In Brazil, an agribusiness haven’s green pivot leaves many skeptical

  • The Amacro project was conceived in early 2020 as an agribusiness hub in a heavily deforested part of the Brazilian Amazon, but a year later is being touted as a hub for sustainable business.
  • Now renamed the Abunã-Madeira Sustainable Development Area (ZDS), it stretches across 32 municipalities in the states of Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia, which last year accounted for nearly a quarter of the total deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
  • The ZDS project aims to attract investments into a wide range of sectors, from agroforestry and fish farming, to tourism and logistics, as well as the agribusiness, while promising to avoid deforestation through technology to help boost agricultural productivity.
  • Despite these green claims, prosecutors and nonprofit researchers say the prospect of new investment is already boosting land grabbing and deforestation in the area, and argue the best way to halt deforestation is to create protected areas — something that’s not included in the ZDS project.

A project originally aimed to fuel agribusiness in one of the most heavily deforested parts of the Brazilian Amazon is now being touted by the government as a “green” and “sustainable” initiative that will help protect the forest and may be replicated in other parts of the biome.

The switch in the narrative around Amacro, as the project was initially named, happened in a matter of a year, following strong criticism from authorities and environmentalists. But despite its ostensibly good intentions, it has been received with caution by prosecutors, researchers and nonprofits working with traditional communities.

The Amacro project came to life in March 2020, named after the border region between the Amazonian states of Amazonas (AM), Acre (AC) and Rondônia (RO). It encompasses 32 municipalities and 465,800 square kilometers (180,000 square miles), more than three times the size of New York state, in one of the parts of the Amazon Rainforest under the greatest deforestation pressure. These municipalities’ contribution to the total deforestation in the nine states that make up the Brazilian Amazon has increased consistently over the past 12 years, from 8% in 2008 to 30% in 2018, before dipping to 24% in 2020, according to a Mongabay survey based on data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Amacro comprises the region of southern Amazonas, east of Acre and northwest of Rondônia. Image by Fábio Alencar/Suframa.

Championed by Assuero Veronez, the head of Acre’s Agriculture Federation, who said “deforestation is a synonym for progress,” Amacro was inspired by Matopiba, the agribusiness project that straddles the region between the states of Maranhão (MA), Tocantins (TO), Piauí (PI) and Bahia (BA) in Brazil’s north and northeast, and whose municipalities are the leading contributors to deforestation of the Cerrado grasslands. INPE data shows that seven out of 10 most deforested municipalities of the biome are part of the Matopiba.

But the Amacro project took a different course at the start of 2021 when it changed hands inside the federal government to dissociate it from Matopiba’s bad reputation. The first step was to change the name of the project. It’s now called the Abunã-Madeira Sustainable Development Area (ZDS), named after the two main rivers that cross the region, and promises to put preservation at its core.

“We want the forest standing, this is non-negotiable,” Caroline Campos Löw, who heads of Amazon Development Superintendence (Sudam), the federal office in charge of promoting development in the rainforest, told Mongabay in a video call.

The Manaus Free Trade Zone Superintendence (Suframa), which is also leading the reformulated project, said in a statement that “the intention is to ally the need to protect the forest with the guarantee that the region’s inhabitants have access to the same citizenship opportunities as the rest of the country.” Previously, the Amacro project was managed by Embrapa Territorial, the arm of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company that had helmed the Matopiba project.

Under the new leadership, the agribusiness project has now become multisectoral, promising not only to attract private investments for ranches and farms but also for a wide range of businesses — from agroforestry and fish farming, to tourism, logistics, information, communication and technology, and research and development. These activities will also reportedly be stimulated by public credit lines already in place.

The rural elite, already heavily invested in agribusiness, might not be as quick to pivot to these greener objectives. Veronez, who said the project was “appropriated” by the autarchies, said agribusiness will still remain the central player in the region. “In any case, we are going to enter again as protagonists because who is going to invest in the area is the private sector, and the only vocation of this region is agribusiness. In the forest, if you take the wood out, nothing is left,” he told Mongabay in a phone call.

Part of the Abunã-Madeira Sustainable Development Area (ZDS), Apuí municipality , is located in the south of Amazonas, the region which accounts for the state’s highest deforestation rates. Most of the clearing there is to open space for cattle ranching. Image courtesy of Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

Fueling deforestation?

