Non-profit MapBiomas aims to end 'impunity' over illegal land clearing and hold those responsible to account
By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, April 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of Brazilian researchers using satellite data to track illegal deforestation are on a mission to hit the people responsible where it hurts - in the pocket.
Mapping project MapBiomas is working with state governments, prosecutors and even state-controlled Banco do Brasil to flag illegal land clearances and bring the culprits to account with consequences including fines, lawsuits and loan refusals.
"We're trying to deny (deforesters) access to the banking system," Marcos Rosa, technical coordinator of the network, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
Brazil, which holds more than half of the Amazon rainforest as well as the vast Cerrado savanna, is on the frontline of the fight against global warming.
Curbing rising Amazon deforestation is vital to preventing runaway climate change impacts because of the vast amount of planet-heating carbon dioxide absorbed by the forest's trees.
Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has weakened environmental protections since he took power in 2019, and deforestation has risen, experts say.
MapBiomas - a network of scientists, nonprofits, universities and technology firms - is monitoring land use and helping identify lawbreakers by publishing public maps showing forest coverage, water use, mining sites, and more.
On Wednesday, it received a $1.5-million prize from the Skoll Foundation, which supports social change and businesses for good. The Skoll Foundation is a funding partner of the Thomson Reuters Foundation for its inclusive economies coverage.
Under MapBiomas's partnership with Banco do Brasil, the owners of land where tree loss is detected are flagged by the bank as potential deforesters, said Rosa.
The alert goes to all branches of the bank. If the potential deforester later seeks a farming loan, they will have to provide a document showing the forest clearance was legal.
MapBiomas also provides federal prosecutors, state environmental secretaries and major Brazilian companies with data on deforestation, he said.
Some local authorities are issuing fines based on the data, and others are launching investigations and court cases.
"What we want is to end the feeling of impunity. If someone deforested, it has to be public and available," said Rosa.
MapBiomas is collaborative and apolitical, Rosa said, but he added that during Bolsonaro's presidency, partnership agreements the network had with the federal government and agencies had lapsed and were not renewed.
"As the government decreases data transparency ... MapBiomas gains importance," he said.
The Brazilian government did not reply to a request for comment.
Many of the project's studies address headline-grabbing issues, such as an incident last year when illegal gold mining vessels overtook one of the main Amazon waterways in Brazil, the Madeira River.
Through satellite images, MapBiomas showed that about 150 vessels were there for almost a month before Brazil's Federal Police launched an operation to dismantle them.
Studies also track larger trends. Last month, one showed how between 1985 and 2020 there has been a 16% decrease in the area covered with water in Brazil, a worrying finding for a country known for having plentiful water.
While best known in Brazil, MapBiomas is running similar projects in almost all South American countries and in Indonesia, working in partnership with local scientists.
Project leaders hope to expand their work to Chile, providing the technology and training for scientists in the country to start monitoring land data.
"By the end of the year, we hope to have MapBiomas Chile," said scientific coordinator Julia Shimbo.
"We want to have collaborative science not only within academia, but outside academia, with the private sector, the public sector and civil society."
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Sonia Elks and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.