The politics of deforestation in Brazil

13 Mar



Source: Foreign Affairs (available at:


 Brazil is blessed with a wide variety of natural resources. The Amazon Basin is rich in biodiversity. Most of the basin is covered by the Amazon rainforest which is the largest rainforest in the world. This article is an attempt to analyze the situation of deforestation in Brazil. The article will give a  brief history of environmental protection in Brazil and then into the politics behind deforestation. In doing so, I’ll analyze the various factors that have proved to be a blessing or an impediment for the Amazon, namely Cattle Ranching, Amazon Highway System, REDD, Belo Monte Dam, and SIVAM. I’ll conclude by deliberating and making some recommendations as to what extent Brazil should pursue the issue internationally so as to ensure environment sustenance domestically.


In the pre-colonial era (pre 1500) environment was considered as something sacred by the indigenous population. In Colonial Brazil (1500 – 1815), the Portuguese initially experimented with Brazil wood (part of the forest policy); however the timber industry failed. Hence, the Portuguese turned to sugar. Thus, the environment was never a major issue during this period. However, after independence (1815) and particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, environmentalist had to work clandestinely. This was mainly due to the presence of dictatorship headed by military juntas. Furthermore, the government believed that the environment as an issue is to be tackled nationally and not internationally. In the 1970s, military heads of State General Emílio Garrastazú Médici (1969­ -1974) believed that issues like the environment fell within the authority of the national sovereign leader. Furthermore, these issues were of secondary and tertiary importance to developing nations. However, the situation changed in 1985 when Brazil became a constitutional democracy. This aided the environmentalist as their work and actions was greatly facilitated through policy measures initiated by the government. Thus, began the period of environmentally friendly politics.





The present predicament of deforestation can be traced back to the 1960-70s when the Brazilian Government encouraged landless families to settle in the Amazon. In 1966, the Superintendenciad o Desenvolvimentod a Amazonia (SUDAM) and Banco da Amazonia SA (BASA) was created. SUDAM and BASA enabled individuals as well as firms to invest in the Amazon region [Moran Emilio, 1993, p.5]. This was possible as the Government through such development programmes gave special financial and tax incentives. Hence, began a number of development projects. A majority of these projects pertained to Cattle Ranching.


How Cattle Ranching is destroying the Amazon Rainforest?






Cattle Ranching is majorly responsible for deforestation of the Amazon. The expansion of cattle ranching in the Amazon region has intensified in line with increasing international exports of Brazilian cattle and beef. Most of the herd is seen in the states of Mato Grosso and Pará [Greenpeace, 2009]. Furthermore, this growth intensifies Amazon forest destruction, as complex ecosystems are gradually being replaced by new pasture areas. According to Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), between 1996 and 2006 the area of pastures in the Amazon region grew by approximately 10 million hectares, an area about the size of Iceland.



(1)   Fires from slash-and-burn agriculture (2) Cleared forest (3) A small coffee plantation

Source: Camil Philip, 1999, p.4


Throughout the 1970s the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) established programs to take advantage of newly developed highways to translocate hundreds of thousands of Brazilian citizens from northern and eastern states westward into the Amazon. People moving to the frontier were given land practically for free so long as they showed evidence of “productive use” which unfortunately meant clearing the forest for agriculture or pasture. These people represented mainly a class of peasant farmers, who lacked the financial support of Brazil’s banks to start their own large-scale cattle or agricultural operations. Consequently, they practiced local forms of agriculture, the most popular of which has been slash-and-burn agriculture. This method involve cutting a small patch of forest, usually 3 to 4 hectares, burning the vegetation, perhaps after selling a minor fraction of timber, and growing and harvesting 2 to 3 years worth of crops. After the third year, farms are usually abandoned because of nutrient depleted soils and the invasion of weedy species. [Camil Philip, 1999, pp.3-4].



The Brazilian Amazon Highway System, 1975

Source: Smith Nigel, 1976 , p.130


In 1975, the Government attempted to build a Trans-Amazon Highway bisecting the forest. This opened up the Amazon to settlement by poor farmers and the subsequent exploitation of timber and mineral resources. This plan came to cost the Brazilian Government R$65,000 [Butler Rhett, 2012].  It failed completely due to the sediment in the Amazon River which caused the highway to collapse.


Adding to the economic and social failures of the project, are the long-term environmental costs. After the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazilian deforestation accelerated to levels never before seen and vast swaths of forest were cleared for subsistence farmers and cattle-ranching schemes. The Trans-Amazonian Highway is a prime example of the environmental havoc that is caused by road construction in the rainforest [Butler Rhett, 2012].




By the end of 1980s, Amazonian deforestation transformed Brazil into the world’s fourth major atmospheric carbon contributor behind the United States, the Soviet Union, and China [Goldemberg, 1989, p. 39]. However in 2002, things were expected to change when the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) came to power. It was led under the leadership of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Theoretically, this symbolized a change as the party represented a rather local grassroots approach to democracy. However, in reality things were different. In 2008, Maria Silva the then environment minister resigned due to pressure of defending the Amazon against the power of economic interest in the region. Thus, the transition from dictatorship to democracy has done little for the environment. However, the deaths of environmental activists Chico Mendes in 1998 and Dorothy Stang in 2005 brought awareness to the issues plaguing the Amazon, though violation of the laws in place continues to hamper activism.


