Destruction of the Amazon is speeding up

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, or INPE, released new data on the ongoing deforestation of the country’s portion of the Amazon rainforest this week, based on satellite measurements. And the news is very bad.

From August of 2015 through July of this year, the enormous forest lost nearly 8,000 square kilometers of area to clear cutting, representing a 29 percent increase over a year earlier (when 6,207 square kilometers were lost). That’s an area considerably larger than the state of Delaware.

This means that since 2012, when deforestation hit a historic low after many years at high rates, it is now bouncing back again — and doing so at a time when researchers say protecting tropical forests, and allowing them to regrow, is one of the most effective short-term ways of fighting climate change.

“This is a big deal,” said Daniel Nepstad, an Amazon expert and senior scientist at the Earth Innovation Institute. “It is the highest deforestation number since 2008. Compared to the lowest deforestation number, in 2012, it means an extra 150 million tons of CO2 went up into the air through forest destruction.”

“It seems that we are facing a new trend of deforestation,” added André Guimarães, the executive director of Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). “It has increased two years, it’s now close to 8,000 square kilometers. We left behind the level of 5,000 square kilometers, which was stable for three years.”

The loss of tropical forests is a crucial factor in the warming of the planet. Deforestation and the degradation of forests accounts for between 8 and 15 percent of the globe’s total emissions.

The causes of the uptick in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon aren’t fully clear, but experts like Nepstad suggest that it represents a decrease in enforcement on the part of the Brazilian government, which was not only in a state of political upheaval in 2016 but also has been facing a severe recession.

“Suppression of Amazon deforestation is still highly dependent upon command-and-control measures–namely, law enforcement,” he said. “The cost to the government–to Brazilian taxpayers–of catching and penalizing people who are clearing forests illegally is huge and Brazil’s economic crisis has cut into the budgets of the federal environmental enforcement agency (IBAMA) and the state level enforcement agencies. In addition to a weakened enforcement effort, beef prices have increased, making it more lucrative to convert forests into cattle pastures.”

Nepstad says the use of economic incentives to reduce deforestation is what’s currently missing, and that enforcement measures alone won’t be enough.

In its pledge to the world under the Paris climate agreement, the government of Brazil laid out plans to halt all illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030 and to restore 12 million hectares (120,000 square kilometers) of forests by that year. It’s clearly moving in the wrong direction if it wants to achieve this goal.

Moreover, the idea of waiting until 2030 to stop illegal actions is itself a way of sending “mixed signals,” said Guimarães. “The central government tells, ‘Look, we are going to stop illegal deforestation in 15 years.’ That means, keep on going with your illegal activities, because we’ll deal with that 15 years from now.”

At least until fairly recently, Brazil was seen as a success story when it came to cutting back on deforestation of the Amazon. Deforestation totals in the 1990s and early 2000s were astronomical — averaging 19,500 square kilometers per year between 1995 and 2005. Yet with tougher law enforcement and other measures such as an international soy moratorium, it had plunged to a low of 4,571 square kilometers by 2012.

The problem is that it is now clearly going up again.

“The increase in deforestation rates can be linked to signals from Brazil’s government that it will tolerate the destruction of the Amazon. In recent years, public environmental protection policies in Brazil have weakened. For example, very few protected areas and Indigenous Lands have been created, and a new Forest Code was approved in 2012 that gives amnesty to those who committed illegal deforestation,” said Cristiane Mazzetti, Amazon campaigner with Greenpeace, in a statement.

George Mason University professor Thomas Lovejoy, who operates a research project in a completely undisturbed part of the Amazon near Manaus, in collaboration with the Brazilian government, saw a recently deforested plot along a road close to the research area last December. He now says it was a “first indication” of the deforestation increase.

“For our immediate situation we are cutting down road access,” he said by email from Manaus.

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