Brazil and the Battle Against Deforestation: A Short History

It wasn't that long ago that Brazil saw deforestation as a measure of progress. Now scientists, officials and police try to end the daily destruction.

Dalton Valeriano, seen here, maintains the 26-year record of annual Amazon deforestation for Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE). He tells reporter Jeff Tollefson that after INPE scientists persuaded the government to make its maps public in 2003, support for the battle against deforestation soared. Credit: Jeff Tollefson/InsideClimate News

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

Dalton Valeriano rolled into Brazil's space agency in frayed jeans and a casual blue polo around 10 a.m. After a few pleasantries he sat me down in a small conference room and set the stage for the project that has consumed his life for more than a decade.

"The whole thing starts a very very long time ago..."

Valeriano leads the satellite-monitoring program at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) north of Sao Paulo, and it is his job to maintain a record of annual deforestation in the Amazon that dates back to 1988. His team also issues the daily deforestation alerts that law enforcement officers use to track down criminals who are busy cutting down protected rainforest.

Before delving into his own work, Valeriano switched on a projector and commenced with a brief history of the Amazon. Soon enough we were reviewing the papal edicts, treaties and disputes that have guided, if not governed, the settlement of the Amazon by Europeans.

At the risk of offending historians, I will hereby summarize five centuries of relevant history in one admittedly long sentence: the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494 following a papal decree a year earlier, reserved the northeastern tip of South America for the Portuguese while giving the rest of the new world to Spain, but whereas Spain pushed farther west into Central America and the Andes, Portugal gradually expanded along the coast and then consolidated control over the Amazon River, thereby gaining access to the vast interior of the continent. One result, in 1822, was Brazil.

But controlling water is different than controlling land, and the modern era begins with a coordinated effort to tame and occupy the forest. One major move came when the government cleared land and built the city of Brasilia, which opened in 1960 in middle of a wooded savannah, far from the populated coast. Clearings for soybeans and cattle followed, along with a military dictatorship (1964-1985) that placed an even higher premium on occupying the jungle. The clearings were seen as signs of progress.

Valeriano's silver ponytail and matching goatee shone under the light as he moved to the end of the table where a deforestation map is projected onto a screen. Leaning forward and projecting both arms out and around like a lobster, he illustrated how roads were carved into the forest running north from the capital as well as west from the coast.

"The idea was to use pincers," he said, bringing his hands together to close the circle. "That is basically the geography of deforestation in the Amazon."

INPE first looked into tracking deforestation in the mid-1970s, at the request of a government agency that still saw deforestation as a measure of progress. Piggybacking on the U.S. Landsat program, Brazil built an antenna to download the imagery as the satellite passed over South America.

At first glance, the Amazon represented a particular challenge: Rainforest looks like a patchy green carpet from above, and even cleared land greens up quickly as aggressive tropical plants fill in gaps that were once occupied by the tallest trees. But INPE scientists quickly determined that Landsat—which "sees" beyond the human eye into the infrared, and is sensitive to things like water content in plants—could differentiate between cleared land and standing rainforest.

Forest conservation didn't become a priority until a decade later, after scientists from Brazil and the United States documented giant plumes of smoke emanating from the rainforest and made the link to global warming. INPE's first annual assessment of deforestation across the Amazon in 1989 documented more than 21,000 square kilometers of deforestation—virtually all of it illegal—concentrated along what is now known as the "arc of deforestation" in the southern and eastern Amazon.

In 2003 INPE scientists persuaded the government to make its maps public. For Valeriano, this last, often-overlooked, act helped drive public pressure and support for the battle against deforestation by exposing major actors to the watchful eye of advocacy groups and anybody else who cared to look.

To create the maps, they laid transparencies over the maps, outlined deforested areas with a marker and then compared each year to the last. Valeriano showed me the original archived images hanging in a series of metal trunks in the hall. Then he stepped outside into INPE's manicured campus for a cigarette, a habit that has left a smoky yellow tinge around his formidable mustache and streaked the end of his ponytail.

On the way to pick up his wife for lunch, with the Allman Brothers blaring in his small Mitsubishi SUV, Valeriano joked that he never really liked plants. He had planned to pursue fish biology before shifting into ecology. But he soon realized he would always wonder what was in between the two points he was measuring as a field ecologist. Remote sensing was a way to cover all ground.

By the time former President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva took charge in 2003, with long-time environmentalist Marina Silva at the helm of the Environment Department, Valeriano was heading up the forest monitoring program, and he knew he was in for a ride. Political demand for the deforestation data increased, and the reporting schedule was pushed forward to coincide with the United Nations climate talks at the end of each year.

"We didn't know how to say no," Valeriano said, but his wife Diana, who is also an INPE scientist, put it a different way.

"He's addicted to it," she told me as we awaited our chicken medallions, chuckling and chiding her husband. "For our family, the consequence was three years without vacation."

Today, Valeriano has a staff of nearly 60 people, mostly contractors, working on everything from degraded and re-growing forests to logging operations and broader land use monitoring. Diana dropped us off at a building off-campus where the work is done, and Valeriano walked me through the modern digital process, showing me how his team toggles back and forth between years in order to record changes in forest cover.

My final stop was at the desk of Paulo Cesar Ferrera Alves, a young geographer who has been tracking deforestation for seven years. On his screen is a low-resolution map showing past deforestation in yellow as well as a series of red and blue rectangles containing whitish patches that indicate likely activity from the day before. The daily monitoring covers deforestation larger than 25 hectares—the equivalent of almost 50 American football fields.

Alves has outlined 70 such areas on this particular day. When he clocks out, his analysis will go to environmental regulators in Brasilia and then to enforcement officers in the field.

So far, the daily alerts are about 20 percent below their level at this time last year, when deforestation spiked 28 percent. But Valeriano warned that the daily images are so coarse and incomplete that they shouldn't be used for such a comparison. 

In the raw images, the areas Alves flagged look like little more than pale blobs to my untrained eyes. I asked why other whitish blobs nearby aren't flagged, and Valeriano pointed to several long lines of what are obviously clouds, suggesting that the areas I'm wondering about could be clouds too. When in doubt, INPE holds its fire. The theory is that bad information is worse than no information when it comes to police operations.

As it stands, about 70 percent of INPE's daily alerts turn out to be accurate when police head into the field. And Valeriano says the day is coming when his crew will be able to track deforestation of any significance in near-real time.

"It's not a dream," he said as we waited outside for Diana to pick us up. "This is doable."

Coming soon: To track Brazilians' movement into the interior, your correspondent will now fly to Brasilia to get a policy update from government officials and stakeholders. Then I'll head into the Amazon.

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