Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia destroys environmental services that are important for the whole world, and especially for Brazil itself. These services include maintaining biodiversity, avoiding global warming, and recycling water that provides rainfall to Amazonia, to other parts of Brazil, such as São Paulo, and to neighboring countries, such as Argentina. The forest also maintains the human populations and cultures that depend on it. Deforestation rates have gone up and down over the years with major economic cycles. A peak of 27,772 km2/year was reached in 2004, followed by a major decline to 4571 km2/year in 2012, after which the rate trended upward, reaching 7989 km2/year in 2016 (equivalent to about 1.5 hectares per minute). Most (70%) of the decline occurred by 2007, and the slowing in this period is almost entirely explained by declining prices of export commodities such as soy and beef. Government repression measures explain the continued decline from 2008 to 2012, but an important part of the effect of the repression program hinges on a fragile base: a 2008 decision that makes the absence of pending fines a prerequisite for obtaining credit for agriculture and ranching. This could be reversed at the stroke of a pen, and this is a priority for the powerful “ruralist” voting bloc in the National Congress. Massive plans for highways, dams, and other infrastructure in Amazonia, if carried out, will add to forces in the direction of increased deforestation.
Deforestation occurs for a wide variety of reasons that vary in different historical periods, in different locations, and in different phases of the process at any given location. Economic cycles, such as recessions and the ups and downs of commodity markets, are one influence. The traditional economic logic, where people deforest to make a profit by producing products from agriculture and ranching, is important but only a part of the story. Ulterior motives also drive deforestation. Land speculation is critical in many circumstances, where the increase in land values (bid up, for example, as a safe haven to protect money from hyperinflation) can yield much higher returns than anything produced by the land. Even without the hyperinflation that came under control in 1994, highway projects can yield speculative fortunes to those who are lucky or shrewd enough to have holdings along the highway route. The practical way to secure land holdings is to deforest for cattle pasture. This is also critical to obtaining and defending legal title to the land. In the past, it has also been the key to large ranches gaining generous fiscal incentives from the government. Money laundering also makes deforestation attractive, allowing funds from drug trafficking, tax evasion, and corruption to be converted to “legal” money. Deforestation receives impulses from logging, mining, and, especially, road construction. Soybeans and cattle ranching are the main replacements for forest, and recently expanded export markets are giving strength to these drivers. Population growth and household dynamics are important for areas dominated by small farmers. Extreme degradation, where tree mortality from logging and successive droughts and forest fires replace forest with open nonforest vegetation, is increasing as a kind of deforestation, and is likely to increase much more in the future.
Controlling deforestation requires addressing its multiple causes. Repression through fines and other command-and-control measures is essential to avoid a presumption of impunity, but these controls must be part of a broader program that addresses underlying causes. The many forms of government subsidies for deforestation must be removed or redirected, and the various ulterior motives must be combated. Industry agreements restricting commodity purchases from properties with illegal deforestation (or from areas cleared after a specified cutoff) have a place in efforts to contain forest loss, despite some problems. A “soy moratorium” has been in effect since 2006, and a “cattle agreement” since 2009. Creation and defense of protected areas is an important part of deforestation control, including both indigenous lands and a variety of kinds of “conservation units.” Containing infrastructure projects is essential if deforestation is to be held in check: once roads are built, much of what happens is outside the government’s control. The notion that the 2005–2012 deforestation slowdown means that the process is under control and that infrastructure projects can be built at will is extremely dangerous. One must also abandon myths that divert efforts to contain deforestation; these include “sustainable logging” and the use of “green” funds for expensive programs to reforest degraded lands rather than retain areas of remaining natural forests. Finally, one must provide alternatives to support the rural population of small farmers. Large investors, on the other hand, can fend for themselves. Tapping the value of the environmental services of the forest has been proposed as an alternative basis for sustaining both the rural population and the forest. Despite some progress, a variety of challenges remain. One thing is clear: most of Brazil’s Amazonian deforestation is not “development.” Trading the forest for a vast expanse of extensive cattle pasture does little to secure the well-being of the region’s rural population, is not sustainable, and sacrifices Amazonia’s most valuable resources.