Amazon deforestation
The Amazon is the world's largest rainforest and arguably the most closely watched barometer of deforestation. It is about 17 percent deforested, and losses are especially big in Brazil, which lost some 17,000 square kilometers of rainforest in 2020 alone. "If you're looking at the area cleared, Brazil is usually the worst," Nathalie Walker, the director of tropical forest and agriculture at the National Wildlife Federation.Walker, told the Washington Post. And of that, "cattle is the single biggest driver" of loss. [Source: Tik Root and Harry Stevens, Washington Post, November 4, 2021]

Much of the deforested Amazon has been turned into ranchland or farms. The summer dry-season is when the Amazon rainforest gets cut and burned. The smoke this causes can easily be seen from space. Paulo Adario, the Amazon campaign director for Greenpeace in Brazil, told the New York Times, Brazil’s economic choices have driven much of the deforestation in the Amazon, he said. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the military government encouraged landless families to settle in the region. Road-building, land speculators and ranchers followed, and the forests fell at a quickening pace.

Reuters reported: “The Brazilian Amazon has been under intense pressure in recent decades, as an agricultural boom has driven farmers and land speculators to torch plots of land for soybeans, beef and other crops. That trend has worsened since 2019, when right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office and began weakening environmental enforcement.But the Amazon also represents the best hope for preserving what rainforest remains. The Amazon and its neighbors — the Orinoco and the Andean rainforest — account for 73.5 percent of tropical forests still intact. “Brazil must take care of the forest," said Ane Alencar, a geographer with the Amazon Environmental Research Institute who was not involved in the work. "Brazil has the biggest chunk of tropical forest in the world and is also losing the most." [Source: Jake Spring, Reuters, March 8, 2021]

Brazil’s economy is centered on the export of agricultural products, like soybeans and beef, and commodities like iron ore. “The Brazilian model is to be the food supplier to the world and a big supplier of ethanol,” Adario told the New York Times. “The economy will continue to move in the same basic direction. There is no magic in Brazil.”

Deforestation Wiped out 8 Percent of Amazon Between 2000 and 2018: Study

Amazon burning
The the Amazon lost 513,016 square kilometers (198,077 square miles) — an area larger than Spain and 8 percent of the Amazon forest — due to deforestation between 2000 and 2018, according to a study by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), a consortium of groups from across the region.[Source: Paula Ramon, AFP, December 9, 2020]

AFP reported: “The consortium found that after making gains against deforestation early in the century, the Amazon region has again slipped into a worrying cycle of destruction. “Deforestation has accelerated since 2012. The annual area lost tripled from 2015 to 2018," the study found. “In 2018 alone, 31,269 square kilometers of forest were destroyed across the Amazon region, the worst annual deforestation since 2003."

“The destruction is fueled by logging, farming, ranching, mining and infrastructure projects on formerly pristine forest land. “The statistics presented by RAISG are an alarm bell on the increasing pressures and threats facing the region," said researcher Julia Jacomini of the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian environmental group that is part of RAISG.

“The destruction in Brazil has only accelerated since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to a 12-year high of 11,088 square kilometers from August 2019 to July 2020, according to government figures. That was a 9.5-percent increase from the previous year, when deforestation also hit a more than decade-long high.

“Bolsonaro has come under fire from environmentalists and the international community for cutting funding for rainforest protection programs and pushing to open protected lands to agribusiness and mining. He has presided over a surge in wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon since taking office. “Deforestation is also surging in Bolivia and Colombia, RAISG found. Bolivia lost 27 percent of its Amazon forest cover to fires from 2000 to 2018, it said.

Is the Amazon Reaching a Tipping Point?

