Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high this year, government data showed on Monday, with destruction soaring since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental enforcement.
Destruction of the world’s largest rainforest this year rose 9.5 percent from a year earlier to 11,088km2, according to data from Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, seven times the size of London.
That means Brazil is to miss its own target, established under a 2009 climate change law, to reduce deforestation to about 3,900km2. The consequences for missing the target are not laid out in the law, but could leave the Brazilian government open to lawsuits.
The official annual measure, known as PRODES, is taken by comparing satellite images from the end of July with those from the beginning of August last year. The dates are chosen to coincide with the Amazon’s dry season, when there is less cloud cover to interfere with the calculations.
The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and its protection is crucial to stopping catastrophic climate change because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs.
The latest annual destruction is a substantial increase from the 7,536km2 that were deforested in 2018, the year before Bolsonaro took office.
While environmentalists blamed the government for the rise, Brazilian officials hailed the data as a sign of progress, as the increase was far lower than the 34 percent rise recorded last year.
“While we are not here to celebrate this, it does signify that the efforts we are making are beginning to bear fruit,” Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao told reporters at the institute’s headquarters in the Sao Paulo satellite city of Sao Jose dos Campos.
Bolsonaro has weakened the environmental enforcement agency, and has called for the introduction more commercial farming and mining in the Amazon region, arguing that it would lift the region out of poverty. Environmentalists say this has emboldened illegal ranchers and miners.
“The PRODES figures show that Bolsonaro’s plan worked. They reflect the result of a successful initiative to annihilate the capacity of the Brazilian State and the inspection bodies to take care of our forests and fight crime in the Amazon,” Brazilian non-governmental organization Climate Observatory said.
Bolsonaro’s main response to global outcry over Amazon destruction has been to send in the military, who were first deployed last year, and are expected to remain in the region fighting deforestation and forest fires until April.
Mourao said that the government is planning further measures to combat deforestation after the military operation ends in April, without giving details.
European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron have fiercely criticized Brazil, arguing that it is not doing enough to protect the forest.
The election of Joe Biden as US president has raised the possibility that Washington would also ramp up the pressure on Brazil.
Biden said in a debate that the world should offer Brazil money to fund efforts to stop deforestation and threatened economic consequences against the Latin American nation if it did not. The comment drew fierce criticism from Bolsonaro, who said it was a threat against Brazil’s sovereignty.
“Let’s remember that the future [US] president knows our country,” Mourao said on Monday, speaking about Biden. “He is a person with whom we will establish a dialogue at some point without major problems.”
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