Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has hit the highest August level since the current monitoring system began in 2015, underscoring concerns about the weakening of forest protection under President Jair Bolsonaro.
The world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink lost 1,114.8 sq km (430 sq miles) – equivalent to the area of Hong Kong – in the first 26 days of this month, according to preliminary data from the government’s satellite monitoring agency. The data does not include damage caused by fires currently sweeping parts of the Amazon.
After an even greater surge in July, the country has now experienced the two worst months recorded by the Deter-B satellite system, which was put in place in 2015 to provide short-term alerts to forest rangers.
Scientists warn this year’s clearcutting of forest is now likely to pass 10,000 sq km for the first time in a decade, raising concerns that Brazil is slipping back towards the dark years of 1995-2004.
After annual peaks of over 25,000 sq km around the turn of the century, the government put in place tighter controls, stricter penalties and more efficient monitoring that helped slow deforestation by 80%.
This success won Brazil credit around the world as an environmental leader, but the gains have steadily been eroded in the past five years and accelerated rapidly in the last four months.
Since taking power at the start of the year, Bolsonaro has downgraded environment protection efforts and made clear that he supports miners, farmers and ranchers above indigenous communities and other forest dwellers.
Last month, he fired the head of the National Institute for Space Research, saying the deforestation figures were misleading. Environmentalists say these actions are consistent with the president’s campaign promises to open up the Amazon.
“The August data from Deter is hardly surprising,” said Claudio Angelo of Climate Observatory, an NGO coalition of environmental groups. “The current Brazilian government was elected precisely with the promise of dismantling the policies and governance structures that prevent deforestation, and they are duly delivering on it.”
“Brazil has since 2004 had a plan for preventing and controlling deforestation in the Amazon. That plan is locked up in a drawer at the environment ministry, which shut down the office in charge of implementing it.”
The Deter satellite figures are updated every few days and are considered preliminary, but they are usually a guide to the longer-term trends. More detailed annual figures are released towards the end of the year, after the National Institute for Space Research has calculated data from the more powerful Prodes satellite system.
While the deforestation data is only for clearcutting and does not include fire damage, the two issues are often intertwined. Forests near cleared areas tend to be drier and more vulnerable to flames. Farmers and speculators also often use fire to clear land, either to raise its value or to prepare it for crops.
Politics and government policy are not the only drivers of forest destruction. US president Donald Trump’s trade war with China has also added to the pressure on the forest because Brazil has made up much of the gap in soy exports. The European Union’s recent deal with the South American trade bloc Mercosur is also likely to increase demand for beef, much of which is from cattle raised on land in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado.