Changing Planet

As the Clock Ticks, Trees Fall in Brazil’s Amazon

As Brazil braces for president Dilma Rousseff’s forthcoming decision on whether to sign or veto recent legislation that would alter the country’s Forest Code, rights groups are decrying a surge in illegal land grabs that is wrecking environmental havoc and threatening vulnerable tribal populations.

According to the rights organization Survival International, a gold rush mentality seems to have taken hold among loggers, ranchers and settlers in the eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão, as intruders bore their way deeper into reserve areas set up to protect the forests of the Awá tribe. In addition to 355 contacted members of the tribe, about 100 Awá remain uncontacted, making them one of the very last groups of nomads still roaming the forests of the eastern Amazon. The majority of the 60 or more uncontacted tribes that still survive in the Amazon inhabit the more secluded and remote western regions on the vast Amazon Basin.

This aerial photograph shows the boundaries of the Awá Indigenous Land, one of four protected areas where members of the tribe live. More than 30 percent of the reserve has been invaded by loggers, ranchers and settlers. Credit: Survival


Survival has launched a public campaign in recent days that includes a video featuring British film star Colin Firth, best known for his portrayal of a stammering King George in the blockbuster hit “The King’s Speech.” Looking into the camera, an earnest Firth urges supporters to call on Brazil’s Justice Minister to send agents into Maranhão to halt the destruction. “One man can stop this,” says Firth, “Brazil’s Minister of Justice. He can send in the Federal Police to catch the loggers and keep them out for good.”

According to Survival, logging trucks continue to rumble out of Awá land carrying centuries-old trees with astonishing impunity, “continuing the destruction of the rainforest and its most endangered tribe, the Awá.”

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles to the west, a climate of fear has gripped a series of communal settlements outside the boom town of Lábrea in the state of Amazonas. According to Amnesty International, activists are facing a wave of intimation, including assaults and death threats. Several communal leaders have gone into hiding amid a campaign aimed at ousting residents of legally-recognized extractive reserves from their land. “Many have fled the region in fear for their lives,” says an AI report.

President Rousseff has until May 25th to act on the changes to the Forest Code passed last month by the Brazilian Congress. One of the most troublesome provisions calls for an amnesty for violators who have been illegally clearing the rain forest to make way for cattle pasture and soy plantations. Environmental groups fear the amnesty will send a message of impunity to those who operate outside the law, triggering a fresh and evermore determined assault on the Amazon. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 55% of the Amazon could disappear in the next two decades at current rates of destruction.

In the view of environmentalists, loosening controls on rain forest clearing would further compound the destruction of huge swathes of the Amazon occasioned by a surge in hydroelectric dams under construction or planned for construction in the coming decade. Brazilian officials say that hydropower represents a cleaner way to produce energy that burning fossil fuels. But the only place left to build dams in Brazil is in the Amazon, and opponents say the Rousseff government is underplaying the environmental and social costs of those projects.

“The Amazon region, which seemed infinite only a few decades ago, is now facing the prospect of extinction,” wrote Brazilian journalist Leão Serva in the New York Times late last year. “Projections that seemed apocalyptic at the end of the 1980s — that the forest would disappear by 2030 — are now coming true.”

According to WWF, the Amazon rain forest contains 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon, playing a critical role in stabilizing the global climate.

Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. He is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted TribesFor more information, please visit


Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. He is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes (Crown, 2011). For more information about the book and his work, please visit
  • Sharon Stevenson

    Thanks, Scott. It’s beyond tragic. Where are the region’s presidents and their condemnation of this proposed law? The world’s leaders should have already reacted to what can be the final push to destroy the Amazon and put in grave danger our very being. Geez.

