In deforestation fight, can Brazil and Colombia lock in progress?

An agent of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) inspects a tree extracted from the Amazon rainforest, in a sawmill during an operation to combat deforestation, in Placas, Para State, Brazil January 20, 2023. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

An agent of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) inspects a tree extracted from the Amazon rainforest, in a sawmill during an operation to combat deforestation, in Placas, Para State, Brazil January 20, 2023. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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Tackling criminal groups is seen as key to building on tentative gains under Lula and Petro to stem the Amazon's destruction

  • Deforestation falls in Brazil and Colombia
  • Law enforcement seen key to further progress
  • Criminal groups hold heavy sway in Amazon regions

BOGOTA/RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil and Colombia have put the brakes on Amazon deforestation during the last year, but must now tackle criminal groups and bolster law enforcement to lock in tentative progress to protect the world's largest rainforest, researchers say.

Deforestation in Brazil fell 68% in April from the previous year - a significant decline since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January after pledging to reverse surging Amazon destruction under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.

"There's absolutely a Lula effect on the rates of deforestation, which has scared off some of the financiers of large deforestation operations," said Bram Ebus, a Bogota-based consultant with the International Crisis Group, a think-tank.

In Colombia too, nationwide tree clearance is forecast to have fallen 10% last year from 2021, with significant decreases in the country's Amazon region, according to Environment Ministry estimates.

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But Ebus and other experts say addressing long-standing governance issues and targeting criminal groups should now be a priority for both Lula and

Colombia's Gustavo Petro, a fellow leftist who has ramped up efforts to curb deforestation for farming, illegal gold mining and timber since becoming president in August 2022.

Without persistent efforts to do that, they could struggle to consolidate recent gains.

"The (Lula) government, no matter how good it is, won't be able to reverse four years in four months," said Marcio Astrini, head of environmental group Climate Observatory.

Sustained trend?

Spanning nine countries in South America, the Amazon is a key buffer against catastrophic climate change because of the vast amounts of planet-heating carbon dioxide it absorbs.

Lula has said it is urgent for Brazil to show the international community his government is committed to protecting the environment and on its way to fulfill a commitment to end deforestation by 2030.

He has empowered environmental agencies Ibama and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) by boosting their budgets and rolling back policies introduced under Bolsonaro, who weakened the agencies by cutting their spending and staff.

In Brazil, deforestation is largely driven by forest being converted into pasture for cattle and soya, but also by illegal logging and mining involving organised crime gangs.

Bolsonaro had promoted more commercial farming and mining in the Amazon region, a policy Lula's government is changing.

Government agencies launched an armed operation in February to fight wildcat mining by destroying machinery used by illegal gold miners and expel them from Brazil's largest Indigenous reserve, home to the Yanomami people.

But law enforcement operations tend to only temporarily halt illegal mining in a particular area. Mines soon spring up elsewhere in what is known as the "balloon effect" - squeezing mining out of one area can make it expand in others.

That means Brazil cannot rely solely on targeted operations but must focus on rooting out the criminal networks funding illicit activities across the Amazon, said Paulo Moutinho, senior scientist and co-founder at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, IPAM.

"To deforest, you need a lot of money. There's someone financing this, and we need to cut (the financing)", he added.

To cut off finance, the government needs to build intelligence on the people behind the grabbing of public lands, which are the Amazon areas most vulnerable to deforestation, said Moutinho.

In the medium to long term, Brazil needs to set publicly owned forests for conservation, while investing in a plan to promote socioeconomic development in the Amazon to create a sustainable bioeconomy.

Limited state control

Next door in Colombia, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad attributes a drop in deforestation to a change in government strategy.

Deforestation fell between 15% and 25% last year in three Amazon provinces, Environment Ministry data showed in May.

In 12 of the country's national parks in the Amazon, deforestation during the first quarter of 2023 plunged to 398 hectares (3.98 square kilometers), from 9,260 hectares (92.6 square kilometers) in the year-earlier period.

Petro's government has sought to promote dialogue and agreements with poor farming communities to help preserve the forest and steer them away from illegal gold mining and coca growing run by organized crime groups, while bringing state services to remote rural areas.

But Petro's government will only be able to carry out such initiatives if the state increases its presence and control of the Amazon, which is currently either limited or non-existent, experts say.

"What we see right now is that it is not the state that is in control of the Amazon but rather non-state armed groups," Ebus said.

Building peace

The issue of deforestation is on the negotiating table as part of exploratory peace talks between the government and more than a dozen criminal groups that aim to bring an end to six decades of bloodshed, including with dissident guerrilla groups. 

Guerrilla commanders, including dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), restrict forest clearance as a way to gain leverage during talks, to show their control over an area and population and for strategic reasons.

"The FARC dissidents want to show some good will. They know ... that restricting deforestation strengthens their hand with any talks with the Petro administration," Ebus said.

Regions controlled by dissident guerrillas coincide with those areas that show a decline in deforestation, highlighting their influence.

Guerrilla groups also restrict forest clearance in certain areas for strategic reasons as they need forest cover to help them move around undetected.

Farmers living in areas controlled by dissident groups say they face a fine of 20 million pesos ($4,484) for each hectare logged without permission from guerrilla commanders, Ebus added.

Another factor behind falling deforestation could be the decreasing price for coca used to make cocaine - with potential profits being outweighed by the political leverage gained from stemming deforestation.

Yet it is still too early to tell if falling deforestation in both Brazil and Colombia is linked to government action and part of a sustained trend, some experts cautioned.

The decrease in deforestation rates recorded in April might simply reflect a declining trend before the dry season when forest fires are more common, typically peaking in August and September, said Moutinho.

During these months, after loggers extract valuable wood, ranchers and land grabbers set fires to clear the land for agriculture.

While falling deforestation in Colombia and Brazil show positive signs that years of surging destruction of the Amazon are starting to be reserved, tree clearance still happens on a huge scale.

In Brazil, April deforestation data is "a victory," said Astrini but he noted "the average is still bad."

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney in Bogota and Fabio Texeira in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Helen Popper.)

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