Deforestation in the Amazon has ramped up in the first half of 2019 with one hectare, or roughly the area of a professional soccer field, being destroyed every minute according to satellite data. Much of the land is cleared in order to graze cattle or plant crops for export like soy beans.
Since the early 2000s, Brazil has worked to reduce the amount of deforestation. In 2004, reports Anthony Boadle and Lisandra Paraguassu at Reuters, about 10,400 square miles were lost. Between July 2017 and July 2018, that had dropped to about 3,050 square miles. It’s estimated that between 2008 and 2015 deforestation in the region dropped by 75 percent.
But year-over-year comparisons of satellite data showed that deforestation in May 2019 was twice that of two years before. “If this upward curve continues, we could have a bad year for the Amazon forest,” Claudio Almeida, head of Brazil’s space research institute satellite monitoring program INPE said. “It will depend on how much policing there is in the next two critical months.”
David Shukman at the BBC reports that it’s no coincidence that the land clearing has seen an uptick under the government of Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro. A senior Brazilian environmenal official speaking anonymously tells Shukman that the government is actively encouraging the deforestation while failing to enforce environmental regulations or police forest reserves. In the past, Bolsonaro and his ministers have openly criticized the rising penalties for illegal logging and environmental violations in the forest. They believe the Amazon is overprotected and that the vast region should be exploited to help the Brazilian economy. In particular, they support the rights of small farmers to clear the land for agriculture.
But that type of agriculture is not sustainable since the soil beneath the forest is poor. After a short time of farming or grazing, farmers often abandon the cleared land and raze another section of forest.
The Amazon rainforest is the most biodiverse spot on Earth, home to one in 10 species. It’s also considered the “lungs of the planet,” with the 2.1 million square mile forest sucking up vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Because of that, many consider the Amazon globally important, and governments and activists from around the world are involved in its preservation.
But the new Brazilian government rejects outsider claims on the forest. In May, Bolsonaro’s security advisor General Augusto Heleno Pereira told Bloomberg, “I don’t accept this idea that the Amazon is world heritage, this is nonsense. The Amazon is Brazilian, the heritage of Brazil and should be dealt with by Brazil for the benefit of Brazil.”
Even so, researchers from other nations are invested in protecting the forest. Norway recently announced that its government is commissioning high-resolution satellite monitoring to detect tropical deforestation, part of a multi-billion dollar commitment to save rainforests around the world, Terje Solsvik at Reuters reports.
Over the next four years, the country will spend $53 million for the satellite images that will be made available for free to governments, researchers and individuals. “The catastrophic loss we’re seeing now simply can’t continue,” Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen says. “The purpose is to give us all a better insight into what’s happening in the forests and improve our ability to save them.”