Large-scale deforesters emboldened under Brazil’s Bolsonaro, data indicate

  • Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased and the size of individual patches of cleared land has also grown, pointing to organized efforts at deforestation, according to a new paper.
  • Under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, the average size of deforested areas increased by 61%, with patches larger than 100 hectares (250 acres) now the norm.
  • “Nobody cuts down 100 hectares with a chainsaw. It involves giant machines,” says paper author and deforestation policy expert Ralph Trancoso.
  • Trancoso has called for a reinstatement of deforestation-control policies that Bolsonaro abandoned when he came into office.

From 2009 to 2018, Brazil recorded an annual deforestation rate of 6,493 square kilometers (2,507 square miles), on the back of policies aimed at slowing the destruction of the Amazon.

Then, at the start of 2019, Jair Bolsonaro took office as president. Since then, the deforestation rate has surged, hitting 11,088 km2 (4,281 mi2) for the 12-month period ending July 31, 2020, according to data from INPE, the national space agency that has been monitoring Amazon deforestation for 60 years.

A new paper now shows that this increase in deforestation has been marked by larger individual areas of deforestation.

“Imagine the annual deforestation rate as a cake which can be cut in a variety of ways depending on how hungry the guests are — or in this case, the loggers. Today, the cake is being cut into much larger chunks because the criminals are hungrier, driven by current environmental policies,” says Ralph Trancoso, a Brazilian forestry engineer at the University of Queensland in Australia and author of the paper published early April in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Trancoso’s research shows that, based on INPE data, the average size of individual clear-cut patches in the forest has nearly doubled over the past five years, from 15 hectares to 24 hectares (37 acres to 60 acres).

“The average size of deforested areas has increased 61% under the Bolsonaro administration as compared to the previous decade [2009-2018] when policies were, to a certain extent, implemented,” Trancoso says. “It so happens that deforestation today is mostly composed of patches larger than 100 hectares [250 acres], or to illustrate, enormous areas the size of over 90 football fields.”

Both the average size of deforested patches (gray line) and the annual deforestation rate (red bars) increased in 2019 and 2020, the first two years of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency. Image © Ralph Trancoso (2021).

Trancoso, a specialist in monitoring and analysis of the impact of deforestation and climate change for public policy, spent seven years in the Amazon, earning a master’s degree at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA). He also worked for the Brazilian government on policies to combat deforestation, and advocates for policymaking as an important tool in controlling clear-cutting.

One such policy is the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm), launched in 2004. The PPCDAm resulted in an 83% drop in annual deforestation in the Amazon between 2004 and 2012, from 27,772 km2 to 4,571 km2 (10,722 mi2 to 1,765 mi2). Its effectiveness made Brazil a global reference in the fight against deforestation.

But the Ministry of the Environment slashed funding for the PPCDAm in 2013, and Bolsonaro has abandoned it entirely. In November 2020, seven political parties and 10 NGOs filed an action with the Supreme Federal Court (STF) to demand effective resumption of the plan by the federal government and its agencies, including IBAMA, the environmental protection agency; ICMBio, the environment ministry’s administrative arm; and Funai, the Indigenous affairs agency.

Deforesters ‘no longer afraid’

The average size of deforested plots has always fluctuated. In the middle of the last decade, they tended to be smaller as governmental controls over logging took effect, with much of the deforestation occurring in smaller, dispersed areas that were harder to detect by INPE satellite imagery. But now, as environmental protection agencies have been dismantled and monitoring reduced — developments that intensified under the COVID-19 pandemic — the Amazon has become an open target.

“The current interest is to cut down a lot of trees,” Trancoso says. “Before, deforesters knew they could be caught, but now their posture seems to have changed. They are no longer afraid of governmental monitoring or controls. On the contrary: they feel driven to take down more forest because they know they won’t be penalized.”

He says Brazil has the expertise to control the destruction, starting by identifying the culprits. For instance, monitoring experts understand that small clearings along riverbanks are generally the work of family farmers, while large expanses point to big players.

“Nobody cuts down 100 hectares with a chainsaw. It involves giant machines, without a doubt,” Trancoso says. “If we know the type [of deforester], it’s easier to control and define policies to combat it.”

Large-scale deforesters emboldened under Brazil’s Bolsonaro, data indicate
Firefighters work to put out a blaze in the Amazon. Image by Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

Greater destruction = slower regeneration

Unlike many other countries, much of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and changes in land use. An estimated 60% is generated from cattle ranching. This is why, while many parts of the world reported a reduction in emissions in 2020 due to the global recession brought on by the pandemic, a preliminary analysis by the Brazilian advocacy group the Climate Observatory points to a 20% jump in Brazil’s emissions due to deforestation and farming. The group also noted a 10% increase in emissions in 2019, Bolsonaro’s first year in office.

Another report, released in early March by the Climate Observatory’s Greenhouse Gas Emission and Removal Estimating System (SEEG), identified seven of the top 10 highest-emitting Brazilian municipalities as being in the Amazon. São Félix do Xingu, in the state of Pará, tops the list. On its own, this municipality of just 130,000 people would rank 111th worldwide for emissions — ahead of entire countries like Uruguay, Norway, Chile, Croatia, Costa Rica and Panama.

Trancoso says one of the consequences of larger patches of forest being cleared is the impact on biodiversity.

“The larger the destroyed area, the harder it is for it to regenerate. Animals no longer live there and the seed stock of the soil is exhausted. Natural regeneration becomes seriously compromised,” he says.

He says the Amazon Rainforest is a global asset, keeping the climate stable for the planet as a whole as much as for Brazil.

“The region plays an important role in the country’s water cycle and is therefore vital for national food production and power generation,” Trancoso says.

Call for international pressure

Trancoso’s paper makes recommendations and points out pathways for rolling back the current pace of deforestation. He says it’s urgent to reinstate the working connections between agencies like IBAMA, Funai, ICMBio and the police. He also highlights past initiatives that were particularly effective, such as the Amazon Soy Moratorium, in which traders agreed not to buy grain grown on deforested land; and the MPF-TAC agreement, in which meatpacking companies made a similar pledge for the cattle they bought.

“Production chains also need to be more transparent and traceable, especially in the beef and soybean industries,” Trancoso says. He adds that the European market has been particularly keen on reducing indirect emissions in the commodities market, which could soon affect Brazilian exports.

There could be wider economic ramifications for Brazil if the Bolsonaro administration doesn’t do a better job of combating deforestation. An anticipated trade agreement between the EU and South American trade bloc Mercosur/Mercosul, which would reduce barriers on industrial and agricultural products, is currently in jeopardy as countries including France have announced they will veto it over Brazil’s environmental record.

“Brazil has to feel the pressure from the economic side. Just environmental issues aren’t enough for the current administration,” Trancoso says. “Broad patches of deforestation are easier to see on satellite images and also facilitate concentrating forces in the field to apply fiscal controls. Initiatives that worked in the past must be taken up again.”


Trancoso, R. (2021). Changing Amazon deforestation patterns: Urgent need to restore command and control policies and market interventions. Environmental Research Letters16(4), 041004. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abee4c

Banner image of a forest fire in the state of Rondônia in 2019, by Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

This article was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on April 8, 2021.

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