The ‘broken method’: How Brazil’s deforesters are avoiding detection

Brazil has one of the most advanced deforestation monitoring systems in the world: the Program for the Estimation of Deforestation (PRODES). Implemented by the National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE), PRODES carries out satellite monitoring of deforestation in the Legal Amazon. Since 1988, it has been producing annual deforestation rates in the region, used by the Brazilian government to establish and enforce public policies. INPE also implements a Real-Time System for Detection of Deforestation (DETER) to promote in locu monitoring, and a forest degradation mapping system (DEGRAD). Government efforts to curb deforestation, particularly through command-and-control measures, are widely recognized as having played a key role in reducing deforestation, and Brazil has won international acclaim for curbing deforestation in recent years.

True, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has dropped by 71% since 2004. Yet the forest is still shrinking. Since 2012, deforestation has risen by almost 36%, mainly driven by a shift in the way forest lands are cleared. Previously, large swathes of the Amazon were clear-cut, leaving gaps in the forest that were easily detected in satellite images. But recent years have seen a rise in smaller patches of deforestation, highlighting the need for the federal government to increase monitoring in smallholder areas. Moreover, rates of forest degradation from selective logging, fire and fragmentation have remained high or are increasing in many areas, threatening the ecological functioning and integrity of many remaining areas of forest.

Blaming smallholders for these changes, however, is shortsighted. It has been observed that areas dominated by large properties still account for most of the deforestation, suggesting that larger landholders may have adapted their behavior by clearing smaller, incremental patches of forest that fall below the detection limits of the DETER system. A recent study also suggests that, since PRODES monitors only primary Amazon rainforest (not dry forests or secondary rainforests) and excludes plots smaller than 6.25 hectares, it ends up treating these areas as non-forest. By comparing PRODES maps with satellite sources that measure canopy cover of all forest areas, the study authors showed that, while deforestation in large plots of primary rainforests has declined, it has expanded in areas not tracked by PRODES.

Putting blinders on the eye in the sky

Evidence from different sources suggest that deforestation in the Amazon has been tailored to avoid PRODES detection. But none of these explains how. During field research in the state of Pará – where some of the highest rates of deforestation in the Amazon are found – I observed that landholders have developed new methods for escaping satellite monitoring. For example, the ‘broken method’ (método quebradão, in Portuguese) is used to clear forest without fire or other techniques that are easily identified by satellite or in situ. Landholders leave around 20% of the forest area standing and clear the remaining trees either manually (in the case of smallholders) or by aerial spraying of poison over the canopy, causing trees to die in different stages (in the case of large landholders). In this way, the forested patches are not fully cleared, making monitoring by satellite difficult.

Another way to ‘break the forest’ was recently identified by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Pará: landholders first demarcated by GPS the area they planned to deforest, then set up several logging camps tasked to clear the shorter trees first. With the larger trees left standing, the canopy appears complete in satellite images, masking the true deforestation beneath.

These observations may help explain the significantly higher levels of forest degradation in areas dominated by large properties, where DEGRAD has identified small patches of deforested land as degraded. They also suggest that the increase in the number of small polygons in INPE’s deforestation data may be related to new deforestation methods adopted by landowners. This supports Richards et al. (2016) proposition that using INPE’s data to increase monitoring of forest loss in the Amazon may have incentivized landowners to deforest in ways and places that evade the monitoring and enforcement system. The authors also argue that PRODES-monitored deforestation no longer represents the full scope of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, and therefore has become less accurate as a component of the system Brazil uses to estimate GHG mitigation from avoided deforestation.

Austere times

Brazil is now facing one of the worst economic and political crises in its history. People in the Amazon would not expect controlling deforestation to be a priority under these circumstances. These adaptations on the ground show that enforcing rules is not a straightforward process, especially in Brazil. It also highlights the importance of tracking collective and individual feedback on policies and measures applied to complex situations such as governing forest landscapes. After all, humans are normally resistant to changing behavior, especially if change is imposed by others. Creatures of habit, we tend to focus on short-term gains rather than long-term, sustainable benefits.

The ability of landholders to change their behavior also depends on the repertoire of elements (such as materials, know how, etc.) they have at their disposal. Moreover, at the heart of the behavioral change process is an awareness of the problem that needs to be tackled (i.e. deforestation). It is only when individuals perceive the problem as urgent and worry about its negative consequences that they will consider acting. If Amazonian landholders are convinced that mitigating climate change by reducing deforestation is not their responsibility, believing instead that people in urban centers are solely responsible for modifying their behavior, they will not change their own.

Thus, it is critical to tailor deforestation-reduction policies to local needs, and to consider the possible local adaptations being implemented by landholders to evade enforcement. But given this week’s announcement of draconian austerity measures whether the Brazilian federal government will give the necessary attention to these issues become less uncertain at a time when democracy itself has been thrown under the bus.


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