More data, mapping, can help countries tackle deforestation

A glimpse of deforestation in Capixaba, Brazil. In 2004 deforestation was consuming around 27,000 square kilometers of jungle annually, making Brazil the highest contributor to carbon emissions from forest loss. Photo by: Lou Gold / CC BY-NC

“Brazil is the country of tomorrow, and always will be,” goes a common saying about the perennial unfulfilled potential of Latin America’s largest country. But in a post-Paris world, the chance to reduce climate change by reversing deforestation presents a major opportunity for Brazil, and other countries that are home to the world’s rainforests, to lead future environmental action.

The final climate agreement reached in Paris recognized the importance of preserving forests, with world leaders committing to “policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.” Doing so is necessary to curb what is currently the largest cause of global emissions after the burning of fossil fuels.

The ability of governments to ratchet up over time their forest management approaches — and the other environmental areas covered by the climate pact — will ultimately determine the success of COP21.

To do so, governments will need to rely on credible and transparent information to shape their decision-making.

Brazil, a long time contributor to the problem of deforestation, has managed to reverse course because of new monitoring and information systems that have aided government oversight. 

Though the Amazon rain forest stretches across a group of South American countries it has practically become synonymous with Brazil. The country alone is home to roughly 60 percent of the Amazon, and until recently, much of it was being lost to deforestation at alarming rates.

In 2004 deforestation was consuming around 27,000 square kilometers of jungle annually, making Brazil the highest contributor to carbon emissions from forest loss, according to Imazon, a Brazilian research institute that studies forest loss and analyzes policies to reverse it.

Recognizing the need for intervention, the federal government designated vast swathes of jungle as protected areas, which today make up approximately 45 percent of Brazil’s rainforest. But more was still needed, particularly at the municipal level.

So through satellite imagery technology and spatial analysis, Imazon worked to provide municipalities with mapping information to track deforestation patterns. The result was a blacklist of municipalities where deforestation was most prevalent. Those farms or agricultural enterprises responsible for large illegal deforestation activities were restricted from accessing loans, credits, production permits and other regulatory instruments.  

The information and mapping systems are also used by public prosecutors to monitor supply chains and enforce laws against companies purchasing illegally forested agricultural products.

Imazon’s systems of alerts currently track more than 50 municipalities in the northeastern Amazon state of Para, sending monthly bulletins with precise coordinates of suspected illegal activity to municipal governments.

A positive side effect, say Imazon technology developers, is that the watchdog systems empower municipal governments and improve the functionality of their services.

In addition to the name-and-shame leverage that this type of public pressure creates, local governments also offer a variety of “green” tax incentives to reward businesses for good behavior.

Of course, Imazon is not the first organization to introduce satellite imagery that tracks deforestation. Similar technology has been employed by Brazil’s federal government, where the responsibility to monitor deforestation ultimately rests. But organizations such as Imazon offer new information streams that can boost monitoring and accountability.

“It fosters transparency with government systems to compare results and any discrepancies that may arise,” said Carlos Souza, a researcher at Imazon. “It’s important to have other sources of information.”

In addition, it can generally be faster to access independent information streams than government data. The government releases its information on deforestation to the general public once every three months, Souza noted, compared to Imazon’s more frequent alert system.

The more readily available information from Imazon is also packaged into mobile apps that help local Brazilian businesses to track their supply chains and understand the origins of their products.

Through organizations such as Imazon and a host of other policies and initiatives, Brazil has managed to slash illegal deforestation from 27,000 square kilometers annually in 2004 to roughly 5,000 square kilometers today.

The progress is indeed impressive but deforestation is still high in nominal terms. As Souza pointed out, it equates to roughly a soccer field per minute being cleared. And the figure has not changed much in recent years.

A much broader set of policy measures is needed if Brazil is to achieve the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution that it put forward in Paris. Among the goals it set was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent below 2005 levels in 10 years, eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 and restore up to 12 million hectares of forest by the same year.

To do so, Brazil, and other countries aiming to tackle illegal deforestation, will look to expand the designations of protected areas, improve land registration systems to better enforce forest codes and, importantly, incentivize farmers to boost the agricultural productivity of their current plots. Monitoring and greater transparency on the progress of all fronts will be vital for governments to honor their international commitments.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.

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