  • […] to hold them accountable. There’s a push right now to grant amnesty to illegal clear cutters. This NatGeo story explains it quite well, but the essence is some are pushing the government to loosen the […]

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  • […] As Brazil braces for president Dilma Rousseff’s forthcoming decision on whether to sign or veto recent legislation that would alter the country’s Forest Code, rights groups are decrying a surge in illegal land grabs that is wrecking environmental havoc and threatening vulnerable tribal populations (National Geographic). […]

  • […] As the Clock Ticks, Trees Fall in Brazil’s Amazon […]

  • Ana Borges

    Anyone looking at Brazil on the map sees a huge swath of green, which symbolizes a country that is blessed by natural resources and a true environmental power. It isn’t without a price that the world can see Brazil in this way. We have ensured keeping 61% of the land untouched and preserved. Along with that, we have managed to export U.S. $88 billion annually in agribusiness products to over 140 countries under the stronghold of an outdated environmental law passed in 1965.
    Forty-six years ago it was impossible to foresee the need to reduce current carbon emissions in food production. Likewise, it was unthinkable to fathom that the world would have to increase food production 70% by 2050 in order to feed 9 billion people. That is, we had to balance both a just and growing demand for environmental preservation of the planet along with the ethical and moral obligation to produce more in order to ensure that the population has the fundamental right to food.

    The pursuit of this balance is what has guided the great debate being waged in the Brazilian Congress, in the process of updating the old Forestry Code. This is the central aim of Brazilian deputies and senators, who are working with great responsibility, despite the environmental lobby, led in large part, by international NGOs. It is these lobbies that misinform the public and claim that the Forest Code is being framed for the benefit of large producers to meet the interests of landowners.

    They also claim that the changes will give amnesty for environmental crimes.
    Those who believe in this either have not read the proposed bill to update the law, or they are interested in creating difficulties for the development of our country.

    The bill, which was already approved in the House, by an undisputed majority of 86% of the votes, is now being discussed in the Senate. Currently, there is no single article or line allowing the expansion of deforestation. Likewise, there is no amnesty for environmental crimes. The New Forest Code only suspends fines after perpetrators of environmental crimes sign a pledge for the regularization of their properties.

    Producers have a deadline to join an educational environmental program (PRA), which must be inspected by local environmental agencies. Afterwards, the environmental agency will visit the farms to ensure that the terms of the commitment are being met. If the landowners are not in compliance with the Code, or if any possible environmental damage has not been mitigated, the fines will be converted into services for environmental protection. For that reason there is no “amnesty”, since there is no pure and simple “forgiveness”. Brazilian producers have to rescue their environmental liabilities before having their penalties converted into environmental services — a true benefit for the environment.

    What the environmental lobby calls “amnesty” was already established in the Federal Decree 7029, that dates December 2009. Hence, the New Forest Code is not exonerating those who break the law and nor is it benefiting large producers. It is only enforcing rules that prioritize the protection of the environment instead of raising money through fines. Moreover, those who cleared illegally after 7/22/2008, will not benefit from this.

    Much is said about the deforestation of the Amazon forest, but few people know two fundamental points:

    1) As of today, 85% of the Amazon forest is preserved, just as it was 500 years ago, when Brazil was discovered. These are the official numbers of the Ministry of Environment of Brazil.

    2) Both new and current Forest Codes are only applied on private lands, that represent solely a quarter of the entire Amazon region.

    Thus, considering that the New Forest Code maintains all the current protective rules — such as the requirement that each property of the Amazon forest maintains 80% of the area with native vegetation (called Legal Reserve), we are assured of the preservation of the forest.

    The last great misconception that has been conveyed, through sheer lack of information, or perhaps maliciously “planted,” is that the Brazilian Congress would be unable to discuss the Forest Code adequately. Who, then, could discuss it? Who, if not the legitimate representatives of the Brazilian people could discuss a law designed to protect the largest rainforest in the world and help feed 9 billion people?

    Of course we are capable of changing old codes that create legal uncertainty and prevent the development of our country… and we will.

    Senator Katia Abreu is the President of the CNA, the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock.

    Please

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