Amazon deforestation surges, fuelling fears of more wildfires

Virus pandemic making situation harder as it takes away resources to protect forest, its inhabitants

A Brazilian farmer surveying a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, in August last year during devastating record wildfires in the country. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit a new high in the first four months
A Brazilian farmer surveying a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, in August last year during devastating record wildfires in the country. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit a new high in the first four months of this year, according to data just released.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIO DE JANEIRO • It has not had much attention, with the world focused on the coronavirus, but deforestation has surged in the Amazon rainforest this year, raising fears of a repeat of last year's record-breaking devastation - or worse.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit a new high in the first four months of the year, according to data released on Friday by Brazil's National Space Research Institute, which uses satellite images to track the destruction.

A total of 1,202 sq km of forest - an area more than 20 times the size of Manhattan - was wiped out in the Brazilian Amazon from January to April, it found. That was a 55 per cent increase from the same period last year, and the highest figure for the first four months of the year since records began in August 2015.

The data raises new questions about how well Brazil is protecting its share of the world's biggest rainforest under President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right climate change sceptic who advocates opening protected lands to mining and farming.

"Unfortunately, it looks like what we can expect for this year are more record-breaking fires and deforestation," Greenpeace campaigner Romulo Batista said.

Last year, in Mr Bolsonaro's first year in office, deforestation soared 85 per cent in the Brazilian Amazon, to 10,123 sq km of forest.

The destruction was driven by record wildfires that raged across the Amazon from May to October.

The trend so far this year is all the more worrying given that the usual high season for deforestation starts only in late May.

"The beginning of the year is not the time where deforestation normally happens, because it's raining, and it's raining a lot," said Ms Erika Berenguer, an ecologist at Oxford and Lancaster Universities. "In the past, when we see deforestation increase in the beginning of the year, it's an indicator that when deforestation season starts... you're going to see an increase, as well."

Mr Bolsonaro last week authorised the army to deploy to the Amazon to fight fires and deforestation. He also deployed the army last year, after facing scathing international criticism for downplaying the Amazon fires.

Environmentalists said a better plan would be to give more support to Brazil's environmental protection programmes.

  • 1,202

    Area in sq km of forest - an area more than 20 times the size of Manhattan - wiped out in the Brazilian Amazon from January to April.

    55%

    Increase in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from the same period last year.

Under Mr Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources has faced staffing and budget cuts. Last month, the government fired the agency's top environmental enforcement officer, after he authorised a raid on illegal miners that was broadcast on television.

The coronavirus pandemic is only making things more complicated in the Amazon region.

Brazil, which holds over 60 per cent of the Amazon, is the epicentre of the pandemic in Latin America, with nearly 10,000 deaths so far. The state of Amazonas, largely covered in forest, has been one of the hardest hit. With only one intensive care unit, the state has been overwhelmed by the outbreak.

There are also fears of the potentially devastating effects the virus could have among indigenous communities, which are historically vulnerable to outside diseases.

With attention, resources and lives taken away by the virus, the fear is that officials, environmentalists and inhabitants could have less capacity to protect the forest.

The mayor of state capital Manaus, Mr Arthur Virgilio, drew a link between the two tragedies in an appeal last week for help from world leaders, saying: "We need medical personnel, ventilators, protective equipment, anything that can save the lives of those who protect the forest."

It is unclear whether the pandemic will have an impact on deforestation, but the fact that they have surged in tandem in Brazil is cause for concern.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 10, 2020, with the headline 'Amazon deforestation surges, fuelling fears of more wildfires'. Subscribe