For Brazil, the coronavirus epidemic isn’t only a health crisis. While the country has already 179,000 confirmed cases and 12,000 deaths, the environment is also taking a toll, with an increase of logging and mining operations.
Environmental organizations said the pandemic has provided a cover for extractive activities across the country, blaming Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for what they say has been a tacit approval of deforestation in the Amazon region.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon soared by 55% in the first four months of the year compared to the same period last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Destruction in April was up by 64% from the same month a year ago. A total of 5,606 square kilometers of forest have been lost since the “deforestation year” began August 1, 2019, the highest on record for this time of year. Forest loss in Brazil has now risen 13 consecutive months relative to year-earlier figures.
Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, acknowledged that government data showed rising deforestation this year and said the coronavirus pandemic had “aggravated” the situation, without explaining exactly how. He said he was confident in the government’s actions to lower deforestation.
“Government agencies are in quarantine, the population is in quarantine, good people are in quarantine — but the criminals are not, so they are taking advantage of this momentum to increase their activity,” said André Guimarães, the head of Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit organization.
The Brazilian state of Amazonas has been one of the hardest-hit regions of the country by the coronavirus pandemic, with many of the country’s resources going to fighting the virus. Campaigners fear this may mean that less attention is being given to the deforestation.
Fernando Azevedo, Brazil’s Defense Minister, said armed forces were establishing bases in three Amazon cities, with 3,800 troops mobilized against illegal logging and other crimes, at an initial cost of $10 million. The military is currently authorized for deployment for 30 days until 10 June but this could be extended.
“We have no doubt this problem will continue to exist,” the vice president said. “We don’t consider this the best job for the armed forces, to be always engaged in this type of action, but unfortunately it’s the means we have to limit these crimes from happening.”
Last year, over 10,000 square kilometers of forest were lost to fires and illegal deforestation. The vast majority of losses took place between May and October. Experts are concerned about the scale of destruction so far this year, since deforestation is normally hampered during these months due to the high rainfall.
Brazil’s environmental agency has seen large staffing and budget cuts since Bolsonaro’s tenure as president began. Environmentalists have repeatedly said that supporting Brazil’s environmental protection agencies would be a more effective plan than sending in military forces.