Brazil has adopted the REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) climate-change prevention strategy. At the core of the model is the belief that it is possible to calculate how much carbon is released into the atmosphere when a given chunk of forest is cut down. Furthermore, under this model, wealthy countries or businesses seeking to offset their own impact on the climate would pay tropical countries to reduce their emissions below their baseline levels. To tackle the issue of payments, President Lula announced in 2008 the establishment of the Amazon Fund, calling on wealthy countries to contribute some $21 billion to directly fund rain-forest-preservation measures. Norway responded positively to this and committed to a contribution of $1 billion. As the funding came in, a number of projects were initiated in the Amazon region which included direct payments to landowners in return for preserving forests, awareness of farmers and ranchers about sustainability, etc. Roughly 20 per cent of the Amazon has, to date, been cleared [Tollefson Jeff, 2013].


Legislation has been used to terminate illegal sawmills and also to seize illegal timber and vehicles. The sophistication of satellite technology have not only made near real-time monitoring of forest regions possible but also aided in the expansion of sustainable activities in the area. These factors have helped to reduced deforestation in the Amazons. However legislation has been used to promote and prioritize the interest of development over the environment. A prime example of this is the construction of the Belo Monte Dam.




Indians protest the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project outside the National Electrical Energy Association in Brasilia, Brazil, on April 20th 2010.

Source: (Photo Credit: Eraldo Peres/AP)


The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project which is to be completed in 2015, has already cost the government a whopping R$19 billion [Environment News Service, 2010]. Environmentalists states that this dam will have major environmental ramifications. It will release large quantities of methane gas, which is more harmful than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, it will displace thousand of people and wipe out the Amazon rainforest along the XinguRiver. Although environmentalists and indigenous groups oppose the Belo Monte dam, many Brazilians support the project. Environmentalists say Brazil should focus on developing wind and solar energy instead of hydroelectric projects. 



Embraer 145 (R-99A) Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft

Source: Defense Update (available at:


Brazil Air force most successful program, System for Vigilance over the Amazon (SIVAM) is a huge network of Radars, sensors and personnel integrated to guard and protect the Amazon rain forest resource. The recent procurement of three AEW&C aircraft and remote sensing aircraft aims at establishing law enforcement, environmental protection and fighting drug trafficking in the Amazons [Defense Update, 2013]. It is important to note that the SIVAM constantly tries to equip itself so as to keep pace with the law violators.


Brazil, the middle power of Latin American, needs to play a bigger role not only to ensure that its environment is protected domestically but also ensure that the environment is given a top priority in the Latin American region. In doing so, Brazil will ensure holistic gains as the environment is not simply a local issue but a global issue. Hence, Brazil should play an effective role in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It must lend its support to the non­governmental organization Acción Ecológica (Environmental Action) and thus aid the NGO activities of mass protest against the Correa’s government support of mining. Beyond its region, Brazil has inspired countries like Indonesia to adopt the REDD model. This has helped Indonesia tackle the problem of deforestation and thus the Indonesian nation has seen a reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions. 


Instead of clearing forest for farming or cultivation, existing unused land should be used for such activities. The growing number of population in cities coupled with increase of exportation is causing a serious problem to sustain the richness of the Amazon. This remains one of the most urgent issues for the Brazilian Government to tackle. The implementation of a Green Economy in Brazil can tackle this issue. However, international pressures and influence on Brazil, has proven to be a roadblock to such schemes. Hence, Brazil should lobby for greater promotion and protection of the environment in the international spheres, be it in the form of BASIC, BRICS, UN etc.


What can deforestation culminate to? Why should we bother?


By: Kester Pereira




Butler Rhett (2012): ‘Deforestation in the Amazon’, < > (last viewed 8th March 2013)

Camill Philip (1999): ‘The Deforestation of the Amazon: A Case Study in Understanding Ecosystems and Their Value’, National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University of Buffalo, December

Defense Update (2013): ‘Brazil Embarks on an AEW&C Upgrade’, < > (last viewed on 9th March 2013)

Environment News Service (2010): ‘Belo Monte Dam Auction Proceeds Despite Protests Across Brazil’, < > (last viewed on 10th March 2013)

Goldemberg, J. (1989): ‘Amazonia: Facts, Problems and Solutions’, USP, São Paulo

Greenpeace (2009): ‘Amazon Cattle Footprint, Mato Grosso: State of Destruction’, Greenpeace Brazil, São Paulo, January 29th

Moran Emilio (1993): ‘Deforestation and Land Use in the Brazilian Amazon’, Human Ecology, Vol. 21, No. 1, Marc

Smith Nigel (1976): ‘Brazil’s Transamazon Highway Settlement Scheme: Agrovilas, Agropoli, and Ruropoli’, Association of American Geographers, Vol. 8

Tollefson Jeff (2013): ‘A Light in the Forest: Brazil’s Fight to Save the Amazon and Climate-Change Diplomacy’, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations, March/April


11 Responses to “The politics of deforestation in Brazil”

  1. Marga V Boto March 16, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    The Brazil government approved to cutting down trees for clearing the construction site for the Belo Monte hydropower project.
    The Belo Monte Dam (formerly known as Kararaô) is a proposed hydroelectric dam complex on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, Brazil.
    The decision has already triggered strong reactions.
    A massive wave of protest from citizens across the world must stop this.

    • Kester Pereira March 16, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

      Yes, Marga. Couldn’t agree with you more. It’s time citizens all over the world join hands for selfless interest of the future and not for the selfish interest of the present.

  2. Chico Brazilian waxing March 21, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    Keep on writing, great job!

    • Kester Pereira March 24, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

      Thanks … definitely will keep on writing. Awareness comes through writing.

  3. eco friendly March 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all people you actually know what you’re speaking about! Bookmarked. Kindly also visit my site =). We could have a hyperlink exchange agreement among us

    • Kester Pereira March 24, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

      No problemo! Can you reply with the link of your site. Eager to know what aspect of environmentalism it is on…

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  5. Espoir April 8, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

    Thx for the article Kester, very interesting, hopefully Brazil is able to overcome this challenge in the near future.

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