Robert Walker, a quantitative geographer at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American studies, has said that unless something unprecedented happens, the Amazon will be wiped out by 2064. Stephen Eisenhammer of Reuters wrote: “As more and more of the forest is cut down, researchers say the loss of canopy risks hitting a limit — a tipping point — after which the forest and local climate will have changed so radically as to trigger the death of the Amazon as rainforest. In its place would grow a shorter, drier forest or savannah. The consequences for biodiversity and climate change would be devastating, extinguishing thousands of species and releasing such a colossal quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it would sabotage attempts to limit global climate change. “The Amazon tipping point would mark a final shift in the rainforest's ability to sustain itself, an inflection point after which the trees can no longer feed traversing clouds with enough moisture to create the quantities of rain required to survive. [Source: Stephen Eisenhammer, Reuters, October 23, 2021]

“Climate models have foreseen other so-called tipping points disrupting Earth's long-balanced systems, for example warming that causes Siberian permafrost to thaw and release huge amounts of emissions, or Greenland's Ice Sheet melting at such a rate that annual snowfall can no longer make up for the loss. Exactly where that point is in the Amazon, science is not yet decided. Some researchers argue that current modeling isn't sophisticated enough to predict such a moment at all. But evidence is mounting that in certain areas, localized iterations of the tipping point may already be happening. If the tipping point marks the irreversible march of savannah over rainforest, scientists predict the process would first occur in forests where savannah and rainforest are already intertwined.

“Celebrated Brazilian climatologist Carlos Nobre, who has helped popularize the idea of the tipping point, puts the precipice at between 20 percent and 25 percent deforestation of the original Amazon canopy. We are currently at about 17 percent, according to the major report with 200 scientists published in 2021. Nobre believes we could see mass dieback across eastern, southern and central Amazonia within as little as 15 years.

“Others aren't so sure. Marina Hirota, an earth system scientist who worked on models before switching to field work, says current simulations oversimplify the diverse vegetation, soil type and topography found across the Amazon basin. In her view, there's not yet enough evidence to say where the tipping point is or even if such a single threshold exists for sure. The models need to be improved first, she says. Hirota considers it more likely that deforestation would trigger multiple smaller tipping points in different locations across the Amazon. But many scientists think putting a single number on the tipping point is still important as a clarion call, even if it's too complex to currently prove. Once you're able to prove it, ecologist Paulo Brando argues, it will already be too late. "We know there's a cliff out there, and so even if we're not exactly sure where it is, we need to slow down," Brando says. "Instead, we're rushing towards it with our eyes closed."

Ecologists Ben Hur Marimon Jr. and Beatriz Marimon conduct research at the local campus of the Mato Grosso State University in Nova Xavantina, a soy town of 20,000 people in the southern Brazilian Amazon, in a biome borderland, an in-between space where the Cerrado savannah transitions into the Amazon rainforest. The trees that remain, they say, offer a vision of the future. "This is tomorrow, today," Beatriz says, crunching through a dry patch of forest on the edge of town. Ben Hur finishes the thought. "This is the border of the Amazon, its protective wall, and it's dying."

“To monitor the forests, the couple tag trees of varying sizes and species across their plots with bits of metal that look like military dog tags. They return at regular intervals — anything from three months to three years — and measure tree circumference, height and carbon dioxide respiration. Trees that haven't made it are added to a list of the dead." In many cases the old, big trees do okay. It is the younger ones that struggle. "For Ben Hur and Beatriz, the degrading forests around Nova Xavantina demonstrate that the tipping point may already be happening there on a local level. The major question remains whether this same process could occur on a huge scale over entire swaths of the Amazon basin — and if so, when?

cloud forest, secondary forest and farm land in Ecuador

Drying of the Amazon

Scientists have predicted that once the Amazon looses more than 25 percent of its tree cover, it might permanently become a drier ecosystem, because deforestation changes weather patterns due to how trees respire, which in turn reduces rainfall. On top of this, as the forest becomes fragmented, areas surrounded by savanahs, farms and ranches will lose species in a process called “ecosystem decay.” [Source: Kim Heacox, The Guardian, October 7, 2021]

