The world’s largest rainforest is one of the planet’s most important “carbon sinks,” absorbing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in its vegetation. By removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the Amazon serves as a powerful counterbalance to all the carbon being released and slows the pace of global warming.
The Amazon also plays a key role in regulating regional weather patterns. Its trees discharge water into the atmosphere through their stems, leaves and flowers through a process called transpiration. The released water can form vast rivers in the sky and rain clouds, which can affect precipitation locally and perhaps as far as Mexico and the United States.
But the forest has come under threat in recent decades as land is cleared and converted largely for cattle ranching and farming. Over the last five decades, the Amazon has lost around 17 percent of its forest.
Some scientists say the Amazon could lose between 20 percent to 25 percent of its forest within a decade, which could irreversibly change the ecosystem. The rainforest would be converted into degraded open savanna, endangering biodiversity, shifting regional weather patterns and accelerating climate change.
“We are entering the tipping point range predicted by scientists,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the advocacy network Climate Observatory. “Now each additional number of deforestation in the Amazon pushes us deeper into this irreversible scenario.”
Romulo Batista, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Brazil, said the spike so far in 2022 is worrisome because deforestation is encroaching from new areas. Deforestation has expanded and cleared more than 1,230 square kilometers in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, a six-year high for region. The states of Para and Mato Grosso experienced 1,105 square kilometers and 845 square kilometers, respectively.
“Especially concerning is how the increase in deforestation is concentrated in a new front in the Southern Amazon,” Batista said in a news release.
Deforestation rates have fluctuated over the last three decades, including at higher rates in the 1990s and early 2000s. In response, the Brazilian government aggressively sought to protect the Amazon, bolstering environmental enforcement agencies and discouraging the export of goods illegally produced from deforested land. The efforts paid off. From 2004 to 2012, the pace of deforestation plummeted by 80 percent.
But deforestation has been on an upward trend in the last three and a half years under the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has enacted policies to support mining and ranching and unraveled environmental protections.
“The deforestation rates under Bolsonaro are double the average of the decade before. That is why they are so alarming,” Astrini said. He said before Bolsonaro, deforestation rose an average of 6,500 square kilometers per year from 2012 to 2018. After Bolsonaro took office, rates were as high as 13,000 square kilometers per year.
“Clearly, fighting deforestation is not a priority of the federal government,” said Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. “The priority seems to be the elections.”
In a statement, the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment defended its record, saying the “government has been extremely forceful in fighting environmental crimes” in key regions of the country. It did not address the recent spike in deforestation.
Bolsonaro has also publicly disagreed with deforestation numbers in the past. “Information about this region goes outside Brazil in a very distorted way” he said during a visit to Hungary in February.
Voters in Brazil will agree in October to elect a new president and national congress. Alencar said deforestation can be worse during election years as people are not as afraid of being punished. Candidates may be less inclined to levy fines and loosen inspections during campaigns.
The continued deforestation of the Amazon comes despite a pledge by Bolsonaro to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and make Brazil carbon-neutral by 2050. Astrini said ending deforestation within the next decade is feasible. For instance, agricultural productivity can be doubled on already cleared land, and some research shows many existing pasture lands can sustain more cattle grazing than supported.
“We know where these areas are, what needs to be done, where deforestation is and how we can implement the policies to avoid deforestation,” said Astrini. But he, Alencar and many others are skeptical such action would happen under the current leadership.
“If we have four more years of the Bolsonaro administration, it will be a government leading us to the collapse of the forest,” said Astrini. “I say it openly, in the October election, the Brazilians will have to make a choice, either Bolsonaro or the forest. Both, for the next four years, will not exist. Only one will survive.”
Until the election, however, Carlos Nobre from the University of Sao Paulo Institute for Advanced Studies said deforestation rates could continue to rise, depending on how people think the election may turn out.
If they think Bolsonaro “will not be reelected, they might really try a maximum of land grabbing, just taking for granted that the next president” will be “very rigorous about law enforcement starting in January,” Nobre said.
Sá Pessoa reported from São Paulo. Patel reported from Washington. Chris Mooney in Washington contributed to this report.