More than 3700 square kilometres of forest has been deforested this year, an area about a fifth the size of Wales, preliminary satellite data indicates. Even before figures for the whole of July are in, the losses for the first seven months of the year are up 16 per cent on the recent high of 3183 square kilometres in 2016.
The world’s greatest rainforest is not only home to a rich diversity of species and around 400 indigenous groups, but is also a vast store of carbon that is vital for tackling climate change. Increasing deforestation of the Amazon makes reducing our global carbon emissions much harder, says Mark Maslin of University College London.
Deforestation in the region appears to be accelerating by the month, with July being exceptionally bad. More than 1250 square kilometres has been lost in the first 22 days, up more than 100 per cent on the whole of July last year, figures from Brazilian space agency INPE show.
Deforestation in the Amazon has accelerated rapidly in July
The method of data collection is designed for agencies to quickly detect and act on deforestation on the ground, rather than for tracking annual trends in deforestation. However, experts say it looks likely that the full year’s data will show a big increase when released.
Bolsonaro has said the rainforest should be exploited “in a reasonable way”, has threatened to integrate indigenous people and has sought to reduce the size of scores of protected areas. The law hasn’t changed – Brazil’s decades-old forest code means landowners face fines if more than a fifth of their land is deforested – but observers say the political rhetoric has emboldened people to act without fear of enforcement.
The change in government rhetoric – that this is a new frontier, that we aren’t going to worry about the protections, that this is a needed resource – is driving landowners and entrepreneurs to deforest because there is a lack of threat of government intervention, says Maslin.
“What we are observing is shocking but not a surprise,” says Carlos Rittl of the Climate Observatory, a São Paulo-based umbrella group of non-governmental organisations. The number of government enforcement operations in the Amazon region was down 70 per cent between January and April compared with the same period last year, he discovered via a freedom of information request to Brazil’s environment agency, IBAMA.
“What we can tell is people are feeling more enabled by the government,” says Erika Berenguer at the University of Oxford, who met landowners during a recent visit to Brazil.
The state of Pará has seen the worst deforestation in 2019
Individual cases of deforestation this year have been detected by satellite monitoring beyond Brazil’s own schemes. The Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) lab at the University of Maryland had 75 per cent more real-time deforestation alerts in June than last year. “We’re definitely seeing a lot more alerts,” says Mikaela Weisse of the US-based non-profit World Resources Institute, which works with the lab.
Clearing land for beef production is the big driver, says Berenguer, rather than the value of the timber or making space to produce palm oil or soybean. Typically, gangs use a chain slung between two tractors to knock down trees quickly and at an industrial scale. Once the felled trees are dry enough, they are burned to leave the ground clear for cattle ranching.
It isn’t possible using satellite data alone to say that the clearance is definitely for ranching, but Weisse says the straight shapes and the size of the areas follow the same trend as land cleared for cattle pastures in the past.
Deforestation Eastern Amazonia, picked up by GLAD in June. The pink areas are those where satellites have detected probable recent deforestation.
Another threat is a row over the Amazon fund, a scheme that has been running for 11 years and received more than $1 billion of investment from the Norwegian and German governments. This money is distributed to projects by non-governmental organisations and Brazilian state agencies to prevent deforestation, but Brazil’s environment ministry accused the fund of management irregularities in May, raising fears it may be shut down. “That may lead to deforestation from a different angle,” says Berenguer.
The government has also criticised the quality of deforestation tracking schemes, with one minister claiming data is being “manipulated”.
While no agency was named, INPE is the main body tracking deforestation by satellites. Researchers told New Scientist the claims are unfounded and INPE is considered the “gold standard” in monitoring forest loss in the tropics. The agency runs two data sets, DETER for real-time alerts and enforcement, and PRODES, which provides official annual deforestation rates.
Berenguer says PRODES is considered the best set because of the resolution it provides. Looking at a single month of DETER data doesn’t always give an accurate picture because of issues with cloud cover, but several months together gives a clearer trend. Researchers say the signs from DETER suggest that when the PRODES data set is released later this year – covering the start of August 2018 to the end of July 2019 – it will show an increase, perhaps of as much as 10 per cent on the year before.
Amazon deforestation 2004-2018
The scale of the loss will still be relatively small compared with the early noughties, when tens of thousands of square kilometres were being deforested annually. But it will mark a significant departure from the past decade of relatively low and stable deforestation.
Fred Arruda, the ambassador of Brazil to the UK, pointed to the fact that deforestation had reduced by 72 per cent between 2004 and 2018. “The historic trend is undeniably still quite positive. Nonetheless, we acknowledge the challenges ahead of us – which are made no easier by the sheer size of the territory – and we have been working to make sure our historic trend remains on track.”
The accelerating deforestation is already affecting indigenous people, says Fiona Watson of the charity Survival International. “I think it’s a real war out there,” says Watson, who has just been to Brazil.
A spokesperson for the Uru Eu Wau Wau, a group in the northern state of Rondônia, told Watson they had been told by one land-grabber that “Bolsonaro won the election and there is no [goverment] organisation which is going to defend the Indians”.
This footage released by Survival International today shows members of the uncontacted Awá tribe, who live in an area surrounded by deforestation. It was filmed in August 2018.