BRASILIA • Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high this year, official government data showed on Monday, with destruction soaring since President Jair Bolsonaro took office and amid weakened environmental enforcement.
This year, destruction of the world's largest rainforest rose 9.5 per cent from a year earlier to 11,088 sq km - seven times the size of London - according to data from Brazil's national space research agency Inpe.
That means Brazil will miss its own target, established under a 2009 climate change law, for reducing deforestation to roughly 3,900 sq km.
The consequences for missing the target are not laid out in the law, but could leave the government open to lawsuits.
The official annual measure, known as PRODES, is taken by comparing satellite images from the end of July this year with those from the beginning of August last year. These dates are chosen to coincide with the Amazon's dry season, when there is less cloud cover to interfere with calculations.
The Amazon is the world's largest rainforest and its protection is crucial to stopping catastrophic climate change because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs. The latest annual destruction is a substantial increase from the 7,536 sq km that were deforested in 2018, the year before Mr Bolsonaro took office.
While environmentalists blamed the government for the rise, federal officials hailed the figures as a sign of progress in fighting deforestation, as the increase was far lower than the 34 per cent increase recorded last year.
"While we are not here to celebrate this, it does signify that the efforts we are making are beginning to bear fruit," Vice-President Hamilton Mourao told reporters at Inpe headquarters in the Sao Paulo satellite city of Sao Jose dos Campos.
Mr Bolsonaro has weakened the environmental enforcement agency Ibama and called for introducing more commercial farming and mining in the Amazon region, arguing it will lift the region out of poverty.
Environmental advocates say this has emboldened illegal ranchers, miners and land grabbers to clear the forest.
The President's main policy response to global outcry over Amazon destruction has been to send in the military, who were first deployed last year and are expected to remain in the region fighting deforestation and forest fires through next April.
Mr Mourao said the government is planning further measures to combat deforestation after the military operation ends in April, without giving details. He said the government must work within its currently tight budget constraints.
The election of Mr Joe Biden as United States president has raised the possibility that the US will ramp up pressure on Brazil over the rainforest. Mr Biden had said in a debate that the world should offer Brazil money to fund efforts to stop deforestation, and threatened economic consequences against Brazil if it did not.
In the western US, the yearly land area burned by severe wildfires has grown eight times larger in less than four decades, researchers said on Monday, warning that higher temperatures and drier conditions are threatening irreparable forest loss.
Some 84,900ha burned in 2017, up from 10,520ha in 1985, in high severity fires that killed more than 95 per cent of trees in their path, according to a study by the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, a government organisation.
The study's authors suggested that land managers promote the use of controlled burns in western US forests.