“The landowners know what we can see. So if they deforest an area of less than 25 hectares, we cannot currently spot it from a satellite, but with the new system next year, we’ll get higher definition. It’s like a game of cat and mouse. As the technology improves, they find new strategies,” De Oliveira Filho says.
In the best cases, farmers return the cleared land to forest. More often, however, they lodge appeals that can take more than a decade to resolve.
“Only 2 percent of the fines are collected,” said a local police officer, who asked to remain nameless. “The rest end up being wrangled over in endless legal challenges. That’s Brazil.”
Dealing with the change in global commodity prices is likely to prove tougher still. Some believe slower deforestation in recent years is partly due to the world economic downturn, but with soy hitting a record high this year after drought cut the harvest in the US, the temptation to clear more land in the Amazon increases.
“It’s driven by market forces. Of course, there will be more pressure. That’s why we have to be in the field all the time,” De Oliveira Filho says.
Last month, the environment minister announced a strategy to put teams of military, police and environment rangers in the field 365 days a year.
Farmers say the economic incentives outweigh the legal risks.
“The ones who follow the rules like me are considered idiots. The ones who break the rules make the money,” a landowner, Milton Luiz Molfensteiner, said.
The next soy crop planting is under way. With good weather, Brazil’s harvest early next year is forecast to yield about 85 million tonnes. Almost a third of that will be from Mato Grosso, which would then account for about one in every 13 soy beans produced on the planet.
The local agricultural association says this is a golden era. The price of soy has risen 33 percent — from 60 to 70 reals a sack — in the past 12 months because of the US drought and rising demand from China, which accounts for 60 percent of exports.
“This is a good time for us in agriculture, especially in soy, especially in Mato Grosso. This is now the global center for soy,” said Silvesio de Oliveira, director of the state’s Soy and Maize Association.
He is asking the government to reduce the proportion of protected forest on farmers’ land from 80 percent to 35 percent.
Antonio Galvan, head of the Agricultural Association of Sinop, says greater land clearance is essential if the world is to feed a global population due to grow by two billion and to offset the loss of agricultural production caused by climate change.
“If the US drought continues, someone will have to feed humanity. People might die of hunger. Rural producers don’t deforest an area for fun, they do it because of the demand for food,” he says.
“A big part of the world depends on Mato Grosso. Deforestation is an international concern, but we also have to make a living and the world has to worry about food,” Galvan says.
Conservationists say such arguments are exaggerated and used as an excuse, not only to clear forest, but also to drive indigenous people off their land.
However, the Ruralista agricultural lobby is growing in influence. Brazilian legislators are revising the forest code to loosen Amazon protection measures. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff vetoed several of the most controversial amendments last month, but conservation groups say the bill is still a disastrous step backwards.