Brazil: ranchers using Agent Orange to deforest the Amazon

Some 180 hectares (450 acres) of rainforest in the Amazon were defoliated using a potent mix of herbicides dropped by airplane, reports IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental law enforcement agency. The affected area, which is south of the city of Canutama and near the Mapinguari JacareĂşba/Katawixi indigenous reservation in RondĂ´nia state, was first detected by Brazil’s deforestation monitoring system. A subsequent helicopter overflight last month by IBAMA revealed thousands of trees largely stripped of their vegetation. Authorities later found nearly four tons of chemicals—2,4 – D AMINE 72, U46BR, Garlon 480, and mineral oil—along trans-Amazon highway 174. The herbicides would have been enough to defoliate roughly 3,000 hectares (7,500 acres) of forest, presumably to be cleared for cattle ranching or agriculture.

IBAMA says use of chemical defoliants is a relatively new phenomenon in the region, but represents a troubling development, according to Cicero Furtado, coordinator of the investigation, which remains ongoing. Furtado said those responsible could face fines of up to $1.3 million.

The news comes as the Brazilian government announced a sharp increase in deforestation over this time last year. Analysts say speculation that Brazil’s environmental laws will be weakened under a Forest Code reform bill making its way through congress, coupled with rising commodity prices, is contributing to the increase in forest clearing.

The United States famously used Agent Orange—a 50-50 mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T—during the Vietnam War to defoliate vast areas of forest in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The herbicide has been blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths and deformities. (Mongabay, July 6)

See our last posts on Brazil and the struggle for the Amazon.

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    1. Deforestation slowing in Brazil
      Despite ominous reversals in recent months, the trend over the past few years has generally been towards slowing deforestation in Brazil. In the decade between 1996 and 2005, 19,500 square kilometers of rainforest were lost each year—notoriously, an area the size of Wales. It reached a peak in 2003, when more than 27,000 square kilometers was lost. Then, in 2004, Brazil declared its goal to cut deforestation 80% by 2020. The latest figures, for the year ending July 2011, had the lowest rates of deforestation since records began three decades ago, with just over 6,200 square kilometers cut. That’s 78% down from 2004. Notes the BBC Jan. 4: “still an area about the size of Devon, but a huge improvement.”

      A report on Mongabay Jan. 9 notes a study by Marcia Macedo of Columbia University that analyzed trends in deforestation and soy production from 2001-2010 in Mato Grosso state—where more than a third of forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon has occurred since the 1980s. Macedo’s team found that during the first half of the decade, about 26% of increased soy production was the result of cropland expansion into forest areas, accounting for about 10% of total deforestation during the period. During the second half of the decade (2006-2010), soy expansion amounted to only 2% of deforestation. The study found 91% of the production increase in the this period occurred on previously cleared cattle pasture. The study credits “a prominent campaign by Greenpeace, an international environmental activist group, which pressured major soy crushers and traders to adopt a ‘moratorium’ on new forest clearing for soybeans; the ‘blacklisting’ of high deforestation municipalities, which restricted access to credit and subsidies; and the launch of a near-real-time satellite-based deforestation tracking system which facilitated a crackdown on corruption in the environmental enforcement agency IBAMA and other agencies.”

      In addition to satellites, the Brazilian firm Embraer is developing unmanned aircraft to patrol the Amazon, Reuters reports Jan. 16—hopefully against illegal loggers as well as drug traffickers.

  1. Brazilian forestry law passed
    Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law a revised version of the country’s Forest Code last Oct. 19, vetoing some of the most controversial changes proposed by agricultural interests in Brazil’s Congress. The final version of the law requires landowners to replant millions of hectares of illegally cleared land and retains earlier provisions for maintaining forest cover of 80% on private properties in the Amazon. However the revisions allow landowners to count forests along rivers and hillsides as part of their “legal reserve.” Previously these zones—where forest preservation is mandatory—were additional to the 80% requirement. (Mongabay, Oct. 19)