Brazil under Bolsonaro led deforestation in Amazon rainforest in 2022: study

Can Brazil’s Lula da Silva keep his vow to reverse the destruction wrought on the Amazon during his predecessor’s term?

Published : Jul 01, 2023 16:02 IST - 5 MINS READ

The Amazon rainforest is an essential in sequestering carbon dioxide to combat climate change

The Amazon rainforest is an essential in sequestering carbon dioxide to combat climate change | Photo Credit: BRUNO KELLY/REUTERS

In former Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s four years in power, vast tracts of the Amazon fell to make way for mining, cattle ranches, and soybean farming. In 2022 alone, the last year of his leadership, almost two million hectares (5 million acres) of forest was lost.

During his tenure from 2019 to 2022, Bolsonaro’s administration weakened regulation and enforcement around deforestation, shrinking the budgets of agencies monitoring environmental crimes and pushing for laws allowing forest-destroying mining on indigenous land.

It took a toll. Deforestation in Brazil in 2015 accounted for just over a quarter of global tree cover loss in tropical primary forests, which are some of the oldest and most untouched forests in the world. That figure grew to 43 per cent in 2022, according to authors of the new Global Forest Watch (GFW) report published by research organisation World Resources Institute (WRI). The country also saw the highest amount of tree loss not related to fires since 2005, said the report.

But now there’s a new leader. When Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office in January 2023, he promised to halt illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030.

It is an ambitious goal, says Paulo Massoca, a Brazilian environmental scientist and postdoc at Indiana University Bloomington where he is researching interactions between humans and nature. “So, people are clearing the forest to speculate and make money out of it and unfortunately, still today, we don’t value the forest resources,” he told DW.

A tropical deforestation trend

Last year, Brazil was the country with by far the highest rate of tree loss. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia trailed a distant second and third. But deforestation remains a big problem globally.

In 2022, tree cover loss in tropical primary forests rose 10 per cent on last year to 4.1 million hectares. That is the equivalent of 11 soccer fields of forest per minute, according to data from the University of Maryland used in the GFW report.

It is having a devastating impact on the climate. Forests are carbon sinks, absorbing around twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as they emit every year.

Although the WRI reports on all forests, it focusses particularly on tropical rainforests because they are the most at risk. They are also essential to reaching climate targets because they store more CO2 from the atmosphere than other types of wooded regions. As they are destroyed, they release much of the carbon they have captured back into the air.

Forest loss in the tropics alone in 2022 produced 2.7 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the fossil fuel emissions emitted by the world’s most populous country, India, said the report’s authors.

“Since the turn of the century, we have seen a haemorrhaging of some of the world’s most important forest ecosystems, despite years of effort to turn that trend around,” said GFW Director Mikaela Weisse during a press call announcing the report’s results.

“This year’s data show that we are rapidly losing one of our most effective tools for combatting climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting the health and livelihoods of millions of people,” she added.

Also Read | Rigs in a rainforest

Rampant deforestation as a legacy of Bolsonaro’s term

Nowhere is that being seen more than in Brazil. Primary forest loss in the country rose 15 per cent between 2021 and 2022. That means forests in the country are storing less CO2. Continuing loss could eventually “lead to a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the majority of the ecosystem will become a savanna,” according to the GFW report authors.

It is a trend, that experts say could be reversed under President Lula da Silva’s term. In the first five months of 2023, land clearing in the Amazon fell 31 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to figures released by the INPE, Brazil’s national institute for space research.

It is unclear if deforestation rates will continue to fall. But Catarina Jakovac, a biologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Santa Catarina, said there had already been a strengthening of IBAMA, the agency that enforces environmental laws in the Amazon.

“We already saw in the first three months an increase in the number of fines for environmental crimes that IBAMA issues. That’s an indication that now IBAMA is again on the ground and really fighting deforestation. We are seeing these changes and I hope we will see results soon,” she told DW.

Also Read | How has the Amazon rainforest changed under Jair Bolsonaro?

Battling deforestation in the Amazon: Lula da Silva’s race against time

President Lula da Silva has a history of success with reducing tree felling in the Amazon. During his first two terms as President between 2003 and 2010, deforestation rates in the rainforest dropped 80 per cent before rising again in 2012, according to INPE.

An expansion of protected areas, designation of Indigenous regions, and monitoring of the forest were among some of the measures implemented during President Lula da Silva’s first administration. His new government is building on its experience from the past, said environmental scientist Massoca.

“Lula’s government has resumed the process of designating and demarcating protected areas and indigenous lands, recognizing that the importance of these actions to also protect the environment and recognize the rights of the people and the importance of people living in the region,” he said.

But it is likely to take time. Authors of the GFW report warn that there might not be visible progress until 2024 at the earliest. This gives Brazil only six years to meet the pledge it made under Bolsonaro, alongside more than 140 other countries at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, to end deforestation globally by 2030.

Brazil faces the biggest challenge. Biologist Jakovac said it is important to set ambitious goals and that it is also up to the international community to help reach the target of zero deforestation in the world’s most important rainforest.

While around 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest lies within Brazil’s borders, it is the world’s biggest hope to combat climate change. To save it will take a concerted effort and financial investment from the international community.

“[Brazil] needs more people on the ground, we need resources...And also as a consumer of the products that we export, the international community needs to not be buying products that come from deforested lands,” she said.

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