Stephen Eisenhammer of Reuters wrote: “Brazil is blessed with the largest freshwater reserves in the world. But the relentless rise of one of the world's agricultural powerhouses combined with changes in global climate are helping to drive a loss of this vital resource. Data released in 2021 by MapBiomas, a collaboration between universities, nonprofit groups and technology companies, found Brazil lost 15 percent of its surface water in the three decades prior to 2020. [Source: Stephen Eisenhammer, Reuters, October 23, 2021]

Several scientific studies have found the same. Because tropical forests influence rainfall, deforestation can change their pattern. One influential 2011 paper looking at 30 years of precipitation data found that the onset of rains in Rondonia state had been delayed by up to 18 days. Research since then has backed up this trend. A major report this year, which brought together around 200 scientists, said available data pointed to a dry season that "has expanded by about one month in the southern Amazon region since the middle 1970's."

Large-scale deforestation disrupts” self-generating-rain processes of the Amazon, “reducing the number of trees to such an extent that precipitation levels fall or become more concentrated over a shorter wet season. In some parts of wide-ranging Nova Xavantina over the past 30 years, rainfall has fallen by as much as 30 percent. As precipitation changes, streams and sources disappear, and the remaining forest turns drier. Local temperatures also increase — particularly on edges where forest and farmland meet. Those vast flat agricultural clearings increase the strength of winds, which can rip through woodland and tear down the tallest, oldest trees. The drier forest is also more vulnerable to fire, which is still widely used for clearing farmland here. As more trees die — from wind, drought and fire — their deaths increase the likelihood of such extreme weather in the future, creating a deadly feedback loop.

“Early experiments that mimicked extreme drought in the Amazon had led scientists to think the drier climate would kill older trees first, but: since then scientists “have found is the opposite. With longer roots, the largest trees are usually the most resilient — at least to drought. Instead, it's the saplings that die. The forest loses its future.

“Antonio Deuseminio, an agroecologist with decades of experience in the rainforest, is helping farmers replant trees and bring water back to their properties. He works for a subdivision of the Ministry of Agriculture focused on cacao, which he says has the oldest weather data in the area. Although total rainfall hasn't changed significantly in Ouro Preto do Oeste, the dry season has gotten longer and drier, Deuseminio says. For agriculture this is a serious problem, because crops and grasses don't have long enough roots to find water when there's no rain. The drier climate makes reforesting harder too. Twenty years ago, rainforest species could be planted straight into the bare soil. Deuseminio says he must now first plant drought-resistant trees, and only once these have grown enough to provide shade and improve the soil, after five years or so, can he follow up with classic Amazon species. Rainforest saplings now struggle to survive, he says, in this part of the Amazon.

Parts of the Amazon That Have Already Dried Out

Reporting from Ouro Preto Do Oeste, Brazil, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, Stephen Eisenhammer of Reuters wrote: Gertrudes Freire and her family came to the great forest in search of land and rain. They found both in abundance, but the green wilds of the southwestern Amazon would prove tough to tame. When they reached the settlement of Ouro Preto do Oeste in 1971, it was little more than a lonely rubber-tapper outpost hugging the single main road that ran through the jungle like a red dust scar. Her children remember the fear. Fear of forest jaguars, indigenous tribes and the mythological Curupira: a creature with backward-turned feet who misleads unwelcome visitors to leave them lost among the trees. [Source: Stephen Eisenhammer, Reuters, October 23, 2021]

“The family carved their home from the forest. They built their walls from the tough trunks of the cashapona tree and thatched a leaky roof from the broad palms of the babassu. There was no electricity, and some days the only food was foraged Brazil nuts. At night, in hungry darkness they would listen to the cascading rain. Life was damp. Until it wasn't. Near the Freire home, there was a stream so wide that the children would dare each other to reach the other side. They called it Jaguar's Creek. Now it's not a meter wide and can be cleared with a single step. The loss of such streams, and the wider water problems they are a part of, fill scientists with foreboding.

“Year after year, the Freire family hacked and sawed farther into their patch of forest on Brazil's western frontier. In 1976, after clearing a couple of hectares and getting permission to use some of their neighbor's pasture too, they invested in 10 heifer calves and a bull — the start of a dairy business that would over the years grow into a successful herd of about 400 head. But a fear of drought haunted their work.