The ZDS project should be officially presented by the end of the year, but the expectation of new investments created by the initiative may already be fueling deforestation in the region, said Carlos Souza Júnior, a researcher from the Brazilian nonprofit research center Imazon. “What explains the deforestation boom in this territory? There must already be some rush for the occupation of these lands,” he said in a phone interview.

The situation is especially complicated in Acre, which registered its highest deforestation rate in 18 years, according to INPE’s data from August 2020 to July 2021. In the south of Amazonas, land grabbing and cattle ranching have put Lábrea and Apuí municipalities among the leaders of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Even without the ZDS, prospects for conserving the region’s forests in the near term look gloomy: a projected 3,067 km2 (1,184 mi2) of forest will be lost next year, releasing of 171 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, according to the Previsia artificial intelligence tool developed by Imazon in partnership with tech giant Microsoft. “With the ZDS, this deforestation tends to grow even more,” Souza Júnior said.

According to Imazon, non-designated public lands account for just over a third of the total area of the ZDS, or more than 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles). Yet these lands are the site of almost two-thirds of the deforestation in the ZDS, according to Mapbiomas Alert data. That makes it imperative to declare these lands as protected areas as the best way to avoid the deforestation to come in the wake of the development project, experts say. “These areas have to be designated, otherwise they will be open to land grabbing,” Humberto de Aguiar Júnior, a federal prosecutor in Acre, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “If you create conservation units, you reduce deforestation. It is an efficient policy.”

But the various state governments involved in the ZDS project have been pushing in the opposite direction. In Rondônia, state legislators approved the reduction of two existing conservation units by 1,670 km2 (645 mi2). At the federal level, a bill by a legislator representing Acre is seeking to do the same to the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve — named after the late environmental leader and rubber tapper — which is already one of the most threatened protected areas in the country.

Moreover, the ZDS project doesn’t include the creation of conservation units. The “forest protection belt” promised by the government would be implemented by offering technological solutions to increase productivity in areas already taken over by agribusiness, to avoid clearing new farmland, and by encouraging other sources of income for people living on the frontier of the deforestation. “It is no use saying ‘nobody gets in here,’” said Löw from Sudam. “You have to offer alternatives and something viable for that region.”

In the Abunã-Madeira Sustainable Development Area (ZDS), 62% of deforestation happens inside non-designated public lands, leading experts to call for these lands to be converted into protected areas. The ZDS project, however, doesn’t include creating any new conservation units. This image shows Lábrea municipality, in the south of Amazonas state. Image courtesy of Victor Moriyama/Amazônia em Chamas (Amazon on Fire).

Land regulation and roads are red flags

Granting land titles to those who live on the land without legal ownership is one of the key pitches of the ZDS project, Löw said, as it’s essential not only in bringing dignity to the population but also in protecting the forest. “With the title, people will be able to access credit to seek economic alternatives. It will also make people accountable for environmental crimes,” she said.

But the ZDS plan doesn’t specify how this land regulation will happen. In Brazil, repeated changes in legislation have effectively whitewashed the illegal occupation of public lands, which critics say only incentivizes land grabbers. “Land regulation can’t be done without an inspection to know when the land was occupied and if the person who lives there is the same who demands the title of the property,” said Aguiar Júnior, the federal prosecutor.

Another red flag thrown up by the ZDS project is its promise to attract investments to improve highway traffic on the BR-230 (the so-called Transamazônica, which crosses the south of Amazonas) and BR-319 (which connects Manaus to Porto Velho, the state capitals of Amazonas and Rondônia, respectively). President Jair Bolsonaro’s promise to pave BR-319 has already generated an increase in deforestation along the road, according to a study from the National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA). “Whenever there is an infrastructure project in the Amazon, there is a rush to occupy the surrounding areas,” said Imazon’s Souza Júnior.

Lindomar Dias Padilha, from the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, said he fears the impact of these investments on traditional communities. “These projects usually exclude these communities while affecting them by destroying the forest,” Padilha, who works in Acre, said in a phone interview. “Often the green comes only to tint the ashes of deforestation.”

If the ZDS works, Sudam and Suframa’s plan is to replicate the initiative in other parts of the Amazon, like the Upper Solimões River, Marajó Islands, and Transamazônica. “This project is the apple of our eye,” Löw said. “It is possible to improve the population’s life without deforesting by adding value to the products of the forest.”

Banner image: The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, in northern Acre state, is one of Brazil’s most deforested conservation units. This year, Acre registered its highest rate of deforestation in 18 years. Image courtesy of Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.