Thu, Nov 22, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Deforestation means tough choices for Brazil

Evandro Carlos Selva is one of 1,400 high-tech environmental police who use eyes in space and feet on the ground to patrol a deadly border

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, SINOP

Soy fields have expanded by 10 percent in the past year. Locals say this is mostly due to the conversion of cattle pastures into cropland. However, there is clearly also pressure on the forest. In September, Mato Grosso was the only state where land clearance continued to accelerate — a hefty increase of 158 percent compared with the same period last year.

One of the worst areas is Feliz Natal (“Happy Christmas”). Numerous farmers here have already been penalized, but there appears to be no sign that pressure on the forest is letting up.

There are plumes of smoke every few hundred meters across a broad expanse of forest. The haze stretches across the sky, but this is far from the worst burn-off. Satellite images of previous blazes show smoke stretching 160km.

The process of deforestation is simple. Its various stages — carried out over a period of two to 10 years — can all be seen on a one-hour helicopter ride above Mato Grosso.

First, there is the cutting. Small secret trails are pierced through the undergrowth by illegal loggers, who covertly fell and sell the most valuable hardwood logs to sawmills.

Then comes the burning as fires are set every few hundred meters under the canopy, filling the skies with a haze and reducing the tall green forest to low gray ash.

Next is the clearing. Bulldozers push the ash into heaps and mechanized claws rip what is left of the roots from the soil so that it can be planted with a monoculture — usually soy, cotton or corn. Elsewhere, most deforestation is for cattle pasture.

Some of this is approved by the government, but farmers are supposed to protect 80 percent of the forest on their Amazonian land and 50 percent on the Cerrado. To enforce this, the rangers receive printouts of satellite images that show bright red areas where deforestation has taken place.

We land in an area where the trees have been dragged down. Rather than burn the forest, farmers run two powerful tractors in parallel with a thick chain between them that pushes over even the biggest trees in its path. Carlos Selva calculates that 500 hectares have been cleared without permission and initiates a process of punishment and restoration.

There are limits on the authorities’ vision and powers of enforcement. It takes about two days for satellite information to be processed and sent to agents in the field. After an upgrade next year, this will be accelerated and rangers will also receive data about forest degradation, which should increase their chances of catching violations at an earlier stage.

The operation will be helped by two new satellites — one Japanese, one Brazilian-Chinese. The Japanese Alos 2 satellite will provide radar monitoring, which will allow the space and environment agencies to observe the forest even during the cloudy season from November to March. The Brazilian-Chinese satellite, Cbers 3, will provide higher resolution and more frequent data.

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