Amazon deforestation in Brazil stays near 15-year high

Data from Climate Observatory network of environmental groups shows that, in the four years of outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership, deforestation rose 60% over the previous four years.

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Smoke rises from a forest fire in September in in the Transamazonica highway region in the municipality of Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed slightly last year, a year after a 15-year high.

Smoke rises from a forest fire in September in in the Transamazonica highway region in the municipality of Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed slightly last year, a year after a 15-year high.

Edmar Barros / AP

RIO DE JANEIRO — Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed slightly last year, a year after a 15-year high, according to new data from the National Institute for Space Research.

The agency’s Prodes monitoring system shows the rainforest lost an area roughly the size of Qatar, 4,500 square miles in the 12 months from August 2021 to July 2022.

That’s down 11% from the previous year, when more than 5,000 square miles were destroyed.

For more than a decade, it looked like things were getting better for the Brazilian Amazon. Deforestation had declined dramatically.

That was before the presidency of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, which began in January 2019 and, now that he has lost his reelection bid, will end Jan. 1.

But part of the destruction that took place on his watch won’t appear until next year, including the key months this year from August to October. A preview of those months comes from a different federal satellite system that issues faster but less accurate data. It shows deforestation skyrocketed 45% over the August-October period the prior year. Traditionally, that time of year sees peak destruction due to the dry season.

An analysis of the new yearly data from Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, shows that, in the four years of Bolsonaro’s leadership, deforestation rose 60% over the previous four years. That is the largest percentage rise under a presidency since satellite monitoring began in 1998.

In one state, Para, a high rate of destruction went down by 21%. Yet it was still the center of one-third of all Brazil’s Amazon forest loss.

Part of the tree-cutting and burning happens in areas that are ostensibly protected. One such area is Paru State Forest, where the nonprofit Amazon Institute of People and the Environment registered 0.7 square mile of deforestation in just October.

“In recent years, deforestation has reached protected areas where previously there was almost no destruction,” said Jacqueline Pereira, a researcher with the Amazon Institute. “In Paru’s region, the destruction is driven by lease of land for soybean crops and cattle.”

Most Amazon deforestation occurs alongside roads where access is easier and land value is higher.

Researchers and environmentalists have blamed Bolsonaro’s policies for the surge in deforestation. The administration weakened environmental agencies and backed legislative measures to loosen land protections in the name of economic development, paired with a view of occupying a sparsely populated territory at any cost. This policy has emboldened land robbers and spurred more illegal mining.

Bolsonaro’s successor, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, promised cheering crowds at the recent U.N. climate conference in Egypt to end all deforestation in the whole country by 2030.

When da Silva previously was president, from 2003 to 2010, deforestation fell sharply. But he also backed initiatives that set in motion destruction in the long run, such as the construction of the mammoth Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and generous loans to the beef industry. Chopping down forest for pasture is the primary driver of deforestation.

The Amazon rainforest, which covers an area twice the size of India, acts as a buffer against climate change by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. It’s also the most biodiverse forest in the world and the home of tribes who have lived in the forest for thousands of years.

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