Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon hits “highest level in a decade”

Deforestation in the Maranhão state of Brazil, 2016. (Image courtesy of Felipe Werneck | Ibama.)

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon has hit the highest annual level in over a decade this year, amid President Jair Bolsonaro’s push to open the huge rainforest to businesses in mining and logging.

According to The National Institute for Space Research (INPE), areas where trees have been removed soared 29.5% to 9,762 square km in the year to July 30, 2019.

The clearance rate – equivalent to about two soccer fields a minute – is the fastest since 2008, pushing Brazil far off course from reaching its Paris agreement goals to cut carbon emissions.

The annual numbers are compiled with information from the Prodes satellite system, which is considered the most conservative measurement of deforestation. Although less steep than the increase suggested by other systems, the new figure confirms an upward trend so far denied by Bolsonaro and his ministers.  

Deforested areas soared 29.5% to 9,762 square km in the year to July 30, 2019 at a pace equivalent to about two soccer fields a minute — the fastest since 2008

The one who acknowledged the severity of  the damage, former INPE’s head Ricardo Galvao, lost his job in the space agency in August.

Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic, suggested that Galvao was “in the service of some NGOs.”

Fires in the Amazon, in turn, were three times higher than in 2018 and spread at a pace unseen since 2010 during July and August. Studies published as recent as of last week show a direct link between the blazes and deforestation.

“The marked upturn in both active fire counts and deforestation in 2019 therefore refutes suggestions by the Brazilian Government that August 2019 was a normal fire month in the Amazon,” said Professor Jos Barlow, lead author of a paper published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Because it is the world’s largest rainforest, the fate of the Amazon – often called the “lungs of the world” – is widely considered by climate change experts as key to the future of the planet.

Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who took office in January, has systematically weakened institutions designed to protect the rainforest, while offering support to farmers wishing to turn the land into cattle ranches.

Illegal mining has, for years, disrupted the Amazon landscape and contaminated water streams with toxic mercury.

A review of Brazil’s public records found that Bolsonaro’s government had relaxed enforcement measures such as fines, warnings and the seizure or destruction of illegal equipment in protected areas.

Companies operating and exploring in Brazil are mainly after iron ore (the country is the world’s top producer of the steel-making ingredient) and gold, though the nation also holds large reserves of bauxite, manganese and potash. It is also Latin America’s No. 1 oil producer.

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