Author Archives: Steve Schwartzman

True crime is jeopardizing the future of the Amazon, but indigenous groups and Brazil’s police are fighting back – together


Indigenous groups and law enforcement in Brazil are working together to reduce illegal mining and logging in the Amazon. About 80% of Amazon timber is produced through illegal extraction, which degrades biodiversity and carbon stocks. Photo: © Brasil2 /

A new operation against land grabbers and illegal loggers in Brazil’s state of Pará is showing how collaboration between indigenous and forest communities and law enforcement can take on the biggest ongoing threats to the Amazon forest: illegal logging and illegal deforestation for land grabbing.

Launched June 30th, the operation started with an investigation two years ago after leaders from the Kayapô indigenous group reported clandestine deforestation on the western border of their territory to the Brazilian federal environmental enforcement agency, IBAMA. 

Guided by the Indians, IBAMA agents discovered encampments of workers who were clearing the forest in the indigenous territory and on adjacent public land, while leaving the tallest trees; this hid the illegal deforestation from satellite monitoring. The workers, who according to police labored under semi-slave conditions, would then burn the understory and plant pasture grass. Meanwhile, another part of the gang surveyed and forged land registry documents to sell the land. IBAMA agents shut down the camps, detained personnel and issued fines – and brought in the Prosecutor's Office and Federal Police to investigate.

We can protect the Amazon from degradation and deforestation. Both problems have the same solution.

That investigation led to an impressive 24 arrest warrants, nine subpoenas, and 18 orders for search and seizure, in five states, in what Federal Police, Prosecutor’s Office, Internal Revenue Service and IBAMA call the biggest illegal deforestation and landgrabbing mafia in the Amazon. Several of the gang’s leaders have already been imprisoned and face tens of millions of dollars in fines – as well as, potentially, stiff jail sentences.

The gang’s operation shows how the illegal value chains work.

First, the operators deploy semi-slave labor to invade reserves or occupy public land not designated for any particular use. They extract the highest-value hardwoods, then slash and burn the forest, and plant pasture. Meanwhile higher-up gang members draw up fraudulent documentation and sell the land to investors. The bosses of this high-tech organized crime enterprise run the “ranches,” coordinate a marketing group, hire surveyors and remote sensing specialists, and use family networks to launder illegal revenue. Prosecutors estimate that the group had revenues of almost $600 million between 2012—2015.

Organized criminal enterprises like this one are behind most if not all of the high-value illegal activities in the Amazon frontier zone – illegal logging, use of semi-slave labor, illegal deforestation for land grabbing and fraudulent sales, and tax evasion in the approximately 30% of the region under near-term threat of destruction or degradation.

Taking down a gang like the western Pará outfit is better than a two-for-one deal.

Operation Flying Rivers

The now-formalized program that just launched – a joint effort of Brazil’s Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office – is called “Operation Flying Rivers,” after the huge quantities of water vapor the Amazon forest releases into the air, responsible for rainfall regimes as far away as California, which by some estimates approximates the volume of water flowing in the Amazon river.

The program is a good example of how effective collaboration between local forest communities and government authorities can be. And “Flying Rivers” goes way beyond stopping a particular invasion here, or apprehending some timber there; it aims to take apart the command structure of an entire criminal enterprise with multiple illegal value chains extending over much of western Pará.

This kind of persistent, integrated, multi-agency, enforcement campaign is central to addressing the real causes of continuing illegal deforestation and forest degradation, as well as land fraud – and critical to establishing the forest governance needed for long-term sustainable use of forests, including at-scale economic incentives for stopping legal deforestation and finance for eliminating illegal forest clearing through carbon markets and other sources.

Deforestation in Brazil

Brazil has made huge progress in reducing deforestation – but momentum has stalled. Since 2011, deforestation has been hovering around 5,000 km²/yr – not heading for zero, as an increasingly solid scientific consensus advises. This is way less than the 19,500 km²/yr average from 1996—2005, but still much too much. And, in lawless frontier regions, like southwestern Pará, illegal logging is degrading biodiversity and carbon stocks over vast areas.

It is generally held that about 80% of Amazon timber is illegally extracted, with the lion’s share sold in Brazil. That is about the same proportion of the Amazon’s current deforestation estimated to be illegal.

But you only have to look at the satellite photos to see why indigenous territories and other kinds of protected forest areas have been so important to Brazil’s success in reducing Amazon deforestation over 70% in the last decade, making it the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

Kayapô, Panará indigenous territories and Xingu Indigenous Park (dark green), with fires and smoke plumes on their borders. Indigenous territories and protected areas are effective barriers to deforestation and fires.

Kayapô, Panará indigenous territories and Xingu Indigenous Park (dark green), with fires and smoke plumes on their borders. Indigenous territories and protected areas are effective barriers to deforestation and fires. Photo: NOAA satellite.

EDF’s partners in the Xingu River basin – indigenous and traditional forest communities, including the Kayapô and 17 other indigenous peoples – monitor and defend a continuous area of protected forest more than twice the size of New York state. They have mobilized a lot of successful enforcement operations to stop illegal logging and land grabbing, including the “Flying Rivers” program.

This is why the law enforcement operation launched in Pará is so important and promising.

We can look at it as a version of “bad money drives out good” – no legitimate forestry or agricultural enterprise can compete with unrestrained organized crime. “Flying Rivers” is an excellent example of what’s needed to level the playing field. We can protect the Amazon both from degradation and from deforestation. Both problems have the same solution.

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Brazil’s impeachment crisis puts its climate commitments at risk, threatening a major blow to global climate progress

The corruption and political crisis in Brazil could threaten global progress on climate change — but there are reasons for optimism. Above: Demonstration in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. Image Source: Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil

This post originally appeared on By André Guimarães, executive director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), and Stephan Schwartzman, senior director of tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

It may be hard to recall amid all the bad news coming from Brazil these days — the country’s worst recession in 30 years, its unprecedented corruption crisis, and above all the May 12 Senate vote to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and begin an impeachment trial against her — but this country has in recent years occupied a position of critical global leadership on climate change. Brazil is the world’s biggest reducer of greenhouse gas emissions, having slashed Amazon deforestation about 80 percent over the last decade. Brazil also contributed to the success of the Paris climate agreement last December by adopting an absolute, economy-wide emission-reduction commitment — one far more ambitious than those put forward by most developing countries.

The current crisis puts these commitments at risk, threatening a major blow to global climate progress.

Cutting and burning down trees accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation in the Amazon has ripple effects on weather patterns around the world, including rainfall as far away as California. While Brazil deserves credit for large-scale reductions in Amazon deforestation, progress has stalled in recent years. Since 2011, deforestation has been oscillating around 1,900 square miles a year rather than continuing toward zero — the goal an increasingly solid scientific consensus says is needed to guard against the risk of forest dieback. Inadequate government investment and a lack of positive incentives for forest protection are largely to blame.

The government is unlikely to allocate these needed resources during the circus of impeachment, which could last up to six months. Furthermore, for Brazil’s international climate commitments to come into force, Congress needs to make them into law — also unlikely to happen soon.

Yet we also see reasons for optimism amid the chaos and corruption.

Continue reading on Brazil’s impeachment crisis is bad news for climate change.

In Portuguese:  Impeachment, o ponto da virada

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California’s Climate Leadership Can Help Save Tropical Forests

Source: Environmental Defense Fund, Steve Schwartzman

Source: Environmental Defense Fund, Steve Schwartzman

Back in 2006, when California was passing the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), some in industry pushed back hard, claiming that California couldn’t stop climate change by itself and that all AB32 would do was compromise the competitiveness of the state’s economy. California has proved the naysayers wrong – its economy is booming, and emissions are falling. Far from going at it alone, the Golden State is increasingly leading a global trend.

Now, California has an opportunity to build on its international leadership. By setting the gold standard for carbon market credit for international sectoral offsets – the subject of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) upcoming workshops – it can send a powerful signal to communities and governments that are fighting to stop tropical deforestation: carbon markets will help support their struggle.

California’s climate change program has prompted a plethora of bottom up climate action programs around the world, some of which are already achieving large-scale emissions reductions. Last December in Paris, California hosted a meeting of the “Under 2 MOU”, a group of 127 sub-national jurisdictions started by California and Baden-Wurttenburg in Germany, accounting for over a quarter of the global economy that have committed to reducing emissions below 2Mt per capita or 80% – 95% by 2050. Since the national commitments made at the Paris UN climate conference represent about half of what the science tells us is needed to keep warming below the critical threshold of 2°C, the Under 2 MOU could contribute significantly to closing the gap.

California has an opportunity to build on its international leadership by setting the gold standard for carbon market credit for international sectoral offsets.

California was also a founder of the Governor’s Climate and Forest Task Force (GCF), with Amazonian states and Indonesian provinces, in 2008. The GCF now includes 29 states and provinces from four continents, covering over a quarter of the world’s remaining tropical forests and collaborates on low-carbon rural development and creating incentives for reducing emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation – and GCF members have become global leaders in reducing CO₂ emissions.

Between 2006 and 2013, the states of the Brazilian Amazon, supported by national policy, reduced Amazon deforestation about 75% below the 1996 – 2005 annual average, reducing emissions by about 4.2 billion tons of CO₂ — far more than any other country or region in the world — while simultaneously increasing agricultural output and improving social indicators. Regional leader, Acre, is developing a market-based system to reward landowners and forest communities financially for conserving forest, and dedicated 70% of the proceeds of the first international transaction for forest carbon credits to indigenous and forest communities.  Overall,  reduced deforestation resulted from both state and federal policy, law enforcement, and signals from major consumer goods companies that deforestation-based soy and beef would be denied market access. California and the GCF’s work on carbon market credit for reducing deforestation gave communities and producers the prospect of economic incentives – for the first time – for protecting rather than destroying forests.

