Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest increased this year to its highest rate since 2008, according to data released this week by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE). The data reveal that Amazon deforestation rose by 30% compared to last year.
In the period from August 2018 to July 2019, 9,762 square kilometres of forest was lost in Brazil’s Amazon. In 2008, an area of 12,911 km2 was lost.
The danger is that at some point, the Amazon will reach a tipping point at which it will no longer produce enough rainfall to sustain itself. In February 2018, in the journal Science Advances Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre wrote that,
“We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.”
The area of the Amazon lost to deforestation reached more than 17% in 2018. Lovejoy and Nobre note that the severe droughts in 2005, 2010, and 2015-2016 could be “the first flickers of this ecological flicking point”.
They add that, “there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it”.
How the government tried to play down the jump in deforestation
The deforestation figures were announced at INPE on 18 November 2019. Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister announced the deforestation figures in front of a graph of deforestation going back to 1988:
Compared to the area deforested in 1995 (29,059 km2) or 2004 (27,772 km2) the current rate of deforestation is low. But deforestation has more than doubled since 2012.
O Globo reports that Salles blames the increase in deforestation on illegal economic activities:
“The reason for the increase is known from 2012 onwards: the pressure of economic activities, mostly illegal. We need strategies to contain this.”
That’s disingenuous of Salles. He knows that since Brazil’s far right president Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), which is overseen by the environment ministry, has seen a 25% cut in its budget.
IBAMA has issued fewer fines for deforestation this year, despite the increase in the rate of deforestation.
In a statement, Cristiane Mazzetti of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign comments that,
“We are reaping what the government has planted since the election campaign. Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental project has scrapped the ability to combat deforestation, favours those who practice environmental crime and encourages violence against forest peoples. Your government is trashing practically all the work it has done in recent decades to protect the environment.”
In August 2019, the head of INPE, Ricardo Galvão, was sacked after INPE reported that the deforestation rate in June had shot up by 88%. Bolsonaro accused INPE of making up the figures to make him look bad.
Five days after he was sacked, Galvão told the Guardian that,
“What is happening is that this government has sent a clear message that there will not be any more punishment [for environmental crimes] like before … This government is sending a very clear message that the control of deforestation will not be like it was in the past …. And when the loggers hear this message that they will no longer be supervised as they were in the past, they penetrate [the rainforest].”
And just in case you’re wondering whether REDD might be the answer to Brazil’s deforestation: