Brazil Amazon deforestation soars to 11-year high under Bolsonaro

Right-wing president favours developing the rainforest, despite environmental cost

(FILES) File photo taken on August 28, 2019, showing an aerial view of deforestation in Nascentes da Serra do Cachimbo Biological Reserve in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin.  Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil surged to nearly 10,000 square kilometers in the year to July 2019 -- the highest in more than a decade, officials said on November 18, 2019. / AFP / Joao LAET
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Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose to its highest in more than a decade this year, government data on Monday showed, confirming a sharp increase under the leadership of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

Data from Brazil’s INPE space research agency showed deforestation soared 29.5 per cent to 9,762 square kilometres for the 12 months until August.

This prompted an uncharacteristic admission by the government that action was needed to stop encroaching developments.

It was the worst level of deforestation since 2008, putting further pressure on the environmental policy of Mr Bolsonaro, who wants to develop the Amazon region.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and is considered crucial to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide it absorbs.

Risks to the forest drew global concern in August when fires raged through the Amazon, prompting sharp criticism from French President Emmanuel Macron.

At a briefing to discuss the numbers, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the rise in deforestation showed the need for a new strategy to combat the illegal logging, mining and land grabs.

Environmentalists and non-government organisations blamed the government, saying Mr Bolsonaro’s strong pro-development talk and policies to weaken environmental enforcement were behind the rise in illegal activity.

“The Bolsonaro government is responsible for every inch of forest destroyed,” said Marcio Astrini, public policy co-ordinator for Greenpeace. “This government today is the worst enemy of the Amazon.

Mr Bolsonaro’s government has systematically weakened environmental agency Ibama, grounding a team of elite enforcement commandos and forbidding agents from destroying machinery used in illegal deforestation.

Brazil’s Climate Observatory, a network of non-government organisations, said the 2019 increase was the fastest rate of forest loss in percentage terms since the 1990s and the third fastest ever.

Mr Salles promised to introduce measures to counter the rising deforestation, including increased enforcement aided by high-resolution satellite imaging.

The minister said he would meet governors of Amazon states on Wednesday to discuss tactics.

Mr Salles said all options were on the table, including using the military to enforce environmental rules.

For months the government has cast doubt on preliminary data showing destruction was rocketing.

Many times this year Mr Salles claimed the monthly data was unreliable and contained inconsistencies.

He urged journalists not to report the monthly figures and wait for the annual data, which were announced on Monday.

Mr Bolsonaro accused the INPE space research agency of lying about the monthly figures.

INPE chief Ricardo Galvao stood by the data and called Mr Bolsonaro “a joke of a 14-year-old boy who is not suitable for a president of Brazil”. Mr Galvao was later fired.

The annual figure accounts for seven months under Mr Bolsonaro and five months under the previous government.

It does not account for destruction after July. Preliminary data for August to October shows deforestation more than doubled compared with the same period in 2018, to 3,704 sq km.

Activists say they fear protection could be weakened further as the government considers allowing commercial agriculture on native reserves, expanding wildcat mining and letting illegally occupied land to be “regularised”.