Climate lawsuits could protect Brazilian Amazon

In the Brazilian Amazon, illegal deforestation increased by 37.5% between 2016 and 2020. Since 2019, 50% of annual forest destruction has occurred on public lands, perpetrated by land grabbers. Protected areas and undesignated public forests have been invaded and illegally deforested by land grabbers who sell the land for profit and use its natural resources. The government’s actions have been ineffective in curbing deforestation.

From January to May, deforestation in the region increased by 25% compared to the same period a year earlier. Land grabbing and deforestation have been promoted by loosening protection regulations. Fortunately, in the absence of effective strategies by the executive branch of government, the Brazilian judiciary has been creative. An unprecedented lawsuit filed by the Brazilian Federal Prosecution Office (BFPO) against a land grabber requires compensation for climate damages.

From 2011 to 2018, about 2400 ha of pristine forest were illegally deforested in a protected area (the Antimary Extractive Reserve) in the South of Amazonas State. Using the free access platform Carbon Calculator provided by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM Amazon), the BFPO estimated the amount of carbon emission (1.5 million tons CO2) due to that illegal deforestation case. The BFPO projected the due compensation for climate damages at USD 9 million, 181.3% more than the compensatory value would be for local environmental harms alone. This amount was established by multiplying the CO2 emitted by the illegal deforestation by USD 5 per ton of CO2—a price referenced in the Amazon Fund, a REDD+ mechanism that invests in deforestation prevention and forest sustainability.

The Court has already issued a preliminary injunction in favor of the BFPO, recognizing the existence of illegal deforestation and embargoing the sale of cattle raised in the area. This innovative lawsuit sets a valuable precedent for other cases against land grabbers in the Brazilian Amazon. Strong monetary disincentives imposed by the courts could help win the battle against illegal deforestation and its adverse impacts on regional and global climate balance.

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