Smoke rise over a deforested plot of the Amazon jungle in Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, last August.

Studies add to alarm over deforestation in Brazil under Bolsonaro

Two studies have raised further alarm about deforestation in Brazil during the first year of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

One study showed the country lost 12,000 km2 (4,633 sq miles) of forest last year and also provided important information about those behind deforestation. The other research flagged a 27% increase in the destruction of tropical forests in eastern Brazil.

Both studies were released days after it was revealed that the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, had advocated that the government use the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to further weaken the country’s increasingly shaky environmental protection laws. Amazon deforestation and fires have soared since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, vowing to end the “fines industry” of environment agencies and develop the rainforest.

“We need to make an effort while we are in a quiet moment for press coverage because they only talk about Covid,” Salles said in a ministerial meeting in April. Video of the meeting was released on Friday and showed the minister using an expression about cattle to push for “changing all the rules and simplifying norms”.

Environmentalists had warned that this was what the government had been doing.

“The government’s position is weaken policies and this increases deforestation,” said Mariana Mota, a public policy specialist at Greenpeace Brasil. “The deforestation numbers don’t lie.”

The first annual study by MapBiomas – a coalition of NGOs, universities and technology companies – confirmed deforestation alerts from Brazil’s Space Research Institute with high resolution images.

The study found 7,700km2 of the deforestation was in the Amazon. More than three-quarters happened on land registered via a self-registration system Brazilian farmers use to claim ownership – and 99% of deforestation was illegal, MapBiomas found.

The Bolsonaro government is trying to approve a law that would allow farmers who had illegally occupied land on protected reserves before a cutoff date to claim legal title, legislation environmentalists have called the “land grabbers” bill.

Brazil’s vice-president, Gen Hamilton Mourão, leads an “Amazon council” and an environmental operation by thousands of Brazilian soldiers whose effectiveness has been questioned by local media. On 15 May he said the law would help the government fight deforestation.

“[If] we do not know who owns the land, we cannot bring [anybody] to justice,” Mourão said. A vote on the law was postponed this week amid outrage over Salles’s comments.

The MapBiomas study shows Brazil already knows who is responsible for deforestation. The issue is not finding the offenders, it is that fines are often ignored. A study by Human Rights Watch shows that Amazon fines have been suspended since October after the introduction of new procedures by the Bolsonaro government.

The NGO SOS Atlantic Forest has also released figures that showed a 27% increase in the destruction of tropical forests in 17 states in eastern Brazil from October 2018 to October 2019 after two years of falling deforestation. The study showed 145 km2 were felled in the region.