In Brazil, criminals dismantle one of the best-preserved swaths of the Amazon
by Ana Ionova on 23 February 2023
The Terra do Meio Ecological Station spans 3.37 million hectares (8.33 million acres) in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Pará and is home to hundreds of wildlife species, including many threatened with extinction.
Despite its protected status, Terra do Meio has come under growing pressure, with data showing deforestation doubling in 2022, reaching 4,300 hectares (nearly 11,000 acres).
Environmentalists say the destruction within Terra do Meio is being driven by illegal loggers, miners and land speculators - and they fear a new road slicing through the reserve could usher in more destruction.
Advocates are placing their hopes in Brazil's new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has promised to crack down on invasions into protected reserves and rein in sky-high deforestation rates.
XINGU RIVER, Brazil - Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, our motorboat slides past an emerald canopy of rainforest, cascading down to the banks of the Xingu River. Beyond, in the Terra do Meio Ecological Station, hundreds of plant and animal species thrive in one of the best-preserved slices of the Amazon.
Under federal protection since 2005, Terra do Meio spans some 3.37 million hectares (8.33 million acres) across the Brazilian state of Pará. It's nestled in one of the Amazon's most important ecological corridors, made up of 28 conservation areas and 18 Indigenous territories that together form an ecological tapestry treasured for its rich biodiversity.
On paper, all human activity, except for scientific research, is barred within Terra do Meio. But in reality, this reserve has suffered a wave of invasions by illegal loggers and miners and land grabbers in recent years, who have razed swaths of its forests. Over the past decade, it has lost 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of primary rainforest, according to data from Brazil's space agency, INPE.
And the destruction appears to have intensified recently. In 2022, satellites detected 248,374 highest-confidence deforestation alerts within Terra do Meio, according to data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch. Some 4,300 hectares (nearly 11,000 acres) were cleared between January and November 2022, more than double the area razed in 2o21, according to figures from Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon.
"There is a context of predatory land grabbing in this region," Bianca Santos, a researcher at Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. "This is an area that should be completely preserved. But, even so, these people are rushing to invade it."
Environmentalists say they now fear the encroachment into Terra do Meio is opening up a new corridor of deforestation, threatening to fracture one of the region's last intact stretches of forest and opening the door to destruction in other conservation areas that lie beyond, such as Iriri State Forest. The ongoing invasions also pose a threat to the Indigenous peoples in the neighboring reserves of Xipaya, Kukuaya and Cachoeira Seca, who depend on the forest for their survival.
And the rampant destruction is emblematic of a wider assault on protected areas, a legacy many blame on former president Jair Bolsonaro, an enthusiastic supporter of opening up the Amazon to mining, logging and ranching. During his four years in power, from 2019 to 2022, deforestation in federal conservation areas surged by 130%, as his friendly rhetoric emboldened criminals to lay claim to slices of the rainforest.
"The destruction spun out of control over the last four years," Nilo D'Ávila, a campaign director at Greenpeace Brazil, told Mongabay by phone. "What we see today is a full-out epidemic of deforestation in protected lands."
Scramble for land
Terra do Meio lies in the heartland of Brazilian ranching, straddling the municipalities of Altamira and São Félix do Xingu. The latter boasts the country's largest cattle population, at 2.4 million. Since the late 1990s, the forest here has rapidly given way to pasture - first, as ranchers arrived from other states in search of land and, later, as they scrambled to expand their holdings.
Terra do Meio, along with much of the Xingu Basin mosaic, was created in the early 2000s to shield the region's vanishing forests from this rapidly advancing development. The corridor was also supposed to offset the environmental and social damage of mega projects like the paving of the BR-163 highway and the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.
But environmentalists say the protections are failing to stop incursions into Terra do Meio, with deforestation spilling over from the neighboring Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area (APA), a sustainable-use reserve that has in recent years become the most deforested slice of the Brazilian Amazon. Since 2006, the APA, intended as a buffer for ecologically important areas like Terra do Meio, has lost 30% of its forest cover.
"There is a wave of deforestation coming from the APA and advancing toward this conservation corridor," Thaise Rodrigues, an analyst at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for environmental and Indigenous rights, told Mongabay by phone. "It's placing pressure on reserves that are supposed to be under strict protection."
With this buffer thinning, illegal loggers are now encroaching into Terra do Meio in search of valuable timber. Land speculators, meanwhile, are razing swaths of forest within the reserve in hopes that protections will be loosened and their land claims will be recognized further down the line.
Last year, invaders also opened up a 43-kilometer (27-mile) road slicing through Terra do Meio and penetrating into Iriri State Forest, where it meets an existing road leading to an abandoned illegal mine that was recently reactivated, according to an analysis by Rede Xingu+, a network of nonprofits monitoring deforestation in the Xingu River Basin.