Around the world, some 50 states and countries are moving ahead with either cap-and-trade emissions reductions regime or carbon taxes – most of which began well before the Paris Agreement and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Meanwhile, 188 nations have made reduction commitments  covering about 90% of global emissions through the UN Paris Agreement. Increasingly countries and states are recognizing – as California and the Amazon have demonstrated – that they can stop Greenhouse Gas pollution and grow their economies at the same time, and that learning how will make them more competitive and prosperous in a carbon-constrained global economy. California, Acre, and other GCF members’ innovative development of international sector-based credits will ultimately give all of these  carbon pricing  initiatives more options and make them stronger.

Moving ahead with allowing international sector-based offsets into California’s carbon market will take the process to the next level, signaling to tropical jurisdictions globally currently responsible for more Greenhouse Gas pollution than all the cars and trucks in the world that living forests can become worth as much as dead ones.

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Amazon states, global leaders in emissions reductions

Two states in the Brazilian Amazon — Mato Grosso and Pará emitted more greenhouse gases in 2004 than all but six nations in the world. More climate pollution than Japan. By 2012 they had cut emissions so dramatically, they dropped beneath 37 other countries.

This progress, achieved through reduced deforestation, is a major reason for the 80%  decline in Amazon deforestation between 2005 and 2014.

At the Paris climate conference, these two states rolled out plans for even more ambitious action.


(source: Observatório de Clima SEEG)

Ambitious forest policy is key to climate progress

Slowing Amazon deforestation has kept over 4 billion tons of CO₂ out of the atmosphere since 2005, several times more than the EU’s emissions reductions from 2005 – 2011. Major causes of the decline include better remote sensing monitoring, ramped-up law enforcement, credit limitations, company commitments to zero-deforestation commodity supply chains, large-scale creation of protected areas and recognition of indigenous territories.

The bad news is that plans positive incentives – payments from polluters to preserve forests — have not materialized.  Consequently, while deforestation dropped to a historic low of 4,500 km² in 2012 (from a peak of 27,000 km² in 2004), it has crept back up to around 5,000 km² in recent years.

Read More »

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Why and how Brazil should do more to stop deforestation and climate change

Forest fire in Brazil

This post was co-authored by Paulo Moutinho of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and Steve Schwartzman of EDF. See the first part of this reaction to Brazil’s climate target: Brazil's climate pledge is significant, but falls short on curbing deforestation.

Brazil’s climate pledges in advance of the Paris negotiations were significant because it is one of the world’s most important emerging economies, and it’s taking on an absolute, economy-wide emissions reduction target. But, its related goal of achieving zero illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 2030 is widely regarded in Brazil as lacking in ambition.

Stopping deforestation, which formerly accounted for about 70% of Brazil’s emissions, would be good for Brazil, good for Brazilian agriculture, and supported by a large majority of Brazilians. It is also doable. Here are three reasons why, and a look at how Brazil could make such policies work.

1) More forest, less poverty: Brazil’s economy can grow without deforestation

Brazil succeeded in reducing Amazon deforestation by more than 80% since 2005 while maintaining robust growth in beef and soy production. There are at least about 56,000 km² of degraded cattle pasture in the Amazon that can be reclaimed for agriculture, as well as ample scope for intensifying cattle raising and improving yields, freeing up even more land.

Agriculture and land-use scientist Bernardo Strassburg argues that by increasing average productivity of pasture in Brazil from the current 30% of its potential to about 50%, Brazil could meet all new demand for commodities until 2040 with no new deforestation. The benefits to smallholders would be also important, considering the already deforested area (12.7 million hectares) available for agriculture expansion in rural settlements. With appropriate technical assistance and credit smallholders could produce more food (smallholders account for 80% of food production in the Amazon) with less deforestation.

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Brazil's climate pledge is significant, but falls short on curbing deforestation

Amazon rainforest. Credit: Adrian Cowell, used by EDF with permission.

This post was co-authored by Paulo Moutinho of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and Steve Schwartzman of EDF.

Brazil did the UN climate change negotiations – and hopefully, the planet – some good Sunday when President Dilma Rousseff announced emissions reductions targets in the UN General Assembly. However, it missed an opportunity do itself and the planet much more good.

President Rousseff deserves credit above all for announcing an absolute, economy-wide, emissions reductions target, rather than reductions below a business-as-usual projection, or a “carbon intensity” target. The goal is a 37% reduction by 2025 and 43% by 2030, both in relation to 2005. She also spoke promisingly of “decarbonizing” Brazil’s economy.

Brazil’s announcement is an important contribution to a successful agreement in the UN climate talks in Paris

Brazil has thus aligned itself with other major emitters, such as the U.S., China and the European Union, which have committed to becoming part of the solution to climate change. And the decision by one of the world’s most important emerging economies to take on an absolute emissions reduction target provides yet another signal that the world has moved on from the Kyoto Protocol approach of dividing the world sharply into “developed” and “developing” countries — a division that has helped lead to deadlock in the negotiations. For both reasons, Brazil’s announcement represents an important contribution to a successful agreement in the UN climate talks in Paris this December.

While the announcement did not go into detail, it is clear that these targets can only be met if Brazil sustains the 80% reduction in Amazon deforestation by 2020 in its National Climate Change Policy, passed by Congress in 2009.

Beyond this, the devil-in-the-details starts to show his face. Read More »

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