Brazil has fought deforestation in the Amazon for more than a decade. The country’s scientists were able to develop a system to monitor the rainforest and control deforestation. From 2005 to 2012, Brazil managed to reduce up to 83% of deforestation. But, when far-right president Jair Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018, the Amazon was put at risk again. Tens of thousands of man-made fires ravaged the rainforest in 2019 alone.
Bolsonaro has been accused of being anti-environmentalist. He has even encouraged cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers to expand their businesses by clearing new land in the Amazon. Today, deforestation in Amazon is worse than ever before.
Amazon Deforestation is at its Highest Rate in More Than a Decade
The Amazon plays a huge role in regulating the world’s oxygen and carbon cycles. Scientists say that it acts as a carbon sink where it can readily absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While the Amazon covers only 4% of the Earth’s surface, it contains a third of all known terrestrial plant, animal, and insect species. Also, the rainforest contains 10% of all biomass on our planet, meaning when deforestation takes place, the vast amount of carbon that the forest stores is released into the atmosphere, which can contribute to global warming.
Brazil is facing more pressure from other countries to curb deforestation. According to Mongabay, a nonprofit provider of conservation and environmental science news, Brazil has the largest share of Amazon forest loss between 2010 to 2017 with 76%. It is followed by Bolivia (10%), Peru (7%), and Colombia (4%). A 2019 report from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) revealed that deforestation in the Amazon increased by nearly 30% between August 2018 and through July 2019 compared to the 12 months prior - marking the highest rate of deforestation since 2008.
With the increasing deforestation rates in the Amazon, scientists fear that it is closer to a tipping point where it will enter an irreversible cycle of collapse known as dieback. Currently, between 15% and 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost. If this increases to 25%, there won’t be enough trees cycling moisture through the rainforest, causing it to dry out and degrade into a savanna. The number of wildfires is also increasing every year, which is mainly due to human activity.
Activists said that the recent spike in deforestation and forest fires is being used as a tactic to drive indigenous people who live in the rainforest off their lands. They are worried this might get worse under Bolsonaro, considering the fact that violence against indigenous people increased under his term. According to Vox, a liberal-leaning American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, in the first nine months of the administration, the number of illegal natural resource extraction, land incursions, and property damage in indigenous areas doubled.
“Even in the face of an alarming scenario for the Amazon, with increased fires, deforestation, invasions of protected areas, and violence against Indigenous Peoples, the government hasn’t presented any consistent policy to protect the forest and its peoples; on the contrary, the government is taking the side of environmental crime,” Cristiane Mazzetti, an Amazon campaigner for Greenpeace, said.
Amazon Deforestation Spikes
Recent reports revealed that the Amazon has already lost 300 square miles of forest this year, up by 55% than at this point last year. While we think that illegal activities would halt during this pandemic, reports show that the situation is getting worse. Data from INPE’s DETER deforestation monitoring system revealed that the total area of deforestation detected during the past year is 9,152 sq km, the highest level for a 12-month period since May 2008 when 9,190 sq km were lost.
Many illegal loggers have used this pandemic to invade indigenous lands and protected areas in Brazil. Despite growing concerns that reduced protection in the Amazon could lead to a surge in deforestation, Brazil recently announced that it will be reducing efforts to fight environmental crimes during the coronavirus outbreak. One of the reasons behind this decision was the lack of enforcement personnel that can be sent to the field.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, Olivaldi Azevedo, the director of environmental protection at Ibama environmental agency, said that one-third of Ibama’s field operatives are at greater risk for severe symptoms of the virus because they are close to 60 years old or had medical conditions. He added that the agency wasn’t able to hire agents for the past few years due to government budget cuts.
“There’s no way you can take these people who are at risk and expose them to the virus. There is no choice between one thing and the other. It’s an obligation,” Azevedo said.
Current reports also show that with the increasing deforestation in the Amazon, the indigenous groups living there are more at risk. A group of Karipuna recently filed a complaint to authorities over forest clearing within their indigenous reserve in Rondônia. They also confirmed at least seven cases of the deadly virus in their areas. The destruction has fueled the spread because it destroys key habitats wildlife rely on. Thus, the illegal activities not only threaten the sustainability of the rainforest but also the health and safety of the indigenous people who live there.
“Weakening enforcement definitely means a greater risk of deforestation for obvious reasons,” environmental economist Sergio Margulis, the author of a paper on the causes of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, said.
While Antonio Donato Nobre, one of Brazil's leading scientists who has studied the Amazon, believes that there is still hope for the rainforest, he said that time is fast running out. According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, not only is he mad with his own government but also with what he describes as the massive conspiracy on climate change perpetrated over the years by the oil, gas and coal companies.
"They brought us to this situation knowingly. It's not something they did out of irresponsible ignorance. They paid to bash the science,” Nobre said.