Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is up. Way up.
In the last 12 months, 3,554 square miles (9,205 square kilometers) of Brazilian Amazon vegetation were burned down, official data published Friday by the country’s National Institute for Space Research (known by its Portuguese acronym, INPE) shows. The researchers obtained the numbers using Brazil’s Real-time Deforestation Detection System (DETER), which uses low-resolution satellite images to identify new forest clearings quickly.
That’s a 34% increase from last year, and marks a 14-year high. It was also a 101% increase from two years ago, meaning Brazil has roughly doubled its pace of deforestation since far-right business-loving Jair Bolsonaro took the presidency in January 2019. Since then, Brazil’s Amazon has seen roughly 8,000 square miles (20,500 square kilometers) burn down—an area larger than the entire state of Massachusetts. It’s exactly what Indigenous groups and conservationists feared would happen under the Bolsonaro regime.
Earlier this week, INPE data showed the Brazilian Amazon saw 28% more fires this July than it did last July. Peak forest fire season generally occurs in late August through September, and environmental groups are anxiously awaiting the next two months’ data.
Brazil’s DETER system can’t monitor the causes of this forest loss, but it’s clear these forest fires were no act of god. Brazil’s Amazon is super humid and therefore wouldn’t catch on its own. Instead, the fires are mostly caused by clearing trees for logging, mining, cattle ranching, and soybean farming. A 2019 report showed that 99% of deforestation in Brazil is carried out illegally.
“Public land is invaded by organized crime, the forest is clear-cut, burned, made into pasture and sold,” said Claudio Angelo, head of communications at Brazil’s Climate Observatory. “One must bear in mind that it isn’t poor peasants that carry out most deforestation. Cutting down forests is expensive and it needs investment.”
This uptick in deforestation comes a month after Bolsonaro instated a four month ban on forest fires in the country’s rainforest. But even in a normal year, most of the fires are started illegally and a ban was never likely to go very far. What’s happening fits with Bolsonaro’s campaign promise to privatize the rainforest and hand it over to industry.
“The record rise in deforestation is not a result of incompetence; it’s design,” said Angelo.
The day before the new figures were released, 62 civil society organizations sent the Brazilian Congress, European Parliament, investors, and international authorities a list of emergency measures to curb the crisis of Amazon deforestation. Among the policies are a moratorium on burning and an increase in penalties for environmental crimes, and protecting Indigenous groups that are often stewards of the forest.
This deforestation is ravaging the Amazon’s lush and biodiverse ecosystems and devastating Indigenous communities in the rainforest that depend on it. But Bolsonaro’s given no indication that he cares, which is unsurprising, considering that hours after he took power in 2018, he signed a decree to give the power to designate Indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Amid the continuing spread of covid-19, doctors are also concerned that other viruses that could cause pandemics could also be hidden in the Amazon. Increased deforestation could unleash them onto the world through transmission by wild animals.
“In the Amazon, there is an immense amount of virus[es]. With the level of aggression that we are doing to the environment, the next epidemic is already on its way,” said Gonçalo Vecina, former president of Anvisa, the federal agency for health control, in a statement.
The forest burning itself can also create health problems, as setting the massive fires can create air pollution which causes respiratory issues.
This is all, of course, also terrible news for the climate. Since trees sequester carbon, the Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. But when trees catch fire, they release all that carbon back into the atmosphere, where it warms up the climate. To make matters even worse, the climate crisis has contributed to the remaining forest of the Amazon becoming drier, which could also threaten ecosystems and carbon sequestration potential. Scientists have warned that the Amazon may not be able to adapt to those shifting conditions.
“Brazil is the world’s seventh biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and 45% of Brazil’s emissions come from deforestation,” said Angelo. “For the climate, deforestation is a catastrophe.”