Now, fears are mounting that this freshly carved stretch of road is creating a link between São Félix do Xingu and Novo Progresso, a hub of deforestation along the BR-163, where illegal logging and gold mining drive the local economy. This link is slicing the pristine forest in half and easing access deeper into the Xingu corridor, potentially opening the floodgates to rampant deforestation in more of the ostensibly protected areas and reserves here.
"The road is creating the logistics necessary to deforest these more isolated areas," Rodrigues said. "The major concern is that these two fronts of deforestation could meet, fragmenting this great mosaic of forest."
This splintering of the forest is dealing a blow to this corner of the Amazon, which is home to vulnerable Indigenous communities and wildlife at risk of extinction. The forest here also plays a key role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere and staving off climate change, in Brazil and beyond, according to Mariana Napolitano, head of science and strategy at WWF Brazil.
"This isolated slice of forest is at the heart of the Amazon," she told Mongabay by phone. "It's crucial to the biome because it captures so much carbon and it's a region of great biodiversity. So its destruction would have a devastating impact."
'Epidemic' of invasion
For decades, policing this remote slice of the Amazon has posed steep challenges for environmental agencies. With difficult access and few agents in an area more than twice the size of Wales, environmental agencies have struggled to contain the destruction.
"In this region, there's a historical difficulty in imposing environmental order," Suely Araújo, a public policy expert at the Climate Observatory, told Mongabay by phone. From 2016 to 2018, Araújo served as president of IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency. "These pressures on the forest, be it from deforestation or from illegal mining, are a permanent fixture."
Recently, police have tried to crack down on the incursions. In September, authorities shut down an illegal gold mine that occupied 67 hectares (166 acres) inside Terra do Meio, destroying the miners' equipment and placing the area under embargo.
But such haphazard enforcement has failed to halt the encroachment into Terra do Meio. "It's not enough to do the occasional mission. This is a region where enforcement agencies must be present all the time," Araújo said. "It's the only way to control the advance of deforestation there."
Many of those illegally laying claim to slices of Terra do Meio are doing so through Brazil's Rural Environmental Registry, an online land record widely known by its Portuguese acronym, CAR. These self-declarations are supposed to be checked by state authorities, but just a small fraction are ever verified. With the land registry in hand, speculators can secure financing from banks, enabling them to fund the clearing of large swaths of forest.
Even though landholders are not permitted to declare ownership of protected reserves through CAR, illicit registrations of such areas have exploded in recent years. Within Terra do Meio, there are 1.6 million hectares (3.9 million acres) of land registered under CAR, according to land management data analyzed by Imazon.
Many of those making these illegal land claims within the reserve are registering large plots of land, with at least eight CAR declarations encompassing more than 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres), according to D'Ávila. One of these registrations spans across 460,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of the reserve, he noted.
he intention of land grabbers is to degrade the protected reserve to the point where federal authorities are forced to scrap its protected status and hand over the land rights to the squatters who are illegally claiming it, D'Ávila said.
"This is a process we see across the Amazon: you go there, deforest the land, set fire, put some cattle on the plot," he said. "Then you keep expanding until the conservation unit doesn't really serve its original purpose anymore."
Still, advocates say there's hope on the horizon. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in last October's elections and took office on Jan. 1 this year, has promised to crack down on deforestation and expel illegal miners, loggers and ranchers from protected areas. His track record is promising: during his first two terms in office, between 2003 and 2010, he implemented a multiyear plan that slashed the deforestation rate by 80% and turned Brazil into a global leader in the fight against forest destruction.
"Today, the situation that Lula is inheriting is one that is completely out of control," Araújo said. "But we know what the path forward would be. We've succeeded before."
Just weeks into his presidency, Lula has taken important first steps to replicate this success. He has dusted off his lauded multiyear plan, abandoned by Bolsonaro, and restored the Amazon Fund that was suspended in 2019 amid soaring deforestation and that led to the freezing of $500 million in aid. Enforcement agents have also quickly gotten to work, carrying out their first missions in Pará, Amazonas and Acre states.
Still, activists say reversing years of environmental neglect will require the federal government to join forces with state authorities and invest heavily in combating illicit activity across the Amazon and punishing those responsible. And preventing future destruction will require the creation of new economic models that persuade communities in the Amazon, where beef and gold are often the engines of growth, to keep the forest standing, Napolitano said.
"The forest is more degraded than ever," she said. "We have a small window of opportunity - and we need to act quickly, while there is still time."
Banner image: The Terra do Meio Ecological Station straddles the municipalities of São Félix do Xingu and Altamira, among Brazil's largest cattle-producing regions. Fire is a constant threat here as ranchers set degraded pastures ablaze in a bid to renew them. Many of them are also encroaching deeper into the forest. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.
Bacia do Xingu
Unidades de Conservação relacionadas
- UC Terra do Meio
- UC Iriri
- UC Triunfo do Xingu
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