In a letter sent this Wednesday (August 26) to the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, the Brazilian ambassador in Rome, Helio Ramos, disputes a report on the increase in burning practices in the Amazon in July and states that “it is wrong to link agriculture and deforestation in Brazil”.
Helio Ramos has been the ambassador in Italy, Malta and San Marino since September 2019. In the letter, he says that when he read the article, he felt “an obligation to provide information about the Brazilian agricultural-environmental reality, contributing to the debate”.
Brazil’s Foreign Ministry was asked to comment but had not responded by the time of publication of this text.
We have checked the information released by the ambassador. Please find below:
“The Amazon rainforest is the largest equatorial forest in the world. It is a creation of Brazilians, who still preserve it today, doing much better than many other countries in the North hemisphere, where natural forests no longer exist.”
For a long time, Brazil was not concerned with preserving the Amazon. In 1975, the accumulated deforestation was only 27 thousand square kilometers, according to the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe). In just 45 years, we reached 800 thousand square kilometers, which is roughly the equivalent to the combined territories of Spain and Italy. It was only in 1988 that Brazil created a national policy for the preservation of the Amazon and it was only in this century that the country managed to reduce the speed of deforestation. This effort lost effectiveness in 2012, when deforestation accelerated again, and was altogether stalled in 2019, when President Jair Bolsonaro shelved the Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon. Since 1990, Europe has gained 90 thousand square kilometers of forest cover, the equivalent of the territory of Portugal, while Brazil lost, in the Amazon alone, more than 370 thousand square kilometers, or four times the territory of Portugal. Three European countries, Sweden (69%), Finland (73%) and Slovenia (62%), have larger percentages of forests than Brazil (59%) as a proportion of their territories.
“More than 60% of the Brazilian territory is covered by native vegetation, with farming activities limited to about 30% of the territory – all agricultural activities in the country correspond to 8% of the territory and livestock activities correspond to approximately 22%.”
About 67% of the Brazilian territory is covered with native vegetation (forests, natural grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands), although less than half of this vegetation is in protected areas. Farming, in fact, occupies about 30% of the country’s territory.
“This article presents a distorted view of reality, without offering the reader other perspectives. It does not mention that, according to the “Global Assessment of Forest Resources”, the reduction by half of deforestation in South America is attributed to Brazil, where forest loss decreased from 3.95 million hectares in the 2000-2010 period to 1.5 million hectares in the 2010-2020 period.”
Although there has been a significant drop in deforestation since 2005, this reduction was interrupted in 2012. Since then, there has been an upward trend in deforestation, which was exacerbated during the Bolsonaro administration. The rate of deforestation in 2019 was the highest since 2008 and corresponded to the highest percentage increase in this century. From 2012 to 2019 there was a 122% increase in deforestation in the Amazon.
Monitoring by Global Forest Watch shows that Brazil alone accounted for more than a third of the total loss of primary humid tropical forests in the world in 2019, with more primary forest loss than any other tropical country.
Preliminary data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) indicate that deforestation in the Amazon in 2020 is expected to be even greater.
“Brazil is also a leader in planted forest cultivation areas in South America and has the largest growing forest reserve, equivalent to 22% of the total global area of planted forests.”
TRUE, BUT …
According to the IBGE survey of Vegetable Extraction and Silviculture (Pevs), Brazil has almost 10 million hectares of planted forests, mainly pine and eucalyptus, which makes the country one of the largest cellulose pulp exporters. However, silviculture areas are concentrated in the South and Southeast regions, where native vegetation, such as the Atlantic Forest, has been severely deforested. Please note that commercial forests are not natural ecosystems, but plantations.
Therefore, the production of planted forests is not related to deforestation in the Amazon, which is subject to international concern and has generated harsh criticism and threats of commercial reprisals against the country, such as the recent stance taken by the German government in light of a potential agreement with Mercosur.
“More specifically, in agriculture, from 1990 to 2019 Brazil reduced the area of pastures dedicated to livestock by 15.5%, while productivity grew 169%, thanks to a pioneering investment in research.”
Pasture data used by the ambassador are possibly derived from an agricultural consultancy, Athena Agro, and are based on the IBGE Agricultural Census, which, in turn, is based on self-declaration and covers only 41% of the national territory. Similar data can be found in a letter sent in June by the Brazilian government to European congressmen – the June document mentioned that livestock production grew 139% from 1990 to 2018, while pasture area fell 15% over the same period.
