Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has surged pushing the world’s biggest rainforest closer to a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover. The steep rise confirms fears that president Jair Bolsonaro has given a green light to illegal land invasion, logging and burning.
Clearance so far in July has hit 1,345 sq km, a third higher than the previous monthly record. The steady erosion of tree cover weakens the role of the rainforest in stabilising the global climate. Trees are considered essential to climate stability. Scientists warn that the forest is in growing danger of degrading into a savannah, after which its capacity to absorb carbon will be severely diminished, with consequences for the rest of the planet. After an 80% reduction in the rate of deforestation between 2006 and 2012, successive governments have relaxed protections. Clearance has been creeping up. Last year, deforestation rose 13% to the highest level in a decade. This year is on course to be far worse and the trend is back towards the dark days of the early 2000s.
“It’s very important to keep repeating these concerns. There are a number of tipping points which are not far away,” said Philip Fearnside, a professor at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research. “We can’t see exactly where they are, but we know they are very close. It means we have to do things right away. Unfortunately that is not what is happening. There are people denying we even have a problem.”
Bolsonaro, with strong support from agribusiness and mining interests, has eroded government agencies responsible for forest protection. He has weakened the environment agency and effectively put it under the supervision of the agricultural ministry, which is headed by the leader of the farming lobby. His foreign minister has dismissed climate science as part of a global Marxist plot. The president and other ministers have criticised the forest monitoring agency, Ibama, for imposing fines on illegal land grabbers and loggers. The government has also moved to weaken protections for nature reserves, indigenous territories and zones of sustainable production by forest peoples and invited businesspeople to register land counter-claims within those areas.
This has emboldened those who want to invade the forest, clear it and claim it for commercial purposes, mostly in the speculative expectation it will rise in value, but also partly for cattle pastures, soya fields and mines. It was reported that thousands of gold miners illegally invaded Yanomami indigenous territory near the border with Venezuela. Elsewhere, illegal loggers have mounted at least two attacks in response to Ibama enforcement operations. Environment minister Ricardo Salles appeared to side with the loggers when he gave a speech to a group of them in Rondônia soon afterwards, in which he reportedly told them: “The timber industry deserves to be respected…What happens today in Brazil, unfortunately, is the result of years and years and years of a public policy of producing laws, rules, regulations that are not always related to the real world. What we are doing now is precisely bringing the legal part of the real world that happens in every country from north to south.”
"President Jair Bolsonaro and minister Ricardo Salles are dismantling our socio-environmental policies,” said Carlos Rittl, the executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, an NGO formed by a coalition of environmental groups. He said Salles had eradicated the department responsible for policies to combat deforestation, that no leaders have been appointed in eight of the nine Ibama regional offices, and that operations to combat environmental crimes declined 70% between January and April 2019 compared with the same period last year.
Bolsonaro told the German chancellor Angela Merkel that she had no right to criticise because Brazil’s conservation record was superior to that of Europe’s. This is a dubious claim, according to Climate Observatory, which cites World Bank data that shows Germany has given protected status to a bigger share of its land than Brazil.