For months, the world has watched in collective horror as the Amazon rainforest has been burned down under the watch of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. New data released Monday now puts the devastation in context.
This year’s assault on the Brazilian Amazon resulted in the worst bout of deforestation in a decade. And compared to last year, 2019 marks the third biggest leap in year-to-year deforestation. The bad news crystallizes that elections do have consequences. And in this case, the entire world may end up suffering.
The story of the Amazon in crisis starts back in May with the first signs of the season of fire to come. That month, 285 square miles of rainforest were chopped down or burned to the ground. Over the next four months, the Amazon saw deforestation rates go ever higher as farmers and criminal gangs used fires to clear rainforest for large agribusiness interests.
The new report from Brazil’s Climate Observatory shows that, based on satellite data, 3,769 square miles of the rainforest were lost over that period. That’s roughly equivalent to an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined lost to flames and chainsaws. This year’s deforestation area is 29.5 per cent larger than what satellites saw in 2018. Only 1995 and 1998 have seen bigger year-to-year jumps in deforestation.
The semi-good news is that while this year’s deforestation rise is bad, the overall deforestation rates in the 1990s were much higher. That said, there’s no way to sugarcoat just how dire the situation could get in the Amazon not just for the forest but the people who live there.
The agribusiness interests that have driven deforestation essentially want to turn the Amazon into one big pasture for cows interrupted by rows of soy beans. And Bolsonaro is the type of person to let them. He won Brazil’s election campaigning on a mix of racism, climate denial, and business-friendly policies. Since taking office earlier this year, he’s made good on many of those campaign themes.
One of his earliest acts as president was to expel indigenous groups from their land and take a lax approach in enforcing environmental laws. In the process, he’s committed ecocide and genocide. And when confronted with the reality that his policies had wrought so much destruction, he blamed NGOs without a scrap of evidence. While he eventually sent Brazil’s army to battle the intentionally set fires, it’s pretty clear that his policy of turning over the Amazon is still a high priority. In a press statement, the Climate Observatory’s Executive Secretary Carlos Rittl said the coming years of deforestation could be worse if the Bolsonaro administration continues to move forward legalizing land grabs, dispossessing indigenous groups of their lands, and making it easier for extractive industries to get permits.
If that happens, the world will lose a key check on carbon pollution. Right now, the Amazon is a carbon sink but deforestation could reduce its ability to do so. If it degrades far enough, it could eventually cleave the rainforest in two and reduce its carbon-sequestering capacity. And that would put not just the people who live there in great danger but the rest of us on Earth as well.