However, satellite mapping data from the MapBiomas project, which covers 100% of the Brazilian territory, works on an open platform and is validated by an independent scientific committee, show that the pasture area grew 24% in this period, from 147 million hectares to 183 million hectares. The increase in pasture area in Brazil is also verified when consulting IBGE (Brazil’s federal statistics bureau) data relating to the mapping of land coverage and use on the whole country, which were launched in 2020 – an increase of 12% to 27% between 2000 and 2018 can be seen. Livestock productivity (that is, the amount of meat produced per hectare) has grown since 1990, but by about 92%.
“With this increase in productivity, which resulted in a “land sparing” effect, Brazilian producers prevented around 270 million hectares from being deforested. According to Athenagro Consultoria, it is estimated that by 2027 productivity will grow 47%, freeing about 10 million hectares.”
The increase in the overall productivity of the Brazilian agricultural sector may be a positive factor, but this does eliminate the fact that Brazil has deforested more than 10,000 km2 of Amazonian forest in 2019, an increase of 34.4% over the previous year, with projections of even more deforestation in 2020. According to MapBiomas, since 1985 Brazilian biomes have lost 89 million hectares of native cover, while agriculture, including livestock, has gained 86 million hectares. The Amazon has shrunk by 20%, while the Cerrado region, where most of the agriculture activity is pursued, has had 55% of its area transformed into agricultural land over the last 50 years.
“Therefore, linking agriculture in Brazil to deforestation does not demonstrate a knowledge of the Brazilian reality; it harms, through unfair competition, Brazilian producers who are committed to sustainable agriculture and many families whose income depends on agriculture.”
According to the TerraClass project, of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and Inpe, 71% of the deforested areas in the Amazon in 2014, the last year in which data is available, were occupied by agriculture or pasture. According to TerraClass, pasture is the dominant form of land use in the Amazon, occupying 65% of the deforested area.
Most of the deforestation occurs in private areas, as demonstrated in analyzes carried out by the Ministry of the Environment itself when drafting the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (4th Phase). Although the figure may vary from year to year, more than 30% of deforestation occurs in private areas and slightly less than 30% occurs in agrarian reform settlements, which are also private areas. Therefore, deforestation reaches more than half of such areas, or about 60%.
“According to FAO, livestock farming accounts for the livelihood of almost 1.3 billion people, while also promoting social sustainability (which is often and purposefully overlooked by foreign observers).”
The ambassador resorts to sophistry when addressing the sustainability tripod (social, economic and environmental elements). The environmental component is highlighted by commentators because, in general, it is the one that fails in economic projects.
“It is important to remember that Brazilian exporters are certified and their work is monitored by the importers themselves, so it is not correct to associate them, based on unproven data, with deforestation.”
This statement is not true. In fact, on the contrary, the vast majority of agricultural commodity producers do not have any type of certification to prove environmental compliance or the state of native vegetation in their rural properties. The Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) would be an instruments that could facilitate such verification, but its implementation has been delayed and part of the data has not been made public, which makes it difficult for society and the market to use such registry.
According to the IBGE’s Municipal Livestock Survey, more than 40% of the Brazilian cattle herd can be found in the states located in the Legal Amazon region, where the biome and the Amazon forest is located. There are about 86.6 million head of cattle in pastures formed after deforestation of native vegetation. And there is no system of traceability at scale that could certify that cattle were raised in properties where there was no deforestation.
For the control of logging, there is a system in place managed by Ibama, the National System for the Control of Forest Products (Sinaflor), which is not efficient in preventing frauds such as the covering up of wood illegally logged in indigenous lands and conservation units. Recently, several irregularities in the export of wood to Europe and the United States were reported, and such irregularities involve authorities from the federal environmental agency (Ibama).
“Unfortunately, there is much interest from competitors of the Brazilian agribusiness in spreading a negative image of national production. Misinformation is exploited by “food sovereignists”, who want to sell their products on the foreign market, but do not want to submit to competition from products of equal or superior quality and sustainability, which is detrimental to their own citizens.”
The countries that exert the most pressure for control of deforestation in Brazil are European countries, which buy our agricultural products, and not our direct competitors, such as the USA (an ideological ally to the current administration), Australia or Argentina. Companies in these countries that use commodities tainted by illegality lose consumers and market value. A study published in the journal Science on July 16 showed that 17% of the meat and 20% of the soy exported to Europe from Brazil have an element of deforestation in its chain of production. According to the logic of competition, European countries that are strong agricultural producers, such as France and Ireland, should support deforestation in Brazil, as this would result in market advantages for them – but that is not what they do.
The allegation of disguised commercial interests is an old one and it reappears whenever Brazil is criticized for not taking care of its forests. In 1988, for example, when there was another international scandal involving burning practices, this argument was used by advocates of land grabbing and deforestation. Then, as now, no evidence was presented, because none existed.