Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon has soared to a 12-year high after an area of rainforest larger than the Big Island of Hawaii was burned, slashed, and razed over the past year.
The Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which monitors deforestation of the Amazon using satellites, has recently published preliminary data to show at least 11,088 square kilometers (4,281 square miles) of rainforest in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest was destroyed in 2020. This is the largest area of deforestation since 2008 when 12,911 square kilometers (4,984 square miles) of rainforest was slashed and burned.
Levels of deforestation in the Amazon have been creeping up in recent years after reaching a low in 2012. While rates of deforestation are still significantly down from the sky-high levels seen in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Amazon is now so depleted that it's edging worryingly close to a tipping point from which it cannot recover from.
Deforestation of the Amazon is caused by the clearing of land for logging, mining, and ranching, driven by increasing global demand for commodities like beef, soy, and palm oil. Many of these products end up on supermarket shelves and in fast-food restaurants across the world. Banks and financial institutions across the world, including Europe and the US, are also funneling billions of dollars into the world’s most harmful agribusinesses and profiting from activities linked to deforestation. While laws are in place to authorize logging in designated areas, much of the habitat’s destruction is carried out illegally and continues unregulated.
There are a few factors behind this recent up-tick in deforestation. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has played some role. With fewer environmental agents patrolling the rainforests and more economic hardship in rural areas, the ongoing outbreak has only fanned the flames of illegal land clearing.
Many are also pointing the finger at President Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist whose hardline “pro-business, pro-Brazil” policies have consistently weakened environmental protections. The current administration has also been accused of turning a blind eye towards regulating deforestation, with the government not enforcing fines against businesses or corporations that illegally clear land in the Amazon. In one particularly memorable moment, physicist Ricardo Galvão was ousted as director of the INPE after a public row with Bolsonaro over the scale of deforestation in the Amazon. President Bolsonaro also accused the actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio of bankrolling the rainforest fires that tore through Brazil in 2019.
“This was already expected. Instead of acting to prevent the increase in deforestation, the Bolsonaro government has been denying the reality of the situation, dismantling environmental agencies, and attacking NGOs who work on the ground in the Amazon. Because of the federal government’s anti-environmental policies, deforestation in Brazil is almost three times higher than the target for 2020 set by the country’s National Policy on Climate Change,” Cristiane Mazzetti, Amazon campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil, said in a statement.