Worrying New Data Suggests Amazon Deforestation Rates Are Spiking

Illustration for article titled Worrying New Data Suggests Amazon Deforestation Rates Are Spiking
Photo: AP

The election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far right wing president, sparked concerns that the Amazon and the people who live there would be under siege by fossil fuel, mining, timber, and agriculture interests. Unfortunately, new data suggests that those fears might be very well founded.


Brazil’s own satellite agency that monitors the Amazon released deforestation rates for May. The data show that it’s the biggest May spike in deforestation in recent years with 285 square miles of rainforest—the equivalent of wiping out all of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park—chopped down in just 31 days. That’s a concern for the planet’s defense against climate change as well as the natural world and people who live in the region.

May is the unfortunate start to deforestation season in Brazil, which is the first of the three generally driest months in the Amazon. But this May is a particularly pressing one to watch because it’s the first one where Bolsonaro has been in power. He won Brazil’s election last year on a platform of opening up the Amazon for more resource extraction and curtailing indigenous land rights, something he followed through on in his first hours in office in January.

In the intervening months, Bolsonaro installed a foreign minister who, like him, denies climate change, and an environmental minister who has called it a “secondary issue” while also arguing that—in the words of Bloomberg—Brazil owes the world nothing on the issue despite being the world’s 11th largest carbon emitter. Bolsonaro’s election, his cabinet appointments, and the drop in fines for corporate polluters have all been signals the Amazon is open for business.

It’s against this backdrop that May’s deforestation data came out. And while one month does not a trend make, the results are still worrying. The deforestation this May is 25 percent higher than it was last May and double what it was two years ago.

“If this upward curve continues, we could have a bad year for the Amazon forest,” Claudio Almeida, head of the Brazil space agency’s satellite monitoring program, said in the Sydney Morning Herald.

That’s not to say this is all Bolsonaro’s doing, though. Deforestation hit a 10-year high in the Brazilian Amazon last year, though it’s still below deforestation rates from the early 2000s when the Amazon resembled a cut your own Christmas tree farm and lost around 7,800 square miles of rainforest per year on average. Bolsonaro’s policies may help speed deforestation along, but he’s certainly not the root cause of the problem.


It’s a problem that affects us all, however. The Amazon is responsible for a quarter of all carbon dioxide soaked up by land around the world, making it a key ecosystem for combatting climate change. The forest has also shown difficulty adapting to rising temperatures and drier conditions. Deforestation just puts more stress on the system, increasing the risk that it all falls apart.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.



It’s collapsed before, too. During the last glacial epoch, it disintegrated into a patchwork of forested areas amidst a tropical savanna grassland.