A Brazilian industry COVID-19 hasn’t stopped: deforestation in the Amazon

Tuesday, April 14th 2020 – 08:40 UTCFull article

Destruction in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon rose 30% in March, compared to the same month a year ago, according to the country’s space research agency, INPE.Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose in March, government data showed on Friday, indicating that illegal loggers and land speculators have not stopped destroying the forest with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.

Destruction in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon rose 30% in March, compared to the same month a year ago, according to the country’s space research agency, INPE.

In the first three months of the year, Amazon deforestation was up 51% from a year ago to 796 square kilometers, an area roughly the size of New York City.

Brazil confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus on Feb. 28, and the disease reached the Amazon region by mid-March. Authorities in Amazonas, the largest state in the rainforest region, warned that the health system there was already at the brink of capacity with roughly 900 confirmed cases of the virus.

The coronavirus outbreak is upending virtually all segments of the Brazilian economy, but not environmental destruction, said Carlos Nobre, an earth systems scientist at the University of Sao Paulo.

“The data doesn’t show a strong impact like we’re seeing across every other sector of the economy,” he said. “We are not seeing this with deforestation, which continues to be high.”

The country’s environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, said last month that it was sending fewer agents into the field to combat environmental crimes like illegal logging as a precaution during the outbreak, leading researchers to fear that deforestation would grow unchecked. Ibama said the cutbacks would happen elsewhere and not affect the Amazon.

Reduced policing and an expected economic recession, leading more people to risk criminal activity to make money, could boost destruction, said Carlos Souza Jr., a researcher at the non-profit Amazon institute Imazon.

The powerful Brazilian farm lobby contends that deforestation is committed by criminals with tenuous connections to agriculture, but is nevertheless worried it risks hurting the image of Brazilian farm products globally, said President Marcello Brito of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association.

The rise in deforestation during the rainy season, which generally extends through April, is a worrisome sign for the dry season, Brito said.


Rainforest under threat


The Amazon rainforest is a massive area, twice the size of India. It’s a crucial carbon sink for the climate, has about 20% of the world’s freshwater reserves and boasts astounding biodiversity, including 16,000 known tree species. Governments historically viewed it as an area to be colonized and exploited, with little regard for sustainability or the rights of its Indigenous peoples. Now, those governments seek to clamp down on resource extraction, human rights abuses and environmental crime. That was a major goal of the two-day Amazon Summit held this month in Belem, Brazil.

Leaders and ministers from eight Amazon nations signed a declaration that laid out plans to drive economic development in their countries while preventing the Amazon’s demise “from reaching a point of no return,” but without the concrete commitments sought by environmentalists. Here’s a rundown of the threats the Amazon faces.

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Main environmental threats

The Amazon functions as a massive device to store carbon. Climate change is made worse when plants that take up carbon are lost. The Amazon biome lost more than 211 million acres, or about 13% of its original area, according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Pact.

Most of that deforestation came in the past half-century, with Brazil — home to two-thirds of the rainforest — the main culprit. The Amazon rainforest also comprises parts of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Suriname, Guyana and the territory of French Guiana.

Cattle ranching and soybean crops expanded thanks to new technology, highways, and global demand for grain and beef. Mostly controlled by settlers of European descent who migrated there, the ranching and farming reshaped culture there from people’s diet to their music. Other environmental threats are large hydroelectric dams; illegal logging; mining; and oil drilling, with effects on water contamination and disruption of Indigenous lifestyles. Underinvestment in infrastructure means garbage and sewage from homes in the rainforest dumps directly into waterways.

The Amazon has also seen more extreme weather events — flooding and drought — in recent years.

Oft-quoted research by Earth system scientist Carlos Nobre and late environmental scientist Thomas Lovejoy estimated that 20% to 25% deforestation would be a critical threshold for the Amazon. The resulting decline in rainfall would transform more than half of the Amazon to tropical savannah, with great biodiversity loss, they said.

That kind of change is already happening in Xingu Indigenous Territory in Brazil, which has become an island surrounded by soybeans and pasture and where researchers highlighted forest degradation due to persistent droughts, fires and agricultural practices.

Governments initially hacked roads through forest so settlers could reach far flung lands, but heavy rains and use regularly wrecked those dirt roads. Paving them made for easier access — and made it easier to move agricultural products, too.

That also helped lawbreakers reach pristine areas to extract ancient hardwood timber and clear forest for ranching. The roads often generate deforestation resembling a fish skeleton, with smaller dirt roads branching off the spine of an official road.

Political corruption and lax law enforcement allowed criminal organizations to take root. Drug seizures increased in Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru over the past decade, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in June.

Traffickers diversified into businesses like “narco-deforestation” — laundering Trafficking profits into land for agriculture — as well as financing and logistics for illegal gold prospecting that lays waste to the forest and poisons waterways, the UNODC report said.

There’s no single solution for developing different regions, said Marcelo Salazar, a veteran of environmental nonprofit and consultancy work who now leads a company making food supplements with natural products from the Amazon.

He said governments must provide health, education and protection of land rights for a forest economy to function. Subsidies for products that come from the forest would help, too; for example, making traditional oil from babassu palm more competitive with soy oil from Brazil’s vast plantations.

There also needs to be greater development of local expertise in communicating the Amazon’s challenges and its promise, both to help outsiders understand and to attract investors.


Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Falls 66% in August

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon fell 66.1% in August to its lowest level for the month since 2018, Environment Minister Marina Silva said on Tuesday, in a significant mark for its environmental policy as destruction often spikes this time of year.

Satellite data from Brazilian space research agency INPE indicated that 563 square kilometers of rainforest were cleared in the month, a 66.1% drop from the same period a year ago.

In the first eight months of the year, INPE’s figures showed, deforestation has fallen a cumulative 48% from the same period of 2022.

The data give President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reasons to cheer as he has promised to end deforestation in the region by 2030 after destruction surged under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, who slashed environmental protection efforts.

Earlier, Lula celebrated the decline, saying on social media that it is a “result of the great work of the Environment Ministry and the federal government.”

Some experts feared the significant drop of more than 40% in deforestation seen in the first seven months of Lula’s administration could have been put at risk by higher destruction in August and September, when the weather turns drier.

Initial signs, however, are that those concerns did not materialize.

Deforestation in the Amazon causes the loss of many species and their habitats, negatively impacts indigenous people and their health, causes fire, an increase in CO2 emission, soil erosion, flooding, desertification, pollution of rivers and lands, and negatively alters water cycle around the world.

Brazil last month hosted a major rainforest summit, where eight Amazon nations agreed to a list of unified environmental policies and measures to bolster regional cooperation but failed to agree on a common goal for ending deforestation.

Lula has staked his international reputation on improving Brazil’s environmental standing.

On Tuesday, he signed the demarcation of two new Indigenous lands, part of his efforts to reverse some policies put in place by Bolsonaro, who halted land recognition while in office.

The recognition of the two Indigenous reservations grants them legal protection against invasions by illegal loggers, gold miners and cattle ranchers.

“We are experiencing a new moment, with more assertive policies and greater political will in favor of the Amazon,” WWF Brazil’s director, Mariana Napolitano, said.

But more is still needed, including traceability and transparency in the trade of livestock, gold and other commodities, she added.

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