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17 May 2021

Press Release

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New study finds 94% of deforestation and habitat destruction in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado could be illegal

  • New research from Brazil reveals a dangerous lack of transparency in legal deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems 
  • It is currently extremely challenging to tell if deforestation and habitat destruction is legal or illegal  
  • Findings reveal 94% of deforested areas in the Amazon and Cerrado may be due to illegal activity  
  • WWF says new bills under debate in the UK, EU and USA must take into account all deforestation and conversion – including the UK’s Environment Bill 

18 million hectares of deforestation and habitat destruction in the Amazon and the Cerrado could be due to illegal activity, according to a new study.  

Researchers cross-checked official data from the PRODES system (from the National Institute of Space Research) for the Amazon and the Cerrado and several databases on the permits (Autorização de Supressão de Vegetação Nativa, ASV) that are necessary for rural landowners to deforest or convert areas following the possibilities provided by law. 

The study found that the transparency and quality of this ASV permit data is inadequate and incomplete. The way that the data is currently presented makes it extremely challenging to differentiate between legal and illegal deforestation/conversion, which is essential to curb the ever-increasing rates of ecosystem-clearing activities in Brazil. The lack of clear data also makes preventing illegal activity almost impossible. 

It concludes that 94% of the area deforested in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes in the states included in the study either do not have publicly available ASVs or these are inaccurate and, therefore, can be considered illegal.[1] This corresponds to 18 million hectares of habitat, an area greater than the combined territories of Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland. 

The study, “Illegal Deforestation and Conversion in the Amazon and MATOPIBA: lack of transparency and access to information” was developed by Brazilian researchers from the Centro de Vida Institute (ICV), Institute of Forestry and Agricultural Management and Certification (IMAFLORA), and the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), with support from WWF-Brazil.  

To assess the transparency and quality of the information, the researchers surveyed the databases of ASVs issued until the second half of 2020 in the 11 states that comprise the Amazon and MATOPIBA. 

Most states have data that covers only the years 2018 to 2020. When cross-checking the areas of the ASVs with the deforestation data for the same period, researchers found that the areas of the ASVs correspond, on average, to only 5% of the total deforestation observed in the states.  

Five states didn't have any available data on ASVs. When trying to obtain information via the equivalent of a FOI request (Lei de Acesso à Informação, LAI), only three states forwarded the requested databases and even those contained incorrect information and did not include all the relevant periods.  

Official Brazilian figures published in November 2020 showed a 12 year high in deforestation in the Amazon. An area of the Brazilian Amazon half the size of Wales has been lost in just one year, the highest deforestation figure since 2008. The number of fires reached a 10-year high in 2020, with 10,000 more fires recorded in the first 8 months of the year than in 2019. 

Frederico Machado of WWF Brazil said:   

"The institutions involved in the study were surprised with the dramatic lack of enforcement of Brazilian environmental legislation, not only by the federal government but also by subnational administrations. The data clashes with the information provided by Brazilian authorities and some farmers associations on the quality of our environmental legal framework.  

“Even if the legal framework was a positive one for ecosystem protection – which is not the case, as up to 80% of the devastation of most of our biomes are legally allowed – a law on paper but without enforcement should never be presented as a potential international benchmark." 

In the UK, there are currently only voluntary commitments to ensure that products linked with unsustainable deforestation and conversion abroad don’t end up in UK supply chains. Through the Environment Bill, currently before Parliament, the UK Government is planning to put a mandatory obligation on UK businesses – but the proposed due diligence law only covers deforestation recognised as illegal by legislation in the producer country.  

However, as this research shows, distinguishing between what is legal and illegal is fraught with transparency issues and significant amounts of ‘legal’ deforestation in Brazil are actually illegal due to lack of evidence of the necessary authorisations required by law. This means the proposed new due diligence law doesn’t go far enough to prevent large-scale destruction of forests and other natural ecosystems in the areas of the world from which the UK sources its goods.  

Mike Barrett, Executive Director of Science & Conservation at WWF-UK, said: 

“Nature is in freefall, and to turn it around we can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that products we import may have caused deforestation and destruction in precious habitats overseas. To stop this, we need to take action here in the UK. 

“This research underlines the fact that even deforestation and conversion that look legal on paper can turn out to be illegal. In the Environment Bill currently before Parliament, the UK Government must ensure there is no deforestation or habitat destruction in UK supply chains – ‘legal’ or not.” 




The region known as MATOPIBA in Brazil includes the State of Tocantins and parts of the states of Maranhão, Piauí, and Bahia. 

[1] The permits can be inaccurate compared to the deforestation and conversion of habitats seen, or the date for the permit may have expired. 

About ICV  

Founded in Mato Grosso on April 14, 1991, the ICV is a non-profit civil society organization (OSCIP) recognized as a public interest organization by state law 6752/1996. Its work focuses on sustainable land use and natural resources. It covers transparency, environmental governance, and public policies, mainly through practical experiences. The entity seeks to foster innovations to expand and influence other actors beyond the territories in which it operates, through studies and analyses, and in-field experiences, always seeking the effective participation of the largest possible number of actors in this process. For more information, go to


The Institute of Forestry and Agricultural Management and Certification (IMAFLORA) is a non-profit civil association created in 1995 under the premise that the best way to conserve tropical forests is to give them an economic destination associated with good management practices and responsible management of natural resources. IMAFLORA seeks to influence the production chains of goods of forest and agricultural origin, collaborate in the elaboration and implementation of public-interest policies, and make a difference in the regions where it operates, creating models of land use and sustainable development that can be replicated in different municipalities, regions, and biomes of the country. For more information, go to  

About the Laboratory of Environmental Services Management (LAGESA) 

The Environmental Services Management Laboratory (LAGESA) is a laboratory integrated with the Production Engineering Department of the UFMG School of Engineering. Created in 2012 and coordinated by Professor Raoni Rajão, LAGESA has a team of 15 researchers from different academic backgrounds who develop studies in the area of environmental management. In line with its mission to promote greater participation of science within the scope of environmental policy decisions in Brazil, the laboratory is part of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change, the Forest Code Observatory, and the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture. 

About WWF 

WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) is one of the world’s largest independent conservation organisations, active in nearly 100 countries. Our supporters – more than five million of them – are helping us to restore nature and to tackle the main causes of nature’s decline, particularly the food system and climate change. We’re fighting to ensure a world with thriving habitats and species, and to change hearts and minds so it becomes unacceptable to overuse our planet’s resources.  

WWF. For your world.  

For wildlife, for people, for nature.  

Find out more about our work, past and present at