Brazil Amazon deforestation drops 34% under Lula, but El Niño is stoking the risk of forest fires

Cows roam an area recently deforested in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, Acre state, Brazil, December 2022.
Cows roam an area recently deforested in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, Acre state, Brazil, December 2022. Copyright AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
By Euronews Green with AP
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It follows four years of rising destruction in the critical rainforest under Bolsonaro, but experts know “the fight isn’t over”.


Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon dropped by a third during the first six months of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s term, according to government satellite data.

From January to June the rainforest had alerts for possible deforestation covering 2,650 square kilometres, down from 4,000 sq km during the same period last year under former leader Jair Bolsonaro.

This year's data includes a 41 per cent plunge in alerts for June, which marks the start of the dry season when deforestation tends to jump.

"The effort of reversing the curve of growth has been reached. That is a fact: we reversed the curve; deforestation isn't increasing," João Paulo Capobianco, the Environment Ministry's executive secretary, said during a presentation in Brasilia.

Capobianco noted that full-year results will depend on a few challenging months ahead.

Still, the data is an encouraging sign for Lula, who campaigned last year with pledges to rein in illegal logging and undo the environmental devastation during Bolsonaro’s term.

The former far-right leader weakened environmental authorities, while his insistence on developing the Amazon region resonated with landgrabbers and farmers who had long felt maligned by environmental laws.

They were emboldened, and Amazon deforestation surged to a 15-year high.

How does Brazil keep track of Amazon deforestation?

Gustavo Moreno/AP
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during an event to announce measures to prevent and control deforestation in the Amazon region on World Environment Day.Gustavo Moreno/AP

Thursday's deforestation data comes from a system called Deter, managed by the National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency. It is an initiative mainly focused on detecting real-time deforestation. The most accurate deforestation calculations come from another system called Prodes, with data released only annually.

“Bottom line, we are prioritising environmental law enforcement,” Jair Schmitt, head of environmental protection at Ibama, Brazil’s federal environmental agency, told the AP news agency.

However, the continued shortage of personnel means the task hasn't been easy, he said. Many Ibama agents retired and weren't replaced during Bolsonaro’s administration, reflecting his effort to defang environmental authorities.

Lula has committed to restoring the workforce, but the number of Ibama’s enforcement agents remains at its lowest in 24 years. For the entire country that is bigger than the contiguous US, there are just 700 agents, with 150 available for deployment.

Ibama has also strengthened remote surveillance, where deforestation is detected through satellite imagery, according to Schmitt.

By cross-referencing with land records, it is possible to identify the owner of the area in many cases, leading to an embargo that restricts access to financial loans and imposes other sanctions.

Seizing cattle and imposing tougher fines: How else is Brazil tackling Amazon deforestation?

AP Photo/Andre Penner
Cattle graze on land recently burned and deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, August 2020.AP Photo/Andre Penner

Another strategy has been to seize thousands of illegally raised cattle within embargoed areas. It is effective because it inflicts immediate punishment, whereas fines are rarely paid in Brazil due to a slow appeals process, Schmitt said.

Rodrigo Agostinho, the head of Ibama, noted that the value of fines imposed in the first half of the year jumped 167 per cent from the 2019-2022 average, and the agency embargoed 2,086 areas - up 111 per cent.

“We started the year with a lot of difficulty because of everything we inherited, reorganising all the enforcement teams, environmental protection, reactivating tech systems,” said Agostinho.

Improved deforestation data also reflects the change in rhetoric coming from the top, said Schmitt. Whereas Bolsonaro openly criticised Ibama and advocated for the legalisation of deforested areas, Lula has said he will rebuild law enforcement and promised to expel invaders from protected areas.


Experts say the mere expectation that a land-grabbed area will eventually be regularised has historically been one of deforestation's biggest drivers.

El Niño is raising the risk of forest fires in the Amazon

It may be premature to celebrate the reversal in deforestation's trend, however. According to satellite monitoring, there were 3,075 fires in the Amazon in June alone, which marks the beginning of the dry season - the most since 2007.

The jump is due to the clearing of areas deforested in the second half of 2022, Schmitt said. In the Amazon, fires are mostly man-made and occur after clear-cutting of the forest.

With El Niño looming, which typically brings less rain and higher temperatures to the Amazon, Ibama has doubled its budget for fighting forest fires and increased the scope of its fire squads by 17 per cent for the most critical period, typically July to October.

Approximately half of the 2,117 temporary firefighters are Indigenous peoples.


How can Brazil end net deforestation in the Amazon by 2030?

AP Photo/Andre Penner
Logs are stacked at a lumber mill surrounded by recently charred and deforested fields near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, 2019.AP Photo/Andre Penner

The Amazon rainforest covers an area twice the size of India and holds tremendous stores of carbon, serving as a crucial buffer against climate change. Two-thirds of it is located in Brazil.

Next month, Lula will preside over a meeting in Belem, bringing together heads-of-state from all Amazonian nations to discuss means to effectively cooperate in the challenging region. Lula has promised to end net deforestation in Brazil's Amazon by 2030. His four-year mandate, his third term, ends two years earlier.

To achieve this, law enforcement alone will not be enough, says Adevaldo Dias, a rubber-tapper leader who presides over the Chico Mendes Memorial, a non-profit organisation that assists traditional non-Indigenous communities in the Amazon.

“It is necessary to invest in sustainable productive chains under community management, such as managed pirarucu (arapaima) fishing, Brazil nuts, vegetable oils, and açai,” he told the AP. “This will help revitalise and expand these chains, generating decent income for those engaged in conservation efforts within their territories.”

We know the fight isn’t over, we will continue doing this work.
Rodrigo Agostinho,
Head of Ibama

Ibama's Agostinho also stressed his agency's efforts within Indigenous territories, particularly the land of the Yanomami people where thousands of illegal gold miners - seeking to carve out a living - invaded during Bolsonaro's term.


Their activities contaminated waterways and sickened local people, and Lula's government has spent months expelling most of them. Some remain, however, working at night to avoid being caught, Agostinho said.

“We are very content with the result so far," he said. "We know the fight isn’t over, we will continue doing this work.”

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