Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has jumped to a 15-year high, according to figures that raise fresh questions about Brasília’s commitment to ending the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.
More than 13,200 sq km of rainforest was razed in the 12 months between August last year and July — a 22 per cent jump from the previous year and the highest rate of deforestation since 2006 — according to the data released on Thursday by the National Institute for Space Research.
In the past three years, Brazil has lost more than 30,000 sq km of tree cover in the rainforest — an area the size of Belgium — mostly at the hands of illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, gold miners and land grabbers.
The stark data comes just weeks after Brazil won plaudits for its commitments at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, including a pledge to eradicate illegal deforestation by the end of this decade, if not earlier.
While hailed by diplomats, the pledges were met by scepticism from environmental campaigners, who highlighted that President Jair Bolsonaro regularly signals his support to those tearing down the forest.
One week before the COP summit, the rightwing populist leader met gold miners in a camp in the northern Amazonian state of Roraima.
“Since his election campaign, Bolsonaro has been saying he is against [environmental protection groups] Ibama and ICMBio and any type of monitoring in the field. This has the power to greatly accelerate the situation [regarding deforestation],” said one environmental enforcement officer based in the rainforest.
“Today, these illegal groups firmly believe that they can deforest or mine in protected areas or inside indigenous lands. That’s the big change, and I actually think it’s the worst change that could happen.”
Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, said the data released on Thursday reflected the “results of a persistent, planned and continuous efforts” by the Bolsonaro administration to hollow out the nation’s environmental protection policies.
“Unlike the propaganda that the government and its allies took to COP26 in Glasgow, this is the real Brazil, from the scorched earth to the out of control organised crime in the Amazon,” he said.
Joaquim Leite, Brazil’s environment minister, said the data did not reflect the government’s more recent efforts to combat deforestation, including the hiring of 700 more environmental enforcement agents and the allocation of greater funding to the country’s environmental protection bodies.
“The results have yet to show up in the numbers. We are going to start executing budgets worth millions [of reais] for Ibama and ICMBio to make them more modern,” he said.
The issue is likely to increasingly weigh on Brazil’s international relations, particularly with European nations.
Earlier this week Virginijus Sinkevicius, the EU’s commissioner for the environment and oceans, told the Financial Times that Brussels sought to ban imports of foods, such as beef and soyabeans, from areas at risk of deforestation.
Draft legislation being considered by the bloc would, if passed, force companies to prove that products they sold into the EU’s single market did not contribute to legal and illegal deforestation or forest degradation through agricultural use.
Cutting across nine Latin American nations and home to an estimated 390bn trees, the Amazon rainforest acts as a huge carbon sink for emissions from all over the world.
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