Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has rocketed to levels not seen since 2008, thanks to the pro-development/anti-regulation regime of President Jair Bolsonaro. Further endangering one of the planet’s most critical carbon stores: widespread degradation of the rainforest soil and understory.
“A total of 11,088 square kilometres of rainforest were destroyed from August 2019 to July 2020,” reports BBC News, 9.5% more than in the previous year.
The surge in deforestation comes in the same year that Brazil was scheduled to have fulfilled its 2009 commitment to slow the pace of deforestation to an annual 3,900 square kilometres. And scientists are placing the blame squarely at the doorstep of Bolsonaro, aka “Capitão Motoserra” (Captain Chainsaw), who since taking office in January 2019 has been relentless in his quest to turn Brazil’s Amazon into a factory floor for Big Ag, with soy and wheat being key money-makers for the country.
BBC adds that cattle ranching, logging, and mining have also received significant boosts, including measures to cut funding to the federal agencies that act as environmental watchdogs by levying fines and charges.
The latest deforestation figures, announced recently by the country’s satellite agency, “reflect the result of a successful initiative to annihilate the capacity of the Brazilian State and the inspection bodies to take care of our forests and fight crime in the Amazon,” writes BBC, citing comment from the Brazil-based Climate Observatory.
In a detailed May report on the state of the Amazon, BBC News explains how COVID-19 set the stage for further deforestation, as illegal loggers take advantage of the pandemic-driven withdrawal of field agents. “In April, as the number of cases rose and states started adopting isolation measures, deforestation actually increased 64% compared with the same month in 2019.”
While deforestation represents a major threat to the health of the Amazon—both as a lynchpin of biodiversity and critical carbon storehouse—forest degradation is also of urgent concern, BBC adds.
“To only speak of deforestation when we refer to the loss of the Amazon is what I call ‘the great green lie’,” said climate scientist Antonio Donato Nobre. Even if satellite imagery shows the tree canopy intact, he explained, degradation of the understory and soil from human activities like logging or unlicenced hunting make the rainforest far less resilient, and more prone to drought and wildfire.
Citing a study conducted by RAISG (the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network), BBC writes that almost 50% of the Amazon’s emissions come from forest degradation. It also cites a recent report showing that, between 2012 and 2015, Colombia lost 187,955 hectares of Amazonian forest to logging and a further 414,605 hectares, “more than double”, to degradation.
As to why degradation tends not to be factored into measurements of rainforest loss, tropical ecologist Alexander Lees of Manchester Metropolitan University told BBC the phenomenon is difficult to measure. “Although you can see degradation on satellite images, you need to have data from the ground to understand the real picture—whether that area is more or less degraded or is recovering,” he said.
Meanwhile, BBC presented a glimpse of just how many life forms can flourish in one healthy square hectare of rainforest: 310 tree species, 160 bird species, 96 types of epiphytes (mosses), 44 species of fish, 33 types of amphibians, 22 types of reptiles, and 10 types of primates—and in the soil, about a billion invertebrates.