Deforestation of Amazon Rainforest Accelerates Under Brazil’s Bolsonaro

For the third consecutive year, Brazil is on pace to raze over 3,861 square miles of forest in the Amazon.

Amazon Deforestation for Cattle

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When the modern environmental movement was born in the 1970s, the Amazon rainforest quickly became its poster child thanks to mass deforestation in Brazil. Decades later, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is still a perfect if alarming proxy for the climate crisis writ large—and still a major roadblock to a healthy planet, according to Brazil’s National Institue for Space Research, INPE, which this month published new data showing accelerating deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon despite a half-century of activism against it. 

In June 2021, INPE’s system of forest-watching satellites detected 410 square miles (1,062 square kilometers) of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which represents an increase of 1.8% compared to June 2020. Furthermore, its data show that deforestation in the region has increased 17% year to date, totaling 1,394 square miles (3,610 square kilometers)—an area more than four times the size of New York City, according to Reuters, whose reporting on the subject attributes the spike in deforestation to the pro-development policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In addition to endorsing mining and agriculture in protected areas of the Amazon, it says, he has weakened environment enforcement agencies and obstructed Brazil’s system for fining environmental offenders.

The data speaks for itself. Since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has exploded, according to the nonprofit environmental news outlet Mongabay, which compared INPE data from Bolsonaro’s presidency to INPE data from the tenure of former President Dilma Rousseff. During the first 30 months of Rousseff’s first term, which lasted from January 2011 to June 2013, INPE detected approximately 2,317 square miles (6,000 square kilometers) of deforestation. During the first 30 months of her second term, during which she was replaced in office by former President Michel Temer, INPE detected over 5,019 square miles (13,000 square kilometers) of deforestation. During the first 30 months of Bolsonaro’s term, deforestation totaled over 8,108 square miles (21,000 square kilometers).

Under Bolsonaro, annual deforestation for the third consecutive year is expected to surpass 3,861 square miles (10,000 square kilometers), which has not occurred since 2008, according to the advocacy group Climate Observatory.

“From the beginning, the Bolsonaro regime has sabotaged the environmental inspection bodies and adopted measures to favor those who destroy our forests,” Climate Observatory Executive Secretary Marcio Astrini said in a statement following the release of INPE’s June data. “The high rates of deforestation do not happen by chance; they are the result of a government project. Bolsonaro is the Amazon’s worst enemy today.”

Exacerbating Bolsonaro’s impact on the Amazon are natural weather patterns, according to Reuters, which says Brazil is about to enter its annual dry season, which peaks in August and September. It’s common to burn deforested areas to clear them for agriculture or development, and during that time fires can easily spread from deforested to forested land.

“Almost 5,000 square kilometers of area deforested since 2019 has not yet burned—meaning those areas are tinderboxes of fuel waiting for a spark. Many of these fuel-heavy areas are adjacent to standing forests, making them prime locations for fires to jump from cleared land to remaining forest,” explains a fire season forecast by the Woodwell Climate Research Center and the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). “The Brazilian federal government has authorized the use of military forces to combat deforestation over the next two months. They have also declared a nationwide fire ban. However, fires continued to escalate under a similar ban last year, highlighting the need for more effective strategies.”

Yet another factor in a complicated equation is drought. “To make matters worse, the southern Amazon this year has been experiencing drought conditions,” continues the Woodwell and IPAM analysis. “The drought has … been exacerbated by increasing average temperatures due to climate change. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation and reduce soil moisture, which increases flammability. Droughts like this will place increasing pressure on remaining forests, particularly in the southern Amazon.”

In that way, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is a vicious circle: Razing rainforests reduce the Earth’s capacity to naturally capture and sequester carbon. That leaves the planet more susceptible to climate change, which in turn makes rainforests vulnerable to even more destruction.

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