By Chris Arsenault
RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Latin America's largest country is still losing tropical forests the size of two soccer fields every minute, despite attempts to tackle illegal logging and improve local land rights, a former head of Brazil's forestry service has said.
Deforestation rates in Brazil, home to the world's biggest expanse of tropical forests, slowed significantly between 2004 and 2010, but have picked up again in recent years due to a lack of innovation and government planning, Tasso Azevedo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Preserving forests is a key way to reduce emissions of planet-warming gases and combat climate change, as trees suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Forests are also home to hundreds of thousands of people who depend on them for their livelihood.
"In some cases, we are walking backwards," warned Azevedo, citing poor cooperation between competing government departments and civil society in Brazil.
"This is not a problem with one ministry - it's a problem with how the government has been structured in the last couple of years," he said.
Government bodies are less willing to accept help from civil society, he said, and within official environmental agencies there is reduced openness to new ideas and strategies.
As part of its national action plan submitted for the new global deal to curb climate change, Brazil has pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation, and restore and reforest 12 million hectares (29.7 million acres) of land, both by 2030.
The rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon dropped by nearly 80 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to a study published last year in the journal "Global Change Biology".
But the deforestation rate has crept back up, jumping 16 percent in the year to July 2015.
Today the country is losing about 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles) of Amazon forest annually, one of the largest absolute declines of any country, Azevedo said.
Brazilian government officials say the country is working hard to reduce deforestation and climate change.
For example, it recently launched a R33.7 million ($9.6 million) program for projects to support recovery, conservation and sustainable use of the Amazon, according to Eduardo dos Santos, Brazil's ambassador to Britain.
About 80 percent of the deforestation happening in the Amazon rainforest comes from illegal activity, Azevedo noted, citing government statistics. Authorities need to improve enforcement techniques to stop it, he added.
Illegal loggers are changing their strategies by moving wood from one region to another to hide its point of origin, he said. And efforts to track supply chains have not kept pace with savvy criminals, said Azevedo, who now directs the environmental group MapBiomas.
While authorities are gathering satellite information showing illegal logging on a monthly basis, they have stopped publishing these updates regularly, he said, although the reason is unclear.
That makes it more difficult to get the public involved in pressuring companies and politicians to act urgently, he said.
Some conservationists worry that Brazil's current recession - the worst since the 1930s - will lead politicians to relax environmental rules and protection for land rights, so that more natural resources can be exploited to boost growth.
But Azevedo believes growth and environmental stewardship can happen at the same time.
"We have learned over the years that this connection between economic growth and deforestation is not real," he said.
"The period when we saw the fastest economic growth in Brazil is the same period when we saw the biggest decrease in deforestation."
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)