Insight: Inside Brazil's battle to save the Amazon with satellites and strike forces | Land Portal

By: Chris Arsenault

Date: September 28th 2016

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

BRASILIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When George Porto joined Brazil's environment agency 13 years ago, the country didn't have access to satellite data on illegal logging -- let alone heat maps tracking deforestation patterns or gun-toting agents dedicated to stopping ecological crimes.

How times have changed.

Today, IBAMA, as the agency is known, has access to four satellite feeds monitoring illegal activities in the Amazon, the world's biggest rainforest. It also boasts a network of indigenous watchmen in remote regions and a 1,000-strong commando force.

Environmentalists say the agency's control center in Brasilia, a collection of low-slung concrete buildings from the 1970s, is one of the world's most important hubs for protecting rainforests and the land rights of people who depend on them.

"When I joined there was no GPS or satellite images, it wasn't a strategic way to tackle deforestation," said Porto, IBAMA's environmental monitoring coordinator, as he examined maps showing changes in forest cover at the agency's headquarters.

"Today, the rate (of deforestation) is coming down because of our technology and intelligence gathering," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For years, Brazil has sought to balance a desire to lift millions out of poverty by making use of the country's greatest natural resource -- the Amazon's trees, land and minerals -- and the need to protect one of the world's most biodiverse regions.

Mounting pressure to save the Amazon, known as the "lungs of the planet" for its role sucking climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, prompted former president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva to unveil plans to halt the Amazon's destruction.

And in the decade following the start of his first term in office in 2003, Brazil reduced its deforestation rate by more than 70 percent, some of the fastest improvement anywhere.

But the rate increased again last year by 24 percent compared to 2013, Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE) said in September, citing the latest satellite images.

Brazil is still losing the equivalent of two football fields of rainforest every minute as illegal loggers and ranchers exploit the Amazon's unspoiled reaches, according to the National Forest Commission's former director, Tasso Azevedo.

Satellites used by IBAMA recorded about 100,000 incursions into the forest last year.

In a renewed push against the problem, Brazil has pledged to reduce net new deforestation to zero by 2030, down from more than 6,200 square kilometers (2,394 sq miles) today.

Meeting this goal will require enforcement agencies leveraging new technologies to detect problems, and a sustained push for formal land rights, analysts said.

IBAMA officials are also using a "carrot and stick" strategy to reduce illegal land clearing by both large agribusiness operators and small farmers.


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