Interview of the Month: Daniela Lerda

Companies and Civil Society must unite against Deforestation

There is no silver bullet that could halt deforestation in Brazil, according to the Coordinator of the Brazil Initiative of the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA).  This collaborative non-profit organization gathers together four US Foundations – ClimateWorks, Ford, Gordon & Betty Moore and David & Lucile Packard – striving to unleash forest and farmland potential for mitigating climate change, benefiting people and protecting the environment.  According to Daniela, territorial arrangements, the presence of commands and controls, earmarking public lands for conservation and assuring population rights are some of the paths leading towards this goal, together with transparent information.  When governments fail to fulfill their roles, this Coordinator believes that huge corporations trading in commodities sourced from Amazonia and the Cerrado savannas must accept commitments to zero deforestation and also zero violation of rights in Brazil.

Escolhas – The goal of CLUA is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by changes in land use, which is why it runs a program in Brazilian Amazonia.  What are the main causes of such emissions in this region today?

Daniela Lerda Soybeans, beef and iron ore are the main vectors driving agricultural expansion, leading to deforestation, highways and land ownership disputes.  For every kilometer of legal highway, there are three kilometers that are illegal, according to the Institute of Man and the Environment in Amazonia (IMAZON).  This is an indirect vector that we sometimes do not see, which steps up emissions.  However, the main problem by far is cattle-ranching.  Farming and ranching activities account for 73% of deforestation in Amazonia: 22% directly and 51% through land use changes.  With a beef herd of 35 million head in Amazonia in 1995 that accounted for some 23% of the total figures for Brazil, this figure rose to 85 million in 2016, at around 40% of Brazil’s beef herd.  Expansion occurred along this agricultural frontier, mainly through moving onto land that was cleared illegally: 65% of deforested lands are used for grazing cattle.  From the historical standpoint, this sector emitted some 50 billion tons of CO2 between 1990 and 2016, equivalent to an entire year of emissions by the entire planet.  The most dramatic aspect is that most deforestation is still illegal, causing environmental impacts but with no benefits for the Brazilian economy.  It is driven by private rather than public interests, despite the forest being crucial for the water cycle, not only in Amazonia, but also in the Cerrado savannas in the heartlands of Brazil.  It has not been possible to convince this sector as a whole to accept this commitment.  During the past year, 7,800 km² of land were cleared, while under the Paris agreement, Brazil is committed to reaching 3,500 km² by 2020.  But we are still well off-target: in 2017, Brazil emitted 330 million tons of CO2 through deforestation alone.

Escolhas – What type of actions are currently rated as top priority for addressing these issues?

Daniela – There is no silver bullet.  The first step is to discover why this is happening – why are we clearing land for agricultural purposes? Estimates released by the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) and other entities say that Brazil must boost its food output by 40% in order to ensure sustenance for the world.  But what is the point of being a global food security guardian if it is unable to produce staples in sustainable, fair and safe ways? During the past ten years, the Ecological Economic Zoning (ZEE) program has waned, instead of serving as a territorial organization tool.  I do not see how to produce on a larger scale without returning to this discussion, which is crucial at the State and Federal levels.  Oversight is also required, meaning commands and controls, but there is no budget funding or technical staff to handle this.  And without this presence, it is unlikely that everything else will take place.  Furthermore, land-grabbing and squatting must be curtailed.  Organizations in civil society have been advocating an end to the Terra Legal land ownership regularization program, instead setting aside public lands as indigenous reserves and conservation units, in addition to demarcating old runaway slave settlements (quilombolas), thus shielding these areas from speculative deforestation.  In turn, the introduction of sustainable agriculture models steps up the productivity of lands that are largely lying fallow.  Incentives are also needed for heavier investments in forest product enhancement initiatives, that ensure continuity.  To do so, technologies are needed, together with research and development funding, in order to boost economic progress in Brazil.  The Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado savannas are vast pools of biodiversity that are not being used to leverage the nation’s growth.  Achieving all this requires transparent information, particularly records such as the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) or the Livestock Haulage Slips, which are still not yet fully public.  Without this, organizations, cold storage facilities and consumers have no way of tracing provenance.

Escolhas – The Cerrado savannas are the biome under the heaviest threats today, and is being deforested more rapidly.  How does the CLUA view these impacts and what has it done in this area ?

Daniela –.  Until 2016, the CLUA worked only in Legal Amazonia; however, from 2017 onwards we also adopted the region encompassed by Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia States – shortened to MaToPiBa – which is the outermost boundary of this biome.  During the past few years, deforestation in the Cerrado savannas has been two and a half times higher than in Amazonia, with this pace stepping up during the last decade.  One of the reasons for this is more flexible legislation for this biome, where only 20% of properties must be set aside as legal reserves.  The study conducted by the Escolhas Institute exploring the impact of zero deforestation in Brazil (Qual o Impacto do Desmatamento Zero no Brasil?) showed that there are still 43.6 million hectares of wilderness that could be legally cleared in this biome.  The CLUA is working towards the same goals in the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado savannas: basically, the implementation of public policies (with the Forest Code as the flagship legislation); land rights for long-established local communities and tribal groups; cattle-ranching and soy plantation chains without deforestation; and backing for small-scale production initiatives.  A new target added to the CLUA goals is preventing infrastructure and mining projects from fueling deforestation and the loss of rights.

Escolhas – What is the role of major corporations dealing in commodities, such as Cargill, Bunge etc., for promoting sustainable practices in the field? Can they influence this?

Daniela It is very important for companies to accept and fulfil commitments to zero deforestation and zero violation of rights.  But it is hard to discern exactly where the bottleneck is located that is hampering this approach.  I have mentioned some of the causes already: lack of oversight and transparency in deforestation oversight.  The mechanisms for rehabilitating cleared lands have also not yet been deployed.  If governments did their part properly, then companies would conform.  Until this happens, businesses must commit to steps that raise barriers to deforestation, working closely with civil society.  Some studies show that one of the problems caused by commodity traders is that they buy from middlemen and are often unable to control the entire chain.  But they must understand that this is a role that they must play.  We must also focus on firming up commitments among these brokers.

Escolhas – The study conducted by the Escolhas Institute with support from the CLUA shows that the impacts of zero deforestation would be minimal for the Brazilian economy, with these losses offset by an equally minor uptick in ranching productivity.  If this is so, why is there so much resistance to combating deforestation in Brazil?

 Daniela –  The problem is that the farmers and ranchers have never had to obey.  Although the Forest Code has been in place since the 1930s, updated in 1965, this sector has never been forced to follow the rules.  This has changed, but the introduction of a new model is moving ahead sluggishly.  In order for all this to occur, habits must change and shifts are required in social structures.  Furthermore, technical assistance and credit systems must be upgraded, which would also drive changes.  Meanwhile, Senators and Members of Congress are doing their utmost to protect private economic interests, hindering approval of government policies, such as those pursuing zero deforestation in Brazil.