Rainforest deforestation is rising again

The Amazon, like the Arctic, is one of those special places. Yet when I was growing up, the story of the Amazon was always one of unspeakable loss, of the felling of ancient mahogany trees and the industrial destruction of forest. This was no accident: for decades, the Brazilian government had encouraged people to settle in the region, converting the rainforest to vast farms and cattle ranches. Those who ventured north were pioneers, bringing light to the darkness and the Amazon to heel.

By the mid-1990s, Brazil had become synonymous with forest destruction. Something had to give. NGOs like Greenpeace began to put pressure on the companies who bought Brazilian commodities, asking them to use their power as customers to reform the market or boycott the region altogether. The Brazilian government responded by cracking down on illegal logging, seizing huge volumes of mahogany and arresting key figures in the trade.

Although the pressure came from civil society, the solutions came from the market. To retain their prestigious international customers, commodities traders signed a voluntary agreement, called the Soya Moratorium, that prohibited the export of soya from farms that had continued clearing forest after 2006. Then the three largest slaughterhouses in Brazil signed the Cattle Agreement, refusing to buy from cattle ranches which had cleared forest after 2009. The on-the-ground impact was profound: deforestation in Brazil peaked in 2004, and with the exception of 2008, has declined year after year.

Then last week the Brazilian government announced that deforestation was on the rise once again. Between August 2012 and July 2013, over 5,500 square kilometres of forest was destroyed: an increase of 28% compared with the previous year. Every indicative estimate over the past year has shown that we were headed in this direction. Yet the scale of the increase took everyone by surprise.

The government argues that this needs to be put into context. Deforestation in 2012-13 was still far below 2004 or 2008 levels. But what worries me is that this appears to be the start of a major trend, and one exacerbated by the government's systematic dismantling of the laws and agencies that are supposed to protect the Amazon.

Last year, the Brazilian government passed a new Forest Code, dramatically weakening the environmental law that governs forest use in Brazil, including the Amazon. Opposed by over 80% of the Brazilian population, the new Forest Code included an amnesty for anyone who had illegally cleared forest before 2008. It was a gift to Brazil's powerful agribusiness lobby, which desperately wants to reclaim the Amazon and convert as much of it as possible to pasture and cropland.

The Forest Code also passed many of the responsibilities for forest protection from federal to state governments, which lack the resources to cope and are frequently accused of corruption. The result has been a growth in lawlessness, with increasingly hostile farmers organising militias and loggers attacking police stations in the frontier provinces. Deforestation and violence are inextricably linked, yet the Ministry of Environment, responsible for overseeing forest protection, has had its budget for 2014 slashed by 48%.

This assault on the forest is entirely unnecessary. Brazil has squared the circle, slowing the rate of forest loss whilst allowing agricultural production to boom. Since the Soya Moratorium was agreed in 2006, over 700,000 hectares of forest has been cleared in the 62 soya-producing municipalities. However, just 4% of that area - 30,000 hectares - was planted with soya in 2012/13. At the same time, Brazilian soya exports increased by 230%.

2014 will be a critical test for President Dilma Rouseff, leader of the Workers' Party. This year's dramatic increase in deforestation has already attracted significant media attention, both at home and abroad. In June, she must negotiate the World Cup, followed immediately by Presidential and Congressional elections. The agribusiness sector is already calling for further concessions, but acceding to their demands risks spooking the international brands that buy Brazilian commodities.

A further rise in deforestation may suit the short-term, growth-at-all-costs agenda of Brazil's industrial agribusiness representatives, but it is not in Brazil's interests. It would jeopardise relations with international brands like McDonald's, which need commodities but want nothing to do with deforestation. The wealthy agribusiness elites want to sacrifice the Amazon; the rest of Brazil, civil society, indigenous peoples and the international brands that use Brazil's commodities all want to save it.

President Rouseff must choose a side, before there isn't any Amazon left to save.

Richard George is forests campaigner for Greenpeace UK. Visit the website to find out about Greenpeace's work and their high-profile campaign on behalf of the Arctic 30