a soybean moratorium in the Amazon. The soybean producers committed to grow soybeans only in areas previously deforested under the agreement.

Figure 2. Annual rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Legal Amazon (Km2/year).

Source: Prepared by the authors based on PRODES (2021).

At the same time, from the technological point of view, EMBRAPA (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária) and other research institutions were developing technological packages aimed at intensifying yields per hectare of traditional agricultural products, recovering soils and developing new products that can be obtained from the sustainable use of the forest (fruits, oils, resins, cosmetics, fish farming, etc.).

The new development model for the Amazon required a large number of resources. Within the framework of the Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon, land regularization was a priority, based on new legislation and the implementation of the Legal Land Program in 2009. Land ownership and legality problems affect both sustainable productive development and conservation initiatives, limit access to credit for smaller producers and generate conflicts in rural areas.

Brazil achieved impressive results in terms of emissions reduction by reducing the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 82% between 2004 and 2014. The use of new technologies (satellite images) that make it possible to detect deforestation in real time in a territory of gigantic extension, a clear will on the part of Brazil’s highest level authorities and an active presence of State institutions on the ground were key to this process.

The results of policies to combat deforestation in the Amazon are even more remarkable if one considers that the period of the largest drop in deforestation rates coincides with a boom in international meat and soybean prices (see Figure 3) (ECLAC, 2019).

Figure 3. Evolution of deforestation in the Legal Amazon and meat and soybean prices (1990-2017). Base year 1990.

Source: Own elaboration based on IMF (2021) for meat and soybean prices and PRODES (2021) for deforestation rates.

Effects, problems and consequences

However, over time, the trend began to suffer a reversal, partly linked to the high social costs of the change of model and the political problems derived from its effects. The other side of the deforestation reduction is the growth of unemployment, which generated discomfort and despair among those who depended on work in activities associated with deforestation processes, such as sawmills, and subsequent agricultural activity. This led many mayors and governors in the area to pressure the central government to reduce control of deforestation activities, in a context where monitoring is becoming increasingly complex and costly [5].

In political terms, one of the main changes took place in 2013, when the overall coordination of the plan to combat deforestation moved from the Civil House of the Presidency to the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, showing that deforestation in the Amazon was losing importance in the political agenda of the Federal Government. As can be seen in Graph 3, deforestation increases again from 2014 onwards.

This partial reversal can also be observed in the attitude of the executors of deforestation processes, as shown in Graph 4, which allows observing the evolution of deforestation from the size of deforested polygons. Between 2004 and 2010, a period in which field monitoring was more intense, deforestation of plots of more than 100 ha decreased significantly, especially those of more than 500 ha (from 18% of the deforested area in 2004 to 2% in 2010). The effect of vigilance on the part of the authorities shifted the pattern of deforestation towards smaller, more dispersed plots that are more difficult to detect. In 2015, however, there was a certain reversal in the size of deforested plots, with an increase in the contribution of the three largest types since 2010, especially between 100 and 500 hectares (an increase from 10% to 20% of the deforested area).

Figure 4. Evolution of deforestation between 2004 and 2015 according to size of deforested areas as a percentage relative to the total annual deforested area.

Source: MMA, 2018

In this path, and despite the aforementioned attempts at alternative changes to the productive structure, it should be emphasized that the economic base of the area has not been substantially modified and continues to depend on traditional agricultural products. For example, the valorization of forests through their sustainable use and/or the sale of environmental services has taken place on a very small scale. There are long-term bets, such as the application of knowledge derived from modern biotechnology to the megabiodiversity of the Amazon, but they do not allow us to foresee significant changes in the predominant production model in the near future. So far, these projects do not have the capacity to propose realistic alternatives for job creation compared to traditional activities associated with deforestation processes, which points to the need to intensify efforts aimed at feasibility studies and new ambitious approaches with the capacity to constitute new competitive axes of activity and work with repercussions on the improvement of the wellbeing of the region’s inhabitants.

Even so, some indicators show a certain assumption of an incipient culture of environmental conservation which, although not so evident in the case of livestock farms, is reflected, for example, in the renunciation of soybean plantations in new deforested areas. All this occurs, moreover, in a context in which since 2019 the current president of Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro) made a radical turn in environmental protection approaches, claiming Brazil’s role as an agricultural exporting power, merged the ministries of Agriculture and Environment and cut resources for environmental monitoring, initially using a discourse that emboldened loggers and agricultural producers in the conquest of new lands to deforest.

A new scenario

Brazil’s political position with respect to the Amazon could be changing at the present time. The geopolitical chessboard is complicated and subject to the influence of different elements. On the one hand, Colombia, after its peace process, is beginning to claim international protagonism in defining the future of the Amazon, a role traditionally occupied by Brazil. The result of this is the Leticia Pact for the Amazon (2019), promoted mainly by Colombia and Peru and signed by seven countries in the area, with the aim of protecting the territory. On the other hand, after twenty years of negotiation for a free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur (Southern Common Market, an economic integration mechanism that includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), the lack of protection of the Amazon appears as the main obstacle to its ratification. Thirdly, compared to the previous period, the change in the US presidency and the departure of former President Trump from the political scene is politically isolating the Brazilian president in the international sphere and delegitimizing his actions. Most probably for this reason, last June 23, 2021, the president of Brazil replaced the Minister of the Environment with another person with experience working in the protection of the Amazon. Even so, in the face of these pressures for a more proactive position on the part of Brazil with respect to Amazon protection, the need to reactivate the economy and increase agricultural and mining exports promote the opposite path.

In the history of the Brazilian Amazon over the last fifty years, different and often conflicting dynamics have converged and should be taken into account. On the technological level, agricultural research has made it possible, on the one hand, to develop soybean seeds adapted to the fragile soils of the Amazon, which has led to deforestation. On the other hand, Brazil was also a pioneer in the use of satellite technology to detect and combat deforestation. In the sphere of globalization, there are also opposing pressures. On the one hand, trade liberalization and the demand for agricultural products by Asia promoted the elimination of forests to boost soybean and meat production, but at the same time and in the opposite direction, the international community is pressing for the defense of biodiversity and climate stability, demanding the protection of these forests.

Taking into account the sequence of events mentioned above and the planetary importance of the Amazon, it seems more necessary than ever to unite political wills to activate urgent mechanisms that, from globalizing approaches, facilitate a change of course in the area, intensify environmental protection and allow its inhabitants to advance in a sustainable way.

[1] The Legal Amazon includes part of the non-Amazonian biomes, such as the Cerrado and Pantanal.

[2] According to some climate models, if the Amazon were totally or partially deforested, the climate problems generated would affect distant countries such as the United States, with reduced rainfall mainly in the west, and even China (Marengo and Souza, 2018).

[3] In Brazil, deforestation also affects other biomes besides the Amazon (Cerrado, Pantanal, Kaatinga, Pampa and Mata Atlântica). However, in 2019 87% of GHG emissions from deforestation originated in the Amazon and before plans to reduce deforestation this percentage was even higher (Observatorio do Clima, 2020).

[4] Soybean production in Brazil was 115 million tons in 2019, more than 30% of world production. Brazil’s main producing state, Mato Grosso, is part of the Legal Amazon (Governo de Mato Grosso, 2019).

[5] In 2015, in the midst of an economic recession, the Brazilian Ministry of Environment makes extraordinary use of international cooperation funds provided for other purposes by donor countries to finance field monitoring activities (ECLAC, 2019).


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