By Michael D. Shellenberger
Michael D. Shellenberger: Can you give me an overview of what’s been going on over the last 10 years?
Dan Nepstad: Sure! Maybe a little bit longer than 10 years ago was a real inflection point. From 2002 - 2004 there was a string of really high deforestation years. It was sort of the perfect storm. Soybeans started coming into the Amazon. Cattle ranching was getting more profitable. But it was this huge soy boom fed by exports to China, the EU prohibiting carcasses in animal meal, raising the demand for soybeans.
And Lula had just started as president. He had come in with great aspirations of being an international president and really building Brazil’s credibility as a global leader and his own. He brought in Marina Silva from Acre, one of Chico Mendes’s understudies, as his Minister, and in 2004 they launched the EPCDAM, a long name in Portuguese, and basically organized across 13 agencies of the federal government this massive strategy to take on deforestation. That was really his top environmental priority.
And it worked. Over the next eight years, deforestation declined 80% below its 10-year average, 1996 - 2005. Another strategy kicked in in 2006 on top of the government strategy, the soy moratorium, where 90% of the buyers of soybeans agreed to no longer accept soybeans grown on land cleared after that date. It was later shifted to 2008. A similar cattle agreement — these are both inspired by Greenpeace campaigns.
So these two sets of processes, one public policies, expansions of protected areas, expansion of indigenous areas, some pretty interesting financial mechanisms like the top deforesting municipios counties cut off from farm credit unless they lowered their deforestation rates, so these blacklists at the level of counties and at the level of farmers, and basically enforcing the law, you know, cracking down and sting operations. And since the Central Bank was part of this, and the military, the Federal policy, not just the Environment Ministry doing it alone, it really worked. And part of it was amazing monitoring.
So they had been doing the annual assessments of deforestation called “Prods” out of the space agency and then they added in “DeTer” satellite which is more frequent course resolution but where they could really spot deforestation in real-time and therefore send out the crews more quickly.
[From] 2012 to the present has been a steady increase and that’s been blamed on a lot of things. And my take on it — and we wrote a Science review on this I can send you in 2014 that documented all of the things that were done to slow deforestation, and basically what has happened was that the command and control measures started losing their punch. The mechanisms were no longer implemented. Farmers moved on. Illegal activities were not enforced as much. Part of that was the recession. There just wasn’t as much money to do command and control.
There was also a growing frustration among farmers who were trying to comply with the Forest Code, which if you’re in the Amazon means you need to keep 80% of your land in forest. That had changed previously. Previously it was 50%. And they’re already livid [laughs] with the first code.
But there was this sort of mantra that, “No, you’re going to get compensated because of REDD” and “The world needs this.” And they never really were. The Amazon Fund was set up in 2010 by one billion dollars of Norwegian money committed, and Germany money that came in. None of that money really made it to the medium-sized and large-scale farmers. And so they’re watching all of this action. Deforestation coming down. Brazil getting applauded. And they still felt vilified.
So fast forward to 2018. The frustration of the farmers. And by the way, they never supported the soy moratorium. And that’s because it was blind to the Forest Code. So they’ve got this amazingly onerous regulation that restrictions the amount of the land they can put into pasture or crops and therefore reduces the value of their land in the market. And that went from 50% to 80%. And the soy moratorium came out and they were certain it would say, “If you are in compliance with the forest code you are free to go,” and it didn’t. And it didn't. And in my opinion that was a huge mistake.
And what started happening about two years ago was “The Cerrado Manifesto.” That sort of turned the spotlight from the Amazon to the Cerrado. Farmers got nervous that was going to be another moratorium. The Cerrado is 60% of the nation’s soy crop. The Amazon is 10%. And so this was a much more serious matter. Also, in the Cerrado, you only need to maintain 20 percent of your land in forest instead of 80%. So there are a lot of farms with a lot of land to clear.
And so that growing frustration of the farmers — farmers who were completely willing to do zero illegal deforestation when the zero-deforestation agenda took root, [which was] sort of growing out of the soy moratorium, reinforced in the New York Declaration on Forests, and the Consumer Goods Forum Declaration —the farmers were angry.
I spoke to farmers in August of last year just two months prior to the election and they were all saying it, “You know, it’s this forest agenda that will get this guy elected. We're all going to elect him, vote for him.” And farmers voted for him in droves.
You know there’s a really tight correlation between the amount of support Bolsonaro won and the prominence of soy beans in that county.
So he won, really, on the basis of the violence, the fatigue with the Workers Party, the PT, that had been in power for 14 years before the impeachment [of PT President Dilma Rousseff]. They were fatigued with violence, the recession, and this environmental agenda.
