It is hard to overestimate what is at stake. The two sides in the debate put it in stark terms. Save the forest and you fight climate change. Clear the forest and you ease global hunger. Agribusinesses see the Amazon as one of the last great areas for expansion.
The rangers are caught in the middle, but this is not a simple either-or choice. There are alarming signs that the Amazon is caught in a vicious cycle and the more this great climate regulator is cleared, the less predictable global weather systems will become. That increases the risk of droughts and floods, ruining crops across the world. This in turn, adds to the pressure to clear the forest.
Twenty-five million people make their home in the Brazilian Amazon, which covers more than 5 million square kilometers. Already, 17 percent has been stripped by cattle ranchers, loggers and soy farmers. At the recent peak of clearances in 2004, an area of 27km2 was deforested in a year, equivalent to the size of Albania, Haiti or Belgium.
Since then, deforestation has slowed dramatically thanks to a system that combines eyes in the sky, boots on the ground and a growing collection of carrots and sticks to persuade farmers and ranchers that they are better off leaving the forest intact.
The system is primarily based on two sets of satellite data: Prodes, which is an annual forest audit down to the level of 6.25 hectares (currently using a UK satellite), and Deter, which provides almost real-time information to rangers in the field, such as Carlos Selva, who can reach the affected areas rapidly in helicopters and trucks. Individual violators can be fined, jailed, have machinery confiscated and be barred from access to bank loans.
The environment institute said it seized 650 trucks, 60 bulldozers and 200 chainsaws last year. Municipalities where more than 77km2 are illegally stripped are put on a blacklist, which means companies in the area are blocked from cheap financing, and firms that trade with them also face restrictions.
Francisco de Oliveira Filho, the director of deforestation combat policies in the environment ministry, says the scheme has helped Brazil to move more than half the way towards its Copenhagen commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent by 2020.
“In 2004, people said it was impossible to stop the deforestation of the Amazon, but we have proved it can be reduced,” he said.
However, the hard work is still to come because the polygons of deforestation are getting smaller and more scattered. Farmers have learned the limits of satellite observation and the financial incentive to break the law increases with the rise in soy prices.
“We are reviewing the system now. We know we’re getting to the limits of monitoring and control,” De Oliveira Filho said.
“Until now, we have made good progress by focusing on big land owners and large deforestation polygons, but we have reached the point where if we are to meet our goals we need to target holdings of less than 25 hectares. That is why we need higher resolution satellites,” he said.
The environment ministry focuses its attention on an arc of deforestation from the north-east to the south-west. This is the frontline where farmers are eating into the forest. By far the worst-hit states are Para, Mato Grosso and Rondonia. With abundant water resources and flat, fertile land on the border of the Amazon and the Cerrado, Mato Grosso is considered some of the best agricultural territory in Brazil, which has made its forests the hardest to protect.