“For the Freires, the last bits of doubt about the drying of the land seeped away on a parched day in 1991. A cowhand told Gertrudes the cattle were so thirsty, they were nuzzling the bottom of dried-out springs, sucking the sand in search of moisture. She acted swiftly and put in a complex system of pipes and pumps to draw water for the cattle from springs that had not yet gone dry.

“Controversially, she began reforesting too. Gertrudes had little idea of what she was doing but trusted her instincts, sharpened by years of drought in the homeland she'd abandoned. Her neighbors — and husband — thought she was crazy as she planted trees around water sources and along streams and vowed that the last remaining patch of virgin forest, at the far end of the property, should remain intact. Her words weren't always heeded. "I came back from one short trip away and my husband had cleared another patch" for pasture, she remembers, shaking her head.

“Gertrudes sensed that rainfall was changing too.” In 2021 “the Freires bemoan the driest dry season any of them can remember. It is mid-August, and the first rains used to come by now, they say. The dry season, once just three months, now stretches for four or five. Across the whole country, reservoirs are dangerously low as Brazil suffers one of its worst droughts in a century. The family is diversifying to try and shield their business from drought, building out capacity in breeding and beef cattle to complement their milk production. They've also started an organic soap business and want to plant corn.

“Water is a constant worry. Some nearby farmers have already sold their land — mostly to larger cattle ranchers who address the problem by digging deep wells or piping water over long distances. "It's going to get even drier," says Gertrudes, looking out over her farm's yellow grass as two cats laze comatose in the stifling afternoon heat. In the distance, smoke hazes the horizon as newly slashed forest burns. "The water will finish."

Deforested Amazon Producing Rather Than Absorbing CO 2

Stephen Eisenhammer of Reuters wrote: “Since the Industrial Revolution, scientists estimate that roughly a quarter of all fossil fuel emissions have been absorbed by forests and other land vegetation and soils, chief among them the Amazon. Through the 1980s and 1990s, as mass human migration to the Amazon was just beginning, the rainforest drew down some 500 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year, more than the current annual emissions of Germany, Britain, Italy and France combined. Photosynthesis by the forests' billions of trees, using carbon dioxide to live and grow, served as a vital buffer against climate change. As migration increased and more of the Amazon was cleared for agriculture, scientists knew the forest's ability to suck in carbon would be hit. But no one knew quite how much. [Source: Stephen Eisenhammer, Reuters, October 23, 2021]

Atmospheric chemist Luciana Gatti, who works for INPE, Brazil's space research agency, measures carbon dioxide in the skies above the Amazon and find out how much the forest aborbs. “To try and get an answer, Gatti squeezed into a roaring single-engine four-seater plane armed with a padded suitcase packed with glass flasks. From up over the canopy, she could sometimes see the scale of destruction, the gray smoke billowing from burning trees and the yellow patches of earth shorn of the forest green. Gatti's earliest air samples date back to 2000, from a single point in the eastern Amazon. But she found the data too narrow and volatile to give a picture of the carbon balance for the whole basin, so over the following years she expanded the work, training teams and contracting light aircraft to fill flasks of forest air from four parts of the Amazon: Santarem and Alta Floresta in the east and Tefe and Rio Branco in the west.

“Since then, the aircraft have taken more than 600 vertical profiles — a series of samples taken at different altitudes over a given spot. At one point Gatti doubted her results. She grew depressed. The data didn't make sense. It couldn't be true. It showed the southeastern Amazon was releasing more carbon that it was absorbing, even in rainy years when scientists had expected the forest to be in better health. It meant a part of the rainforest was no longer helping to slow climate change, but adding to the emissions driving it.

“She changed her methodology. Changed it again. And again. In total, she went through seven methodologies before eventually accepting what had seemed impossible. The southeastern Amazon is not only a net producer of carbon, but even when you strip out the fires, the forest alone — or the non-fire net biome exchange — is a carbon source. Scientists widely regard the results, recently published in Nature, as the most definitive so far on the changing carbon fluxes of the rainforest.