And so Bolsonaro came in promising to undo the environmental agenda. He tied in a lot to a conspiracy theory fed by a document that is fascinating called, “Farms Here, Forests There,” released in the US Congress by well-meaning folks when we were trying to get Waxman Markey approved, you know, the [2009 US House of Representatives] climate policy that had the measure for forest offsets. That keeps recurring in Brazil and basically gets used as proof that there is a US conspiracy to supress agricultural expansion in Brazil and that’s really what the forest agenda is all about. So in a nut shell that’s where we’re at.
You know we’ve had these fire crises quite frequently. The last one was 2010. And there are years when standing forests catch fire. We estimate from 1998, 40,000 sq km that year, deforestation was 15,000 and so it was almost three times as much forest damaged by fire as by deforestation. But with all of the international attention on Bolsonaro, there was a high level of focus Brazil and the Amazon in particular and so the uptick in fires this year — not forest fires, but fires over — has been the lightning rod.
MDS: So to speak.
DN: So to speak [laughs].
MDS: The decision to be more strict on the soy moratorium: was that a Greenpeace decision? Or more the more radical wings of the PT? The Greens? What happened?
DN: It was really an NGO/buyer decision. It started with a Greenpeace campaign. People dressed up like chickens and walked through a number of McDonald’s restaurants in Europe. It was a big international media moment in Europe. And remember, it was coming on the heels of this huge spike in deforestation. And instead of war, Grupo Maggi, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Bláiro Maggi —
MDS: Of course. Yeah, yeah.
DN: He was the governor of Mato Grosso at the time. I had gotten to know him because I was doing research on one of his farms and talked to his board and met with him a lot before and after Greenpeace gave him the Chainsaw of the Year Award. And he was asking me he said, “Listen, we just got this IFC loan” — which meant that the Grupo Maggi was tracking all of their suppliers, they were the first to do that, and they said, “This could be good for us and good for the soy sector because this will guarantee entry into the EU and EU market, which at that time was really important, because China had not yet really exploded its imports.
And so what had been preparing for a fight quickly became a dialogue. The GTS, the working group for soybeans, was launched in 2006. So that group set up a monitoring system, they came up with a cut off date, and a whole governance structure, but the farm sector never supported it. Aprosoja, which was born in Mato Grosso, which is the agribusiness powerhouse of Brazil, never supported it. But since so few of their farmers had forests they could legally clear they decided they could not fight it.
And so soy moratorium came in and was seen around the world — falsely — as the reason that deforestation came down. A lot of people didn’t look at what the government had done, which was much bigger. And so that inspired this whole wave of zero-deforestation commitments, supply chain strategies, which now the donors have shifted a lot of funding towards, and which are having a really hard time getting traction.
MDS: It sounds like you’re saying it was the government action, not soy moratorium, which had much of an impact.
DN: Exactly. I’d say maybe the soy moratorium was 10% of the decline [in deforestation]. What it did was catalyze a lot of cattle ranchers who had been doing low-productivity cattle ranching. Suddenly, if they had flat, well-drained pastures, the soy guys were knocking on their doors and competing and paying.
Imagine if you had 10,000 hectares and you acquired it for $200 a hectare and now people are offering you $1,500 a hectare for it. That’s a $10 million proposition right there. So these cattle ranchers were getting capitalized moving further out into the frontier. So there’s that part of it too. Since it was just soy, we don’t know if it was just popping up as cattle elsewhere. But it did get a lot of attention, the soy moratorium. And I think it was a very important experiment but looking really closely at the factors it was the governmental measures that were the main thing.
MDS: And it sounds like you’re saying actually it contributed to the backlash that led to Bolsonaro.
DN: There’s been a major backlash. This sense of bait and switch. Brutal battle over the Forest Code in 2010 and 2011 culminating in a new Forest Code in 2012 that was just as strong, still 80% limit on deforestation [in Amazon], 20% in the cerrado. What changed, and what the farmers needed, was basically amnesty on all of the illegal deforestation up through 2008. And winning that, they felt like, “Okay, we could comply with this law. The law had been really poorly implemented. I side with the farmers on this.
Imagine being a landowner in California and told you can only use half, and then it’s only 20%, and Matto Grosso went back up to half, and then came back down to 20%, so they feel jerked around. And there’s bribes [to skirt the regulations] and graft and all of that going on. And everyone’s pointing figure at them and they go, “What?” So they came out of that Forest Code debate ready to roll. And in all of my dialogues with the farm sector, they said, “Zero illegal deforestation, we’re on board with that. Zero deforestation? No. Only with compensation.” And that fed into the backlash.
But also the command and control, you know. A number of the counties on the blacklist, they got down below 40 square kilometers a year [of deforestation], which is the threshold, through collective action: leaning on their neighbors, “Hey, man, why are you clearing your forests? You’re going to cut off our credit!” And when they did that, they got their credit back, and nothing else. There was no recognition. No international congratulations, no national congratulations. And I talked to a lot of farmers and they’re just really frustrated.
I see these farmers who, the reason they’re farming is because they love to fish, they love to hunt, they love to be on the land. They are just people that like being in nature, and we’ve lost them. We’ve lost them as proponents of, you know, the forest agenda, even though they are very likely allies.
So this backlash, it came from the command and control, it came from the soy moratorium that failed to compensate farmers who had forests they could legally clear. The backlash ramped up when it looked like the Cerrado was next.
MDS: Can you kind of portion out how much the backlash came from being tired of the command and control by the government and how much of it came from NGO dogmatism on the soybean moratorium?
DN: I think most of it was the NGO dogmatism. We were in a really interesting space in 2012, ‘13, ‘14, because the farmers felt satisfied with the agreement on the forest code. They wanted to do business, wanted the article of the Forest Code, 41, which dedicated to compensating farmers for complying with the Forest Code. They expected a big flurry of activity to get that part implemented. And it never happened. And all of a sudden they’re getting vilified again, even if they are in full compliance with the law because they are clearing forests that they are legally allowed to clear.
MDS: Yeah. You mean they’re being vilified now?
DN: They were being vilified then soon after the Forest Code was implemented. And they saw this stuff going around in the media, too, especially in the international media, where, “The Forest Code has been gutted!” But it wasn’t. The rules didn’t change. It’s the amnesty. But I really don’t think Brazil was ever going to achieve planting 20-some million hectares of productive soy land into forest or productive cattle pasture, and that was the core of that argument.
MDS: What was the “opportunity cost”?
DN: Taking soy out of production and putting it back into forests. That’ hectare was worth $2,000. It goes back to being worth $200. Because of lost profits from soy beans.
MDS: Wow. You mean from going from soy to forests.
DN: Right. Unless there’s an economic use in the forest, which there’s constraints on, you know. We estimate just for Mato Grosso to fully implement the old Forest Code would have been $15B in opportunity cost. No that’s only part of it. No, it was around $10 billion in lost, sort of forgone profits, and a few billion for the costs of restoring the forest. Anyway. So that was one reason there was so much resistance to the Forest Code. The farmers felt like, “You know, no one ever paid attention to the implementation and now you want to take it seriously?” So that was in 2011 to 2012 period.
And then big zero-deforestation commitments started exploding in 2014 during the New York Declaration on Forests where about 500 [soy-buying] companies making some sort of commitment.
MDS: And that commitment was what set up the backlash?
MDS: And so that’s coming from NGO, Greenpeace, and international community or were Marina and the Greens in Brazil part of it too?
DN: You know they were not big promoters early on. Now they are very much on board partly because the donor community has shifted to that. I think there would have been a lot more diversity of strategies in the Amazon had there not been so much interest among donors in zero-deforestation commitments.
MDS: Do you ascribe that interest to being tangible and simple? What do you attribute that to?
DN: There’s a perception that it’s incredibly complicated and risky to work with governments and farmers, too, for that matter, that is agribusiness farmers.
And in Brazil, there’s a very potent socio-environmental movement that is really based on the premise that the environmental agenda is first and foremost, has to be a social agenda recognizing land rights, human rights, therefore focused on indigenous community, smallholders, and rural communities and forests writ large.
And it’s really anti-development, you know, anti-capitalism. There’s a lot of hatred of agribusiness. And I remember colleagues in Brazil saying stuff like, “Well, soy beans’ not food.” And I go, “But wait a minute — what does your kid eat today? Just had chicken and milk today and eggs? That’s all soy protein fed to poultry. There’s a real hatred of agribusiness. The socio-environmental movement I think grabbed onto the zero-deforestation approach, seeing this as the next big thing.
MDS: If I wanted to interview the leader of that movement, is that Greenpeace? Who would you say is the intellectual architect and chief advocate of the zero-deforestation movement.
DN: The mastermind of the soy moratorium was Paulo Adário of Greenpeace. He’s still active. I can send you his contact information.
MDS: That would be great. Did you guys have it out at some point? Are you still colleagues?
DN: Our organization, Earth Innovation, is part of GTS, and we’re at the table, and at the GTC, the working group for the Cerrado. In the Cerrado Working Group we’re not brought into the NGO meetings. It probably shouldn’t be stated publicly, but there’s a real sense that those NGOs have to operate together, and it’s a betrayal if you’re talking too much for the ag sector, which from my perspective is really the problem.
I see what’s happening now, and the election of Bolsonaro, as a reflection of major mistakes in strategy really where there’s this exaggerated confidence, this hubris, that regulation upon regulation, without really thinking of the farmer’s perspective, was going to work in the long run.
There were major issues of efficiency, the time of licensing… a big farm takes 25 permits per year, and these guys take forever. One of the recent officials in Mato Grosso got it down to 90 days. He was a regulator running the environmental agency and he said, “No, we’re going to make this work for farmers. And why isn’t there a single license that you can get no matter what you produce? Transport and logistics.”
I just feel that there were a lot of opportunities missed. I mentioned Article 41 of the Forest Code. There was no meaningful effort to implement that, to get rewards to farmers, and no concern for the excessive bureaucracy of doing business as a farmer. No concern for basic logistics and transport. If there’s a road going to be paved, block it. It doesn’t matter if it’s already open, and maybe in supporting it you could just earn some credibility with the farm sector and bring them to the table for environmental issues.
There are a lot of these issues that for me are front of center for a nation where 25% of the GDP is agribusiness. And it’s what’s working in Brazil. It’s the major source of export income. It really got the country through the recession. This is not a sector to beat up on. It’s one to find common ground to build that center and we have lost that center. We had that center, and a lot of farmers left.
MDS: Can you walk me through the increased deforestation under Bolsonaro and what’s the right way to think about the different numbers?
DN: Brazil has a really good system for quantifying deforestation. It comes out every November. It’s based on high-resolution imagery. That goes from August 1 to July 31. We don’t know what that is yet. That’s the definitive number for deforestation, for clear-cutting. There are monthly estimates that come from a course resolution NASA satellite. That same satellite detects fires. If you get above a certain temperature it registers the fire.
So, two things have happened. That second satellite, the Modis satellite, has been used to estimate very roughly how much deforestation has taken place during the first seven months of Bolsonaro. INPE, the Brazilian space agency, put that out, and it cost the president of INPE his job because its data suggested a 45 to 50% increase over the previous year. But we won’t know until November the definitive answer. I think it’s true. Deforestation has definitely come up.
As I mentioned, it has been creeping up since 2012. Bolsonaro sent the message that you’re not going to get fined. The chances of getting caught are smaller. He cut back on the budget for implementing the deforestation law, the Forest Code. Preve Fogo, the fire-fighting program had its budget cut. So he’s really reduced the ability of a country to command and control when its main strategy continues to be, after all of these years, command and control.
Now there’s been an uptick in the number of firest. We’re very early in the fire season. We’re getting into the thick of it now in late August, September. But it’s been higher. If you look at INPE’s own algorithm, there are 84% more fires through I believe August 22 than the exact same period last year. So January through August.
If you compare that to the last eight years, the uptick is something like 35%, if you compare to the last 10 years, and get 2010 in there, it’s 7%.
DN: If you go back to 2010, at this point in time there was about 50% more hot pixels — fires record. That was a very dry year. A very burny year. It’s very much exaggerated the way it’s been reported.
The Amazon forest itself. I worked on this for 25 years and still work on it. I know. It’s hard to measure the forest fires, right? Because you don’t actually see the fire from the satellites. You see the smoke come out of the canopy. And yet it’s the most dangerous type of fire by far because it creeps along on the inside of the forest, it burns these big trees, and if they have thin bark, they fall. And once they fall, they open up the forest and get grasses established. And it becomes a fire-prone ecosystem where it used to be fire-resistant.
We don’t know if there are any more forest fires this year than in past years which tells me that there probably isn’t because I’ve got pretty good networks tracking this stuff. I think the state of Acre has a little bit of an uptick.
So, in a nutshell, we have more fires, 84% more than last year, some 30% more than in the last nine years. The fires are lasting longer because they are burning felled forests. So it’s really related to the deforestation issue.
What happens when you burn a felled, mature forest, you’ve got 300 tons of biomass sitting on the ground and you dry it out for a few months and set it on fire, there’s so much energy it shoots the smoke up into the stratosphere. It goes long distances. And there’s a lot more of it and it can burn for days. And that keeps getting registered every day as another fire.
So that for me is one of the most important things that’s changed. We’re seeing longer and more persistent fires because they’re burning felled forest.
The other fires that are out there you set pasture on fire because you want green grass for cows. There’s scrub that’s grown up in a field and you want to plant it again and so you set it on fire. And I think that’s gone up too. There are anecdotal reporters of farmers burning and agreeing collectively to burn because they know they won’t get caught.
The good news is that the worst kind of fire, the fire that feeds into the tipping point, I call it understory fire, they’re cryptic, you know. I’ve set a lot of these fires over the years. I set up the biggest experiment on this where every year we burn 250-hectare plots of forests and you can step over them, you know? Look over on this side and step over them. Once the forest is burned, you can’t, because of grasses and it’s much bigger fires. So this is the positive feedback I’m most worried about in the Amazon. You get a little fire that goes through it seems like nothing but the big trees start to die and the grasses come through and pretty soon it’s a fire-prone scrub. But the good news is that this year, so far, that’s not happening. Only with a lot of drought, a severe dry season, will we start getting fires moving into forests.
You know one way to think about this, Michael, and it’s really different than here in California, is that in a typical year, a farmer doesn’t even worry about fire breaks. They’ll burn a pasture if it connects to a forest knowing that the fire will go into the forest and go out. If you walk into forests most years, it’s sort of squishy. You walk on the leaves and even after four months of drought, you know, it’s still very moist, and it’s hard to set it on fire. I used to do that on fire. Beer bets over who can get a forest to ignite. But if you exceed a threshold and a forest runs out of water and starts dropping its leaves then a forest can get into a forest and burn for 3 weeks and cover tens of square kilometers.
There’s a really cool program, it’s a fire brigade. It’s led by an organization called Alliança da Terra. They’ve now trained more than 600 indigenous people, farmers, small holders, farm hands, how to put out fires, and they’ve put out a voluntary alert system. It’s not satellite-based. It’s basically people saying, ”Hey, I see some smoke on the horizon. That’s Joao’s farm. Let’s give him a call and make sure he knows about it.” And they catch fires before they get going. One year they put out 23 forest fires. They’re the ones who say that there’s more fire this year, not a whole lot of increase in forest fires.
One thing the told me — and Aline Maldonado is the director and I’m a cofounder of the organization — she sent me letter from FUNAI, the national indigenous agency, they had prohibited them from going into Xingu Indigenous Park at the invitation of the indigenous communities there who were struggling with fire and that’s a little funny. They don’t know why they did that. Every year they go into the indigenous park and they’ve got a great relationship with the indigenous community there. So that’s very revealing.
But that also points to if Bolsonoro and Ricardo Saves, the Minister of the Environment, want to get serious about putting out fires, those are the people they should talk to, and they’ve been doing it for years, they have the approach, and it’s cheap. You know, there are some years where these fires in the Amazon represent 3% or 4% of global carbon emissions, and it’s one of the cheapest things in the world to fix. That’s my main concern this year, that we come out of this not just with a lot of band-aids but some real support for these efforts on the ground that are figuring out how to deal with fire and, eventually, if the risk of fire is lower, the tendency of farmers to invest in tree crops gets higher. You’re not going to have a bunch of mango, cashew, coffee, cocoa, Açaí, if you’re not sure those ceilings will survive because of fire, right? So dealing with fire actually can move the whole region to tree-based crops, toward fish, aquaculture, more intensive cattle. If you have a really productive cattle ranch you just take your rig and make a fire break around it. Cattle ranchers hate fire because they have to take that pasture that burned out of production for 3 to 6 months and have to rent pastures to take their herd to.
There’s this perception that these guys are out there burning everything in sight because they love fire and actually there’s an incredibly big consensus on dealing with fire, right? And not wanting accidental fire. And that’s what we have to tap into.
I don’t like the international narrative right now because I think it’s polarizing and finger-pointing. Bolsonaro has definitely inspired a lot of impunity on the ground. And he’s said some ridiculous stuff about indigenous people and none of that is excusable. And I think that has fostered this kind of anarchy. But I think there’s a great chance to tap into what farmers want. They want controlled fire.
MDS: There’s no natural forest fires in the Amazon even in drought years unless people set them, is that right? Or is there some small lightning strike firest.
DN: There are a tiny percentage of lightning strike firest and they are usually followed by rain. When I was 100% working on fire for several years I was trying to find those examples. They were really hard to find. Essentially it’s a man-made fire regime. The natural return interval of fires if you look at the charcoal record and the pollan record, it’s 4 - 700 years for the typical return of fires the Brazilian Amazon and now we’ve got it down to 10-12 years.
MDS: We had done some work looking at the debate between land-sparing and land sharing, and it seems like under the Code there’s some amount of fragmentation that gets promoted no matter what. Seems like there are two views. First you turn a whole area into a farm, and protect the rest, and the second sharing view that 80% of your land is forest, but that leads to fragmentation, doesn’t it?
DN: That’s a really great point. I think the Forest Code has fostered fragmentation and there’s probably a very good solution: bringing down the on-farm requirement where there’s a high aptitude. We’ve mapped out where the prime soy soils and climate are in the Amazon, and that’s where the high-value agriculture systems are going to go. There’s actually a different kind of land that could support a community-based slash and burn system. We can fit those into the landscape very productively with a great outcome. There are only three percent of the lands in the Amazon outside of protected areas good for soy. Soy isn’t going to run over the Amazon because they don’t want it. Too many rocks, too many hills. Too much rain and the water table is too high. That excludes more than 90% of the remaining forest.
I feel like the way forward is that we could use this opportunity to really step outside the box that’s currently defined by the forest code by protected areas and indigenous reserves and then there’s a quarter of the forest still up for grabs. But just step back and say, “Wait a minute, we should be freeing up farmers with this region to clear. Keep your riparian zones. Let’s maintain at least 20%, whatever. But over here, those are awful places to clear forest, let’s shut that down.”
So I think there’s a really good solution. We still got 80% of the forest remaining. There’s a huge area of unproductive land that’s growing 50 kilos of beef per hectare a year and scraggly cows and they’re basically just hanging on to the land with cattle. Those should all go back to the forest, I think. And let’s get the agrarian reform reserves which are huge and close to cities they should be growing vegetables and fruits and stables for the Amazon cities instead of them importing tomatoes and carrots from Sao Paulo, which is what they’re doing now.
There’s a really great solution and maybe this destruction is a chance to get beyond the anti-agribusiness ideology and say, “You know what? Soy’s not a threat to the whole basin. It’s very localized.” And say, “You know, when soy comes into a landscape, fire goes down. And the little towns the GDP goes up and the Gini index and the schools are better and there’s some inconvenient truths there that would be helpful to just accept and start talking about the future of the Amazon.
MDS: So 80% of the Amazon is standing, 20% has been converted, and those numbers exclude the Cerrado?
MDS: And so what about the Cerrado? How much is deforested? I assume all 3% refers to Amazon?
DN: Only Amazon.
MDS: So what about Cerrado then?
DN: It’s about half gone, not 20%, and there’s a lot more area open. You don’t have the excessive rainfall problem there. I’m trying to remember the numbers
MDS: When you say excessive rainfall you mean that undermines soy production.
DN: Right. With soy you need a reliable beginning and end to the dry season. Dry season when you plant, you need a little rain, not much, and then you need dry soil to harvest, basically. Without that your machines are getting stuck in the mud. And so really well-drained soils and reliable rainfall and that really narrows down where you can do soy properly. And there’s a lot more in the Cerrado than in Amazon partly because Amazon has the wrong soils in many areas and doesn’t have that reliable dry season. I don’t have the number off the top.
The total cerrado is a million square kilometers and half is gone and the half under Cerrado woodland is much bigger than 3% that is suitable for soy but I can’t remember if it’s 15% or 20% somewhere in there.
MDS: Of the Cerrado.
DN: Yeah. So much more of the remaining cerrado is suited for soy than in the Amazon. Amazon is 3% and Cerrado is north of 3%. The other thing is that much more of cerrado can be legally cleared because of the lower reserve requirement.
MDS: Which is only 20% of the Cerrado.
MDS: Of the 20% of the Amazon converted, has it mostly been converted for cattle?
DN: Yeah. Cattle pasture is about 70%. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that cattle production is the driver of deforestation, it’s more what occupies clearing, first. I say that because land speculation is a big driver. So, if you want to claim — I mentioned the 25% of the land that’s up for grabs — if you want to claim a chunk of that the best way to do it is put in a pasture. You just knock down the trees and you got a cow there and so if a government official comes around and says, “Is this is a productive farm or not?” You say, “Yeah, I’m growing cattle.” And then the chances of losing it to agrarian reform diminish. So agrarian reform is absolutely necessary, but the way it happens it penalizes people who keep more forest on their land.
MDS: Interesting. So when we talk about the 84% of fires over same period, is that Amazon or Cerrado?
DN: That is all of Brazil, I believe. There are some discrepancies. In our little piece, we did it state by state, just for the Amazon, and used NASA” fire data, which has been a little more stable over the years, and there we came up with 7% increase in Brazil. The difference to 2019 from 2018 is small. The INPE number and the Fernside number was for all of Brazil.
MDS: And of that increase, what share of it is in the Amazon and what share of it is in Cerrado?
DN: There’s definitely an increase pretty much everywhere. But it seems like the bigger increase is outside of the Amazon. I say that just because we weren’t anywhere close to an 80% increase of fire count from 2018-2019 in the Amazon states.
Deforestation is looking like it’s on-track for a 50% increase. And that means we’ll be at about 10,000 square km for the year of deforestation, which is half of that average of that 1996 to 2005 period before Lula’s strategy was unfolded, which has a lot of ups and downs. It leaves out the big spike in 1995. But that was about 20,000 square km/year. And so for me that was pre-intervention baseline. And it looks like under Bolsonaro will be half of that, but 50% over last year.
MDS: The media has started to cover how the story got framed, and the Emmanuel Macron photo of the fire in the forest, but I don’t think most people know that what we’re really talking about is scrub land not forest that’s suitable for farms and the lands are cut over. It feeds the sense that global warming has combined with Bolsonaro to lead to more firest in the forests and that picture is obviously completely wrong.
DN: Right. Exactly. So far it’s not a completely dry year. The forecast is to become much drier. But exactly what you said.
I saw that photo that Macron and DiCaprio and everyone was tweeting and [laughs] you just don’t see forests burning like that in the Amazon. And if you do, it’s only if that forest has been logged, or in some way thinned, and there’s a lot of fuel on the floor.
And, I kid you not, a knee-high fire is a big fire. And Michael, these are fascinating fires. They go out at night. At 10 pm you can’t find the fire. And at about 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, it starts getting warm again and the moldering logs start to spark and the fire starts again. So they leave this wave pattern in the forest where they kill trees during the day but not at night, and so I get worried.
In 2007, when we were doing the burning experiment it was 2 in the morning and the fires were knee-high. We looked at and were measuring the humidity and it was way down. There was just no moisture left and the fuel was going nuts and there were a lot of leaves on the ground.
And so it’s exactly opposite of northern forests. Northern forests, the more you burn them, the less severe the fires get. In the Amazon, the more you burn, the more severe you get. There’s no shortage of fuel. It’s sort of a micro-climate constrained fire system. And so you start messing with that forest canopy you open up a can of worms and a very problematic period. And it’s not happening this year! [laughs]. So you nailed it.
I don’t mind the frenzy as long as it leads to something positive and certainly sending in the army is not the way to go. That implies that it’s all these illegal actors. But a lot of these are people managing their farms, you know?
And you’ve cut off... like Indonesia, Jokowi came down with this zero-fire policy when the haze drifted over into Singapore and people were going hungry, right? If they don’t get their fields burned they can’t plant. And people forget that. There’s legitimate reasons to burn. It’s actually a very efficient way of getting rid of weeds, converting forests that have been dried out into ash, knocking back the insects and pests. If I were farmer, I would use fire until I had built up my farm until I didn’t need it
MDS: What year was that that the Indonesian government did zero deforestation and people went hungry?
DN: It was 2016.There was a big El Nino in 2015 and 2015 and deforestation exploded in Indonesia and Jokowi had just come in maybe two years earlier and there was a moratorium on fire with devastating impact.
MDS: It sounds like one of the big takeaways in terms of climate change is that drought years are the main event. IN other words, the difference is between drought or no drought. Have we seen any increase in droughts that we can attribute to climate change?
DN: There is an increase. In the IPCC, we separate detection from attribution. Detection definitely. Attribution much lower confidence. But most climatologists and I’m not a climatologist feel like these types of events are going to get more frequent. El Nino itself could get more common but also these wacky, this northern tropical forest anomaly that gave us the drought of 2005, and 2010 was similar. So there are more and more non-El Nino events and a likelihood that El Nino will get more common as well.
Everyone says that. Farmers who have been working their farms for 35 more years say the dry seasons are longer. The Indians, the Xingu have intricate details about how the rain has changed. It starts more violently. It’s not the misty rains in the beginning of the rainy season.
And so I firmly believe based on the evidence that we’re already seeing climate change in the Amazon and it’s registered as major drought events and is registered as these subtle changes in seasonality and intensity.
Just an interesting number from this experiment. We first started burning these forests in 2004. Each year we did about 6 - 10% mortality. In 2007, when I said the fire burned through night, after that fire, mortality bumped up to 50%. And it was after that one fire that grasses started moving into the forest. That year, 11,000 squre kilometers burned in southeastern Amazon.
It didn’t even make a headline anywhere. The big fires were in 2007. So it was this drought anomaly that didn’t even register [laughs] in the media. We lost a lot of forest, you know, about as much as the entire Amazon lost through clear-cutting. And for me, that’s the most face of the most serious threat to the Amazon. It’s when these severe events come in. It’s hard on the farmers, but it also makes the forest vulnerable to fire. And that’s where we can get these downward spirals, this vicious cycle between fire and drought and more fire.
MDS: What is the right strategy to adapt to that? Is it just controlling the fires?
DN: Yeah. It’s really detection. Which can be hot pixels, but also mobilizing. Right now, when Alliança Brigada hears from a landholder, “We’ve spotted some smoke here. It appears to be coming from the forest,” they have trained 600 people and can reach out to them and suddenly they have a dozen people in a couple of trucks moving in with the right gear, setting backfires, cleaning little paths through the forests, sweeping them free of leaves and trees. And if they have a felled trunk they can cut right through it, and if necessary start a backfire burning up the fuel in the pathway of the fire burning up the forest.
I keep telling the donors we can control the fires for $2 million a year. It’s as simple as that. We can stop the Amazon die-back. Aliança Brigada is special because it’s had training from US fire jumpers and top-notch training. They’ve really got it down. They work with local fire brigades. It’s not all NGOs. Imagine putting that in a few critical areas with trucks and farmers knowing what number to call and we could get control. People are paying attention to the wrong things.
We were supposed to get $500,000 from Norway to this Brigade and I don’t know why they didn’t do it. The flavor of the hour has been zero deforestation.
MDS: When was last time there was this level of international attention for the Amazon?
DN: In 2003 and 2004. Greenpeace generates a lot of press around its soy report, “Eating the Amazon,” and in 2009 around its cattle report, which was not as big of a splash.
For me there’s enough land that should be open and should be productive with huge productivity gains with capital and getting the support to the farmers to intensify cattle, have dry season storage, rationing. You can triple cattle productivity just by eliminating dry season, when herds lose weight. It’s cheaper to do if there are soy and corn fields nearby. In Matto Grosso, it’s soy followed by corn and then farmers do grass no till. The corn and soy go to feed band silage. They’ve got tremendous scope to increase productivity on a shrinking area by intensifying. They can also grow palm oil on pastures. It’s very compelling and viable because you don’t need to open up new land. It’s smart intensification.
That means looking at what the farmers really need and the right ag extension and commercialization. The soy folks in Mato Pibbo, northern Cerrado, pave their own roads, go in convoys to avoid hold-ups by bandits, who hold up trucks — it’s like working in the Wild West — and it’s like, “Let’s pay attention!” And the soybeans are vilified in thje Northeast of Brazil but the indigenous communities are saying it’s financing their schools and clinics and giving them rides. But there is an ideological barrier that is getting into the way of the socio-environmental movement, which has accomplished a great deal. I’m thrilled that so much of the Amazon is under protection. About 50% is under formal federal protected areas including indigenous, parks, biological reserves, and another chunk in agrarian reserves and private properties, and a smaller chunk is up for grabs, and might be 18-20% up for grabs. I could show how it was built up under Marina and they increased protected areas to 60 - 70 percent.
The resistance to the California carbon offsets legislation is in name of communities and the desire not to capitalize on nature but that vote is coming up on the 19th.
MDS: How much of your success depends on foreign financing?
DN: It would help a lot but it’s not completely dependent on it. We can streamline bureaucracy, have better logistics, with the environment being a part of it, and that would go a long way. If there were a system of the top 50 Farmers of the Year and simple ranking systems and some tangible benefits — that would be so cheap. Praising farmers for growing food and doing business on frontier.
But the EU Mercosul is something Macron is inclined to shut down because his farm sector doesn’t necessarily want to see more Brazilian food. But if they don’t do that deal they are losing a good chance to save the forest.
There can be mutually beneficial outcomes. It would send a signal to the farmer that better access.
MDS: Is Macron using the forest as a negotiating posture on trade?
DN: Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base deplorable. There’s outrage at Macron in Brazil. The Brazilians want to know why California gets all this sympathy for its forest fires and while Brazil gets all this finger-pointing.”
MDS: Is the Amazon the lungs of the world?
It’s bullshit. There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash. In other words, there’s tremendous oxygen produced by forest but when a tree dies it uses that for respiration. When clearing it goes negative and decomposing stumps soaking up oxygen. When fire there’s an oxygen sucking sound.
The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but so do soy farms and pastures. But the Amazon uses up the same amount of oxygen through respiration. Photosynthesis is balanced by respiration and the result is a wash. Better to think of it as our global cooling system. Our air conditioner is clunky. People sweat to cool down and that’s what the Amazon does. It evaporates so much water.