Brazilian Amazon hit by worst deforestation rate in a decade

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Preliminary figures released by the Brazilian government reveal that deforestation in the Amazon has reached its highest rate in a decade, with the Environment Minister Edson Duarte blaming “organised crime”.

Between August 2017 and July 2018, 7,900 square kilometres of native forest were lost mostly to illegal logging and agricultural expansion. This represents a 13.7 percent rise on the previous year and is the highest level seen since 2008.

The size of the forest loss is equivalent to 987,000 football pitches or more than half the territory of Jamaica.

In an official statement, Environment Minister Edson Duarte said that, “in addition to intensifying enforcement operations as the federal government has been doing in recent years, we need to mobilise all levels of government, society and the productive sector to combat environmental crimes and defend the biome’s sustainable development”.

Unsurprisingly, the worst affected states are Pará, Mato Grosso and Rondônia, part of the Amazon ‘arc of deforestation’, an area of millions of square kilometres that has suffered heavy forest loss in recent decades to cattle ranching, grain crops – especially soy – logging, mining and infrastructure projects. These three states account for nearly three quarters – or 5,903 square kilometres – of the deforestation during 2017-2018.

Worryingly, Amazonas state is the fourth most affected, with the loss of 1,045 square kilometres of native forest. The state, the largest in the Brazilian Amazon and previously thought to be safe from large-scale forest loss, has witnessed a recent expansion of cattle ranching, logging and mining. This has led many to believe that a new frontline of deforestation is opening up in the north of Brazil – to date the greatest deforestation rates have taken place in the ‘arc of deforestation’ that sweeps across the southern borders of the biome.

The numbers were released by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which carries out annual analyses of deforestation in the Amazon. In the past, analyses by Global Forest Watch have shown that INPE’s numbers can be an underestimate as they only include areas of forest loss that are larger than 6.5 hectares and ignore forest degradation from fire. In 2017, for example, GFW detected deforestation of 3.47 million hectares, compared to INPE’s 690,000, although part of this is explained by the fact that the former measures forest loss from January to December, while INPE uses August to July.

Greenpeace has laid the blame for current deforestation trends on the federal government and the agribusiness lobby in congress, which have adopted a series of measures to undermine protected areas, starve enforcement agencies of resources and give amnesty to illegal deforesters.

This decade-high rate of deforestation, although widely anticipated by conservationists documenting increasing levels of forest loss in the Amazon throughout 2018, comes at uncertain times for Brazil’s forests and indigenous peoples. Minister Edson Duarte’s calls for government to mobilise around environmental protection could fall on deaf years.

Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president-elect to be inaugurated on 1 January, has pledged to weaken environmental protections and enforcement in order to boost the country’s agribusiness sector, one of his main political backers.

In Amazonas state, for example, things could get worse if Bolsonaro keeps his promise to water down environmental impact assessments for infrastructure projects. This would make way for the paving of motorway BR-319 without putting in place the necessary protective measures, facilitating illegal land conversion by land grabbers, cattle ranchers and miners.

As Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brasil’s public policy coordinator, has told the Guardian, “the situation is very worrying… what is bad will get worse.” Recent simulations conducted by INPE’s researchers show that deforestation under Bolsonaro could increase threefold, taking the country back to the record levels of deforestation seen before 2004.

Nonetheless, as IDM’s ‘Brazil in Focus” shows, conservationists and some government officials remain hopeful that Bolsonaro and his agribusiness backers will face stiff resistance from several corners. The struggle for the future of the Amazon is about to heat up.