The Claims Are Rosy, But Brazil's Rain Forest Is Still Disappearing Brazil says it has greatly reduced the rate of deforestation. That may be true, critics say, but they argue such figures are misleading because so much of the Amazon has already been degraded.
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The Claims Are Rosy, But Brazil's Rain Forest Is Still Disappearing

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The Claims Are Rosy, But Brazil's Rain Forest Is Still Disappearing

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here's what we know about the Amazon rainforest. It's huge, and it's disappearing. Every year, in Brazil alone, jungle, about 2,000 square miles of jungle, is being lost. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently spent time there. This morning, she tackles this question. How do you stop deforestation?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: To figure that out, we embedded with the people tasked with protecting the forest. We were driving in a convoy in a federal forest reserve in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. But instead of thick jungle...

The smoke is so thick.

The trees were burning all around us. We had to turn around because it was too hot to continue. We stopped next to a huge swath of land that was scorched black. The trees had been cut and stacked up in piles like a dozen funeral pyres. This group of environmental police and federal agents is supposed to stop something like this from taking place.

MARK JAMES: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the officers, Mark James, walked over and pointed at the blaze. I'm interpreting what he tells me in Portuguese.

JAMES: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Look at those trees there. Some of those are Brazil nut trees. They're valuable, and they just cut them down and burn them as if they were nothing."

James told us they just don't have enough staff. There should be 560 cops working on environmental protection in the state. They only have 170. IBAMA, the federal agency that's tasked with stopping deforestation, just lost its only helicopter in the state in budget cuts. James said he's frustrated. So I asked him a question.

JAMES: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I asked him if he thought that the outside world really understood what was happening here, and he said, no, because if they really knew what was happening here, they wouldn't stand for it. Deforestation here is out of control.

There is one big reason the world doesn't know the reality of how damaged the rainforest really is. Here's Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, speaking during a meeting in Brasilia with Germany's chancellor this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DILMA ROUSSEFF: (Through interpreter) We have made a huge effort, and we have reduced by 83 percent illegal deforestation in the Amazon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is the narrative in Brazil. Politicians, even heads of certain environmental NGOs, will say Brazil has done an amazing job curbing deforestation. If you just look at the last 10 years, they'll say, deforestation in Brazil has gone down some 80 percent, 80 percent, which is indeed amazing and true. But that's not the whole story. To understand what those numbers really mean, we went to the Brazilian Ministry of Defense's Amazon monitoring body in Rondonia. It's called SIPAM, and they get satellite information in real time, showing what's happening on the ground regarding deforestation and forest fires.

The satellite's going over right now.

Almost every room has these large screens showing streams from different satellite feeds. Thiago Bortoleto is a burly rugby shirt-wearing biologist. He says he moved to Rondonia from Sao Paulo to make a difference, except he finally gave up hope last year.

THIAGO BORTOLETO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He recounts how at one three-day event on combating deforestation, only one state politician showed up, and he left after lunch on the first day.

BORTOLETO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says that shows that there is no political will. It's all talk.

BORTOLETO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bortoleto says he might get into trouble for telling us this, but the problem with the statistics that Brazil presents to the world is that they are misleading.

BORTOLETO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He explains, if I have 100 football fields worth of forest and I cut down 20 of those football fields, 80 are left. But let's say next year, I cut down 18 more. What the Brazilian government says is, wow, deforestation has gone down because they've cut down less of the forest this year. But, Thiago says, there's now less forest overall. What's happening in Brazil is that they're still killing the forest, only they're doing it more slowly. The Brazilian government is delivering that like good news.

ANTONIO NOBRE: Climate doesn't care if this year is a little bit more, a little bit less than last year. It's the total debt. That's what matters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil's leading climate scientists. And Nobre says even areas that look heavily forested from satellites, when you go inside the jungle, you can see that illegal loggers have been picking away at it, degrading it.

NOBRE: I coined an expression. It says, the deforestation has found in climate a judge that knows how to count trees and never forgets and never forgives. This is already beyond the threshold, you know, the point of no return.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's gotten so bad, he says, that it's now affecting how the rainforest functions, he says. Nobre says slowing deforestation is no longer enough. You have to reverse it right now. But that's not what's happening. Welcome to Vila Nova Samuel. Brazil's economy is crashing, unemployment is soaring, but you wouldn't know it here. Wooden houses are going up at a furious pace to accommodate all the new people moving into this town. It's booming.

DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Jose dos Santos runs the general store with her husband. She tells us this used to be a tiny town, but two years ago, 10 new sawmills opened up.

SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It's attracting all the people," she says, "who deal with logging." To be clear, there is legal logging in the state. You can cut down certain trees with government permission from certain areas. But Vila Nova Samuel sits right next to the reserve that we went to on that raid with all the law enforcement. And the officers and agents told us that a lot of what the mills in this town process is illegal timber, which has been stolen from that protected land.

It's just truck after truck after truck carrying huge logs.

And you can see it. There are dozens of huge trucks laden with logs, rumbling down the dusty roads around here. The environmental police say illegal logging gangs use fake tags and forge paperwork to make it all seem legit. At the end of the day, after the raid, we pull into the police base camp in the forest. They didn't catch anyone, even though we could see all the evidence that people had been illegally cutting down trees. The police said the timber gangs had probably been tipped off. We talked to federal agent Joao Alberto.

JOAO ALBERTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I asked him if saving the forest was a lost cause, and he says if things continue the way they are, yes, it is a lost cause.

And that's the man tasked by Brazil's government with protecting the forest. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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