Consistently threatened by deforestation, the Brazilian Amazon has been subjected to waxing and waning government protections for years. New research bolsters the idea that Indigenous territories and protected areas are leading contributors to conservation.
Scientists monitoring the region via satellite found that between 2000 and 2021, the average deforestation rate in nonprotected areas was about 14 times higher than in protected areas and Indigenous lands. The research contributes to an ongoing conversation about conservation of the Amazon, said study lead author Yuanwei Qin, a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma.
Qin and his colleagues combined high- and low-resolution satellite imagery, annual forest cover data from the MapBiomas project, and other forest maps. The maps and imagery showed that in 2021, more than half of forests in Brazil’s Legal Amazon were located inside Indigenous lands or protected areas. The research also showed that these areas accounted for very little deforestation: just 12% of gross loss and 5% of net loss. The discrepancy between those percentages indicates that some loss was recovered, which scientists mostly attribute to regrown or secondary forests.
The study highlights the effects of forest management and governance in the Amazon during the first decades of this century. In federally protected areas, annual deforestation rates fell by 36%. In Indigenous territories, that reduction was about 30%. State-protected areas saw only a 5% decrease.
Management style also mattered. In areas under strict protection, where no one is allowed to reside or directly explore natural resources, forest loss fell by 48%. Areas managed for sustainable use, where resources can be extracted under a set of rules, saw an 11% reduction.
Effective Protection and Management
“Our findings suggest that national protection is more effective than state protection, but it doesn’t mean [the latter] is not important. It means state protection needs more investment and law enforcement,” said study coauthor Xiangming Xiao, director of the Center for Earth Observation and Modeling at the University of Oklahoma.
The pattern of changes in deforestation tracks with the initial success in combating forest loss and the later undoing of protection policies under former president Jair Bolsonaro, said coauthor Fábio de Sá e Silva, a professor of Brazilian Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
The most noticeable decrease in deforestation took place between 2004 and 2009 under the first two terms of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. At the time, the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon was in full force. Under this national policy, “there were efficient legal enforcement policies to curb deforestation, and surveillance was a key instrument,” Sá e Silva said. “Brazil managed to curb deforestation at the same time that agribusiness commodities exports increased.”
The largest increase in forest loss since 2000 occurred between 2019 and 2021, during Bolsonaro’s presidency. In this time, deforestation increased 12.4 times in state-protected areas under strict protection and 4.3 times in state-protected areas for sustainable use. The losses, the researchers wrote, “were probably related to the loosened forest conservation policies during the Bolsonaro presidential administration.” Among other measures, the administration suspended the Amazon Fund, which supports projects to reduce deforestation and increase surveillance. (The Amazon Fund was restored in early 2023.)
The Bolsonaro administration also froze Indigenous land tenure.
Granting Indigenous communities authority over their lands is beneficial to both the forest and its inhabitants: The small human population and traditional management techniques have been shown to have less impact on the forest than land use associated with agricultural or other development. Indigenous groups can also be powerful allies in the restoration of degraded lands because healthy forests are key to their way of life.
Indigenous groups have advanced historical knowledge of the lands they inhabit, said Marcelo Rauber, an Indigenous Peoples and local communities specialist at Brazil’s National Museum who has also researched the effects of land tenure on deforestation but was not involved with the study. “Though several Indigenous groups do have agricultural activity in their lands, their relation with the environment is not predatory. And they don’t work with large monocultures,” he explained.
“The forest yields medicine, protection, and water to us and all humans,” said Hélio Verá, the regional coordinator of the Guarani Yvyrupa Commission in Rio Grande do Sul, an organization that advocates for the rights of the Indigenous Guarani people. “We prefer to cultivate in areas that have been already grazed or used than in thickets, which often shelter river sources,” he said.
Improving Imagery and Policy
The new study highlights the importance of consistent governance and territorial management in Brazil, especially in the Amazon, said Jean Ometto, coordinator of the Earth System Center at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). It also improves on earlier studies that relied primarily on Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data, he explained. Qin, Sá e Silva, and the other researchers were able to add high-resolution imagery from the INPE satellite project PRODES (Basin Restoration Project), which “helped in validating the data.”
Lula has vowed to fight forest loss during his third term as president, which began in January 2023, by tightening surveillance, enforcing penalties for deforesters, and strengthening research and sustainable development in the region.
—Meghie Rodrigues (@meghier), Science Writer