“The western part of the Amazon, protected by its remoteness, is in better health and can still absorb substantial amounts of carbon, the study shows. But it's not enough to compensate for the polluting east, where ranching and soy farming have cut deep into the rainforest. The so-called lungs of the Earth are coughing up smoke. "We are losing the southeastern part of the forest," Gatti says.

“Gatti thinks her numbers show that certain parts of the Amazon may already be at their tipping point. She believes the data points to the same process that Ben Hur and Beatriz have witnessed, but on a greater scale: Rainforest species such as the brazil nut and the ironwood giving way to trees like mabea fistulifera and ouratea discophora that are more tolerant of the drier, hotter climate. Such regime change releases huge quantities of carbon and would help explain the forest's flagging ability to draw down emissions. "It is a path without return," Gatti says.

Cattle Ranching and Amazon Deforestation

Greenpeace contends that the cattle industry in the Amazon is the biggest driver of global deforestation. Mato Grosso is the the Brazilian state with the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon and the country’s largest cattle herd. Soil erosion often follows rapid and haphazard agricultural and livestock expansion, especially for cattle ranches and dairy farms. Stephen Eisenhammer of Reuters wrote: Land stripped of native vegetation, especially when transformed into pasture and pounded hard by grazing cattle, loses ability to retain water in soil and foliage. Rain runs off the altered surface in sudden surges, dragging topsoil into streams and rivers that then clog and dry. [Source: Stephen Eisenhammer, Reuters, October 23, 2021]

cattle pastures
In June 2009 Greenpeace released a report called “slaughtering the Amazon,” which detailed the link between forest destruction and the expansion of cattle ranching in the Amazon. The report led some multinational companies, including shoe manufacturers like Adidas, Nike and Timberland, to pledge to cancel contracts unless they received guarantees that their products were not associated with cattle or slave labor in the Amazon. Beef customers like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart also pressed producers to change their practices in the Amazon, Mr. Furtado said.

Alexei Barrionuevo wrote in the New York Times, “Here in Mato Grasso, 700 square miles of rain forest was stripped in the last five months of 2007 alone, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which tracks vanishing forests. “With so much money to be made, there are no laws that will keep forest standing,”John Carter, a rancher who settled here 15 years ago, told the New York Times as he flew his Cessna over the denuded land one day this summer.

Settlers and Amazon Deforestation

The Amazon is home to communities who say they need to use the forest for mining and commercial farming in order to make a living. At the same time, indigenous communities want the mining and farming to stop to protect the rainforest and their ways of life. [Source: BBC]

Until very recently, developing the Amazon was the priority, and some settlers feel betrayed by the new stigma surrounding deforestation. Much as in the 19th-century American West, the Brazilian government encouraged settlement through homesteaders’ benefits like cheap land and housing subsidies, many of which still exist today.

“It was revolting and sad when the world said that deforestation was bad — we were told to come here and that we had to tear it down,” said Mato Grosso’s secretary of agriculture, Neldo Egon Weirich, 56, who moved here in 1978 and noted that to be eligible for loans to buy tractors and seed, a farmer had to clear 80 percent of his land. He is proud to have turned Mato Grosso from a malarial zone into an agricultural powerhouse. “Mato Grosso is under a microscope — we know we have to do something,” Mr. Weirich said. “But we can’t just stop production.”

Even today, settlers around the globe are buying or claiming cheap “useless” forest and transforming it into farmland. Clearing away the trees is often the best way to declare and ensure ownership. Land that Mr. Carter has intentionally left forested for its environmental benefit has been intermittently overtaken by squatters — a common problem here. In parts of Southeast Asia, early experiments in paying landowners for preserving forest have been hampered because it is often unclear who owns, or controls, property.

Amazon Deforestation in the 1980s

Development projects and domestic migration during the 1970s and 1980s led to deforestation of 414,400 square kilometers (160,000 square miles), or 8.5 percent of the Brazilian Amazon forest. Much of the forest was burned to provide land for homesteaders and cattle ranchers. This burning released large amounts of carbon dioxide. The forest was also degraded by mining and hydroelectric projects.

By the end of the 1980s, the trend was reversing. The pace of deforestation was reduced by half in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a result of government initiatives to protect the environment, including new legislation, the revision of tax incentives, and an emergency program carried out since 1989 during the dry season to counter illegal clearing and burning. The rate of deforestation is monitored by remote sensing satellites.

The most destructive deforestation in Brazil in the 1980s took place in Rondônia, a Mississippi-size state in the western part of the country near the Bolivian border. The population of Rondônia doubled in the 1980s when the trans Amazon BR-364 highway was paved, and settlers were offered 125 acre parcels of free land.

The population of Rondônia leapt from 110,000 in 1970 to 1.4 million in 1995. Satellite photographs of Amazon form that time of undeveloped areas show an undisturbed blanket of green broken only by blue rivers and lakes. Along the 364 in Rondônia, the land is scarred by settlements that appear as long strips of cleared land along the secondary roads.

For a while 150,000 new settlers arrived each year in Rondônia, increasing the state’s population by 15 percent in a few years. Pôrto Velho, the state's capital, went from a frontier outpost into a swollen city of 450,000 in a few decades. Another town grew to 110,000 only 13 years after it was founded. At the height of Rondônia settlement wave it was estimated that 181,300 square kilometers (70,000 square miles) of Amazonian trees and other tropical growth was set afire during the dry season. Nearly 20 percent of the state's rain forests, an area the size of Maryland, was claimed in 20 years. And remember this is just one part of Brazilian Amazonia. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, December 1988]

Amazon Deforestation in the 1990s

20110306-mongabay brazil_0568.jpg
The World Wildlife Fund estimated that by the year 2000, 12 to 15 percent of the Amazon rain forest has had been deforested and additional 15,000 square kilometers ( 5,800 square miles), an area the size of Connecticut, was lost every years.

Despite the infusion of millions of dollars and international campaigns supporting the rain forest cause, burning of the Amazon increased 28 percent between 1996 and 1997 and deforestation increased 34 percent between 1991 and 1997.

"Deforestation has done nothing but go up," Stephen Scwartzaman of the Environmental Defense Fund told the New York Times. "Where the most money has gone is where the fires have increased." In 1997, half the fires were in Mato Grasso, where the World Bank lent $205 million to a forest management program.

In the 1990s, the Brazilian Amazon states of Mato Grasso and Para were heavily deforested. In Amazonas, around Manaus, 98 percent of the original forest was still intact. At that time farmers were are believed to have caused 40 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon.

Amazon Deforestation in the 2000s

Deforestation in the Amazon was bad in the early 2000s, eased up a bit in the mid 2000s and then starting let bad in the late 2000s, and accelerating in the 2010s. Deforestation hit a high of 49,240 square kilometers (19,100 square miles) of forest loss in 2003 — a record for this century — then eased to a low of 17,674 square kilometers (6,825 square miles) in 2010. When deforestation was reduced, it became common to deforest smaller areas, because the deforesters tried to evade the satellites.“ [Source: Paula Ramon, AFP, December 9, 2020]

The Amazon rain forest was deforested more than twice in 2008 as it was in 2007, Brazilian officials and AP reported, acknowledging a sharp reversal after three years of declines in the deforestation rate. Environment Minister Carlos Minc said coming elections were partly to blame, with mayors in the region turning a blind eye to illegal logging in hopes of gaining votes. Environmentalists blame the global spike in food prices for encouraging soy farmers and cattle ranchers to clear land for crops and grazing. Deforestation increased 228 percent in August compared with the same month a year ago, according to the National Institute for Space Research, which uses satellite images to track logging. [Source: Associated Press, New York Times, September 30, 2008]

Ernesto Londoño of New York Times said: During the 1990s and the early 2000s, we see deforestation reaching really staggering levels. Concern around the world, I think, reaches a point where the Brazilians can no longer ignore what people outside of the country were saying about this. So when President Lula, a leftist, is in office in the early 2000s, he appoints a woman who was from the rainforest to serve as his minister of the environment. Her name is Marina Silva. And she came up with a really bold and ambitious plan to rein in deforestation and create more conservation areas. She was somebody who was lauded across the world for doing something that people thought was almost impossible, to stop these loggers and these miners and these farmers from reaching deeper and deeper into the Amazon year after year after year. And for a while, Brazil was pretty successful. [Source: “The Daily” Hosted by Michael Barbaro, New York Times, August 28, 2019]

Another thing the government did was it started issuing some pretty stiff fines for deforestation and other environmental crimes. And for a while, this had the intended effect. And one of the reasons Brazil was successful in reining in deforestation during this era is the economy was doing pretty well. So there were plenty of jobs in the city. And people were less tempted to venture deep into the jungle, where they faced the risk of fines. However, the good days came to an end. And in 2014, the country plunged into a brutal recession. And what this meant was tens of thousands of men were suddenly unemployed. And many of them were lured back into the jungle. Why? Because there was money to be made. These were dangerous jobs. These were risky ventures. But for many people, it was the only way to put food on the table.

Amazon Deforestation Dramatically Increases Under Bolsonaro

Amazon deforestation increased dramatically when Jair Bolsonaro became the 38th president of Brazil. After he took office in 2019, Amazon deforestation exceeded 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) every year. Before Bolsonaro became president, the Brazilian Amazon hadn’t recorded a single year with that much deforestation in over a decade and, between 2009 and 2018, the average was 6,500 square kilometers. Para accounted for 39 percent of deforestation from 2020 to 2021, according to Deter data, the most of any Amazonian state. [Source: Débora Álvares, Associated Press, August 13, 2021]

In 2020, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged a 12-year high. A total of 11,088 square kilometers (4,281 square miles) of forest was destroyed in Brazil's share of the Amazon in the 12 months to August, according to the Brazilian space agency's PRODES monitoring program, which analyzes satellite images to track deforestation. That is equivalent to an area larger than Jamaica, and was a 9.5-percent increase from the previous year, [Source: AFP, December 1, 2020]

In February 2022, the BBC reported: Deforestation usually slows down in January because the rainy season prevents loggers accessing the forest but the number of trees cut down in the Brazilian Amazon in January 2022 far exceeded deforestation for the same month in 2021 according to government satellite data. In fact the area destroyed was five times larger than 2021, the highest January total since records began in 2015. [Source: Georgina Rannard, BBC, February 12, 2022]

Satellite image of Bolivian Amazon in June 2002
“Environmentalists accuse Bolsonaro of allowing deforestation to accelerate. The latest satellite data from Brazil's space agency Inpe again calls into question the Brazilian government's commitment to protecting its huge rainforest, say environmentalists. "The new data yet again exposes how the government's actions contradict its greenwashing campaigns," explains Cristiane Mazzetti of Greenpeace Brazil. “Environmentalists say that they are not surprised by the record January felling, given that President Bolsonaro has significantly weakened legal protections since he took office in 2019. The Brazilian government argues that in the period between August, 2021 and January 2022, overall deforestation was lower compared to the same period a year earlier.

“Deforestation totaled 430 square kilometres (166 square miles) in January, 2022 — an area more than seven times the size of Manhattan, New York. Felling large numbers of trees at the start of the year is unusual because the rainy season usually stops loggers from accessing dense forest. “There are a number of factors driving this level of deforestation. Strong global demand for agricultural commodities such as beef and soya beans is fuelling some of these illegal clearances — Another is the expectation that a new law will soon be passed in Brazil to legitimise and forgive land grabbing.

Bolsonaro's Environmental Policies

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro is a right-wing, Donald-Trump-like figure. He campaigned as a patriotic man of the people and was elected Brazil's President in October 2018. He survived being stabbed by knife in the abdomen during the campaign and took office in January 2019. He is a strong supporter of agribusiness. The Washington Post reported before he won the presidency that was likely to favor profits over preservation. He "has chafed at foreign pressure to safeguard the Amazon rain forest and he served notice to international nonprofit groups such as the World Wildlife Fund that he will not tolerate their agendas in Brazil. He has also come out strongly against lands reserved for indigenous tribes.” Thais Borges and Sue Branford reported in Mongabay in May 2019 that a “new manifesto by eight of Brazil’s past environment ministers warns that Bolsonaro’s draconian environmental policies, including the weakening of environmental licensing, plus sweeping illegal deforestation amnesties, could cause great economic harm to Brazil”. [Source: Kim Heacox, The Guardian, October 7, 2021]

Bolsonaro has weakened environmental protections for Amazon and argued that the government should exploit the area to reduce poverty. According to to Associated Press: The far-right president has encouraged development of the biome and dismissed global handwringing about its destruction as a plot to hold back the nation’s agribusiness. At the same time, his administration defanged environmental authorities and legislative measures to loosen land protections have advanced, emboldening land grabbers. [Source: Débora Álvares, Associated Press, August 13, 2021]

At the U.S.-led climate summit in April 2021, Bolsonaro shifted his tone on Amazon preservation and exhibited willingness to step up commitment, even though many critics remain doubtful of his credibility. In June 2021, he issued a decree returning soldiers to the Amazon to bolster policing against logging and other illegal land clearance — even as environmental groups allege the mobilization is mostly symbolic, given troops are ill-prepared to conduct oversight. Earlier, Bolsonaro had exalted the need to tap the Amazon’s resources, cast aspersions on environmental activists who defend the rainforest and snarled at European leaders who decried its destruction. He also supported the so-called agribusiness-friendly “land grabbing bill" that would increase the size of public lands that can be made legal for private ownership without in-person surveys from authorities. [Source: David Biller, Associated Press, May 8, 2021]

“At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, Bolsonaro was one of the world leaders who promised to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of this decade.“ Before that he said Brazil requires outside funds to curb deforestation. U.S. President Joe Bide has directly called on Brazil to take stronger action and has proposed countries provide Brazil with $20 billion to fight deforestation. His presidential administration has since made clear it would only be willing to contribute once Brazil shows concrete progress, and talks have stalled.

Oil Disaster in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times, “For many years, indigenous people from a formerly pristine region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador have been trying to get relief from an American company, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron), for what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever...Texaco operated more than 300 oil wells for the better part of three decades in a vast swath of Ecuador’s northern Amazon region, just south of the border with Colombia. Much of that area has been horribly polluted. The lives and culture of the local inhabitants, who fished in the intricate waterways and cultivated the land as their ancestors had done for generations, have been upended in ways that have led to widespread misery. [Source: Bob Herbert, New York Times, June 4, 2010]

Texaco came barreling into this delicate ancient landscape in the early 1960s with all the subtlety and grace of an invading army. And when it left in 1992, it left behind, according to the lawsuit, widespread toxic contamination that devastated the livelihoods and traditions of the local people, and took a severe toll on their physical well-being.

In a lawsuit filed by the indigenous people of the region against Chevron the plaintiffs said: the oil company deliberately dumped many billions of gallons of waste byproduct from oil drilling directly into the rivers and streams of the rainforest covering an area the size of Rhode Island. It gouged more than 900 unlined waste pits out of the jungle floor — pits which to this day leach toxic waste into soils and groundwater. It burned hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas and waste oil into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and creating “black rain” which inundated the area during tropical thunderstorms.”

The quest for oil is, by its nature, colossally destructive. And the giant oil companies, when left to their own devices, will treat even the most magnificent of nature’s wonders like a sewer. But the riches to be made are so vastly corrupting that governments refuse to impose the kinds of rigid oversight and safeguards that would mitigate the damage to the environment and its human and animal inhabitants.

Image Source: Mongabay ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior” by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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