Despite the pandemic, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil reached a dire record: a 12-year high. The news drew widespread condemnation of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his support of industrial and agricultural policies at the expense of the environment.
'The Amazon is ours', Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro famously said in 2019 -- cautioning other countries to mind their own business. The overall attitude of the administration was clear: the environment is the least of concerns, and as many areas as possible must be opened for mining, agriculture, and logging. It's unsurprising, then, that the Amazon is experiencing record deforestation.
A total of 4,281 square miles (11,088 square kilometers) of the forest were destroyed in Brazil’s share of the Amazon in the 12 months to August 2020, according to Brazil’s space agency PRODES monitoring program, which monitors deforestation. This was a 9.5% increase from the previous year, when deforestation also broke a record.
"Because of such deforestation, Brazil is probably the only major greenhouse gas emitter that managed to increase its emissions in the year the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the global economy," said the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental groups, in a statement.
But while most of the Amazon is indeed in Brazil, the rainforest affects all of us. Rainforests like the Amazon play a key role in controlling climate as they absorb carbon, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, when they die or burn, trees release carbon back into the environment. This and its valuable biodiversity made world leaders call for the protection of the Amazon.
While the new figures are preliminary and will be confirmed early next year, they clash against Brazil’s goal to slow the speed of deforestation to 3,900 square kilometers per year by 2020. The figures came just as Vice President Hamilton Mourao presented the figures in a press conference and assured the government is fighting deforestation.
"The message I bring in the name of President Bolsonaro is that we will continue working with science and technology to support the work of environmental protection agencies," said Mourao in a press conference, a retired army general who heads Bolsonaro's Amazon task force against deforestation.
But many aren't buying it. Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian environmentalist at Germany’s Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, told The Guardian that the numbers were a clear sign of the damage being done to the environment since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. The area deforested this year is a third the size of Belgium, he estimated.
Bolsonaro came to power last year promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA, recently replacing its managers and coordinators.
Back in May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles claiming the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video was disclosed as part of a Supreme Court investigation.
Environmental groups have called the government to better penalize the major loggers in order to truly protect the Amazon, using not only sanctions but also blocking bank accounts, for example -- because fines just won't cut it. A study by InfoAmazonia showed that as of 2019, only 3% of the fines imposed since 1980 were actually paid, and the government isn't taking any real measures to enforce the fines.
International pressure has mounted on Brazil so far this year to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.
French President Emmanuel Macron has fiercely questioned Brazil, claiming it’s not doing enough to protect the forest. At the same time, United States president-elect Joe Biden said in the presidential debate this year that the world should offer Brazil money to fund efforts to stop deforestation. Macron is just one of many international voices criticizing Brazil's current administration for their lack of environmental policies.