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Satellite Images Show Who's To Blame For Most Of The Deforestation In Brazil


An international team of scientists has taken a close look at satellite shots of deforestation in Brazil. And they say that just a small minority of farmers is responsible for most of the damage. The scientists are calling on international food companies to stop buying from those farmers. NPR's Dan Charles has more.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The whole world has a stake in Brazil's forests. They're a planetary treasure of wildlife and carbon. And Brazil itself has a forest code that orders landowners like farmers to preserve at least some of those forests. In the Amazon, it's 80%; in some other parts of the country, about 30%. Raoni Rajao, who teaches at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, says Brazil also monitors what happens on that land using satellites.

RAONI RAJAO: Actually, Brazil has the most advanced monitoring systems in the world.

CHARLES: That data's public. People can see what land has been deforested. So Rajao and a team of colleagues created a tool that looked at close to a million farms to see whether they'd cleared more land than is legal. And in a paper published this week in the journal Science, they revealed results that Rajao finds encouraging.

RAJAO: More than 80% of farms do not deforest. They have not deforested after 2008.

CHARLES: In fact, most of the illegal deforestation - 61% occurred on just 2% of the farms - 17,000 properties. Rajao calls them the bad apples of Brazilian agriculture. And he says this means it should be possible to enforce the law. Just go after those bad apples.

RAJAO: You can concentrate your effort in a relatively small number of farmers. But quite often, the problem is, you know, those are also farmers which are very powerful. They have very strong connections in Congress.

CHARLES: He says right now, Brazil's government does not seem interested in enforcing the law. That's where multinational food companies could step in, he says - companies like Cargill and Bunge and JBS which buy Brazil's soybeans, slaughter its beef and export it to places like Europe and China. Those companies have already promised to stop buying grain or cattle that were raised on deforested land. Rajao says they should go further - stop buying from farmers who've been burning the forest on any of their land.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.