State Agency Brings Satellite Data down to Earth

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The western state of Mato Grosso, where a third of the deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon typically has taken place, is reducing illegal land clearing by superimposing local property maps on satellite images to better focus enforcement action.

Linked to a new licensing system for landowners who want to fell timber on their property, the hi-tech approach allows state officials to monitor cutting from afar—and mail out pre-determined fines if that cutting exceeds legal limits. As the program is being phased in, Mato Grosso’s environmental-enforcement agency—the State Environmental Foundation (Fema)—hopes to reduce field inspections, which are costly and vulnerable to bribery.

The strategy, credited with cutting Mato Grosso’s deforestation rate by a third, has won praise from environmental advocates. Says Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth’s Brazil office: “Fema’s program also raises the question: Why couldn’t the federal government have thought up and implemented such an obvious, simple program?”

Federal officials have taken note, however.

Brazil’s Environment Ministry is giving other Amazon states funding and technical support to adopt Mato Grosso’s approach. And as that effort advances, Ibama, the ministry’s enforcement agency, is turning the job of deforestation-monitoring over to the states.

“The Fema program is superior to [Ibama’s] because it pinpoints violators at the level of individual properties,” says Julio Silva de Oliveira, who until last month was Ibama’s general-monitoring coordinator. “[It also] forces landowners to obtain environmental licenses that must be renewed yearly, something Ibama never did.”

Mato Grosso’s strategy dates from 1999, when a Fema official, Paulo Leite, superimposed Landsat satellite images of the state’s forestland on digitalized maps of the state’s property grid.

To be sure, Landsat images have been available for years. The federal government has used them to measure annual deforestation rates in the Amazon. And since 1996, Ibama has analyzed Landsat data to locate large areas of illegal cutting in 43 municipalities in Mato Grosso, Pará and Rondônia states.

But Leite was the first Brazilian official to improve monitoring and enforcement by matching satellite images to a local property grid. Says Smeraldi of Friends of the Earth: “Fema and Paulo Leite in particular deserve a lot of credit for creating a simple but effective system to curb illegal cutting in the Amazon.”

Brazil’s forest code prohibits Amazon landowners from cutting more than 20% of their forested lands. It also bans cutting on riverbanks, at headwaters or on the borders of indigenous reserves, forest-conservation areas and national parks.

As Ibama has done, Fema checks for deforestation by comparing Landsat images, updates of which are generated every 16 days. Thanks to the property-grid overlay, however, the state agency can quickly determine which are the landholdings where deforestation is occurring.

“Deforestation” licenses

Fema also is requiring property owners to obtain an “environmental-deforestation” license before cutting timber. In the process, the landholders must delineate their property and show what portions they intend to cut.

Monitoring these licensed properties with updated satellite images, Fema can check from afar whether landowners are exceeding their cutting plans and, if so, violating the forest code. So far, close to 30% of the forested land subject to Fema’s oversight has been licensed.

Once the licensing system is fully in place, the need for field inspections will decrease. That’s because officials can use the electronic images and maps to pinpoint where, and by how much, cutting plans have been exceeded, then simply mail fines to the offending property owners—no site visits required.

Fema to date has levied some 1,500 fines totaling US$30 million. Few of them have been collected, however, due to a provision that allows landowners an out. The fines, assessed at a rate of US$750 per acre ($1,850 per hectare) of illegally cut land, can be avoided if the property is replanted with native trees.

State officials say the program has proved successful from the start, reducing the state’s deforestation rate sharply over the period 1998-01—when deforestation rates in other Amazon states were rising. In the two-year period 1998-99, the state lost 4.44 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of forest, while in 2000-01, deforestation totalled 2.96 million acres (1.2 million hectares), or 33% less.

Estimates for 2002-03 are not available. But the early results encourage many experts—not least Leite, who last December stepped down as Fema’s forest-resources director to start a non-governmental group that intends to do nationwide forest-monitoring for the federal government. Says Leite: “What else could explain why deforestation has dropped here since 1998-1999 and has risen in every other state in the Amazon during the same time?”

Cost-savings cited

Mato Grosso’s enforcement initiative and the similar efforts in other Amazon states are supported in large part by the Pilot Program to Conserve the Brazilian Rain Forests (PP-G7). The PP-G7, created in 1990 by the G-7 industrial nations, provides 80% of the funding, with the Brazilian government chipping in 20% and the respective states paying 10%.

Gabriel Ferreira, technical manager of natural-resources policy at the Environment Ministry, says that as landowners are licensed, the financial load for forest monitoring will lighten. “We can greatly reduce the number of field inspectors required and thus cut costs by simply mailing fines to violators,” Ferreira says.

And environmental-license fees paid by Amazon landowners, he adds, will generate income for the program.

Ferreira points out that the Fema model of monitoring will be enhanced technically once it also taps images provided by the System for Vigilance of the Amazon (Sivam). A $1.4 billion network of radars, control towers and planes, Sivam was inaugurated by the federal government last July to monitor the Amazon for drug trafficking, illegal mining, illicit logging and other unlawful activity.

Environmental experts caution that implementation of the Fema model will by no means end illegal cutting in the Amazon. Still, they say the progress made in Mato Grosso indicates Amazon states can control deforestation if they have the political will.

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