Brazilian Amazon Lost a Connecticut-Sized Area of Forest Last Year

An area consumed by fire and cleared near Novo Progresso in Para state, Brazil.

An area consumed by fire and cleared near Novo Progresso in Para state, Brazil.
Photo: Andre Penner (AP)

Last year was a bad one around the world—but especially, it seems, in the Amazon rainforest. Deforestation in the Amazon rocketed up 17% last year, due in large part to increased logging, agriculture, mining, and wildfires, new data published Wednesday shows.

The data, put together by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, or MAAP, shows that 5.6 million acres of old-growth forest in the Amazon was demolished by last year. That’s the third-highest total of deforestation on record since 2000. The Amazon is one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, and its transformation into an industrial zone is bad news for us all.

The Amazon crosses several different national borders in Central and South America, and the MAAP data takes into account how deforestation is progressing in different countries. There was record-high forest loss in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru last year. The report notes that wildfires sparked by slash-and-burn agriculture techniques in Bolivia and the expansions of farmland in Peru were particular drivers this year in those countries.

But the elephant in the room (maybe “sloth in the room” is a better term when we’re talking about the Amazon) is, of course, Brazil, which is where most of the Amazon is located. The Brazilian Amazon lost 3.7 million acres alone last year, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. The analysis found that cattle ranching was as a key driver.

Brazil’s handling of its forest has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years following the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro, a Trumpian populist who has some real idiotic views on climate change, a penchant for favoring destructive industries, and straight-up racist perspectives on Indigenous peoples who are often the front lines of defense against Amazonian deforestation, and have been increasingly targeted with violence by loggers and ranchers. Much like Trump, Bolsonaro campaigned on unraveling environmental protections and opening up the Amazon to industries like cattle, mining, and logging. He’s made good on his promise since taking office, often at the expense of Indigenous people.

Brazil hasn’t exactly been a good actor on the international stage for climate action: Last year, the country actually made moves to weaken its commitments under the Paris Agreement, and has held up key parts of crucial international climate talks in the past. Bolsonaro’s regime has also carried out a Trump-style rhetorical assault on the country’s scientists.

Despite a history of mucking things up, President Joe Biden invited Bolsonaro to an international summit on Earth Day to discuss the environment with other world leaders. (Bolsonaro is slated to attend.) On the table could be $20 billion in funds to protect the Amazon, which then-candidate Biden said he would offer to Bolsonaro last year.

In response to Bolsonaro’s attendance at the talks and Biden’s possible cooperation with Bolsonaro on the Amazon, a group of nearly 200 Brazil civil society groups, including several indigenous groups, issued an open letter Tuesday blasting the move.

“It is not sensible to expect any solutions for the Amazon to stem from closed-door meetings with its worst enemy,” the letter reads. “No talks should move forward until Brazil has slashed deforestation rates to the level required by the national climate change law and until the string of bill proposals sent do Congress containing environmental setbacks is withdrawn. Negotiating with Bolsonaro is not the same as helping Brazil solve its problems.”

The loss of the Amazon is devastating for the world’s fight against climate change and, obviously, all solutions need to be pursued to stop the bleeding. But, as this new report shows, industry and agriculture are key drivers of forest loss—especially in Brazil. And working with a president who has openly harnessed racism towards Indigenous peoples to favor industry and destroy the forest doesn’t seem like a foolproof way to solve this problem.

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