Amazon deforestation increased by one-third in past year

 Satellite analysis reveals that since 2000 an area equal to 50 football pitches has been destroyed every minute since 2000

Destruction of the Amazon rainforest has increased by almost one-third in the past year, reversing a decade-long trend of better protection for the world’s greatest rainforest.

Environmentalists blamed a controversial weakening of legal protections passed by President Dilma Rousseff for the increase in deforestation by loggers and farmers. But the environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, rejected this, saying the overall trend was “positive” and that eliminating illegal deforestation remained the government’s goal.

The set-back in the Amazon came as the first global, high-resolution, satellite analysis of global deforestation revealed that since 2000 an area equal to 50 football pitches has been destroyed every minute. The total loss is 10 times the area of the UK, with only a third being replaced by natural and planted reforestation, and the destruction is accelerating in the tropics.

The razing of forests is a major contributor to the emissions that drive climate change. Trees provide a vital store of carbon, as well as providing livelihoods for a billion people. But deforestation has more than doubled in Indonesia, Paraguay, Malaysia and Cambodia, largely due to illegal logging.

In the Amazon, the use of satellite data has helped the government slash deforestation by 80% since 2003-4 by allowing police to pinpoint illegal activity in the vast forest, which is bigger than western Europe. But the 5,800km2 in 2012-13 was a 28% increase on the record-low in the previous year.

Paulo Adario, leader of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign, said the spike was scandalous: “The government can’t be surprised by this increase in deforestation, given that their own action is what’s pushing it. The change in the Forest Code and the resulting amnesty for those who illegally felled the forest sent the message that such crimes have no consequences.”

The revised Forest Code was passed in 2012 after more than a decade of efforts by Brazil’s powerful agricultural lobby. The changes eased restrictions for smaller landowners, allowing them to clear land closer to riverbanks, and allowed those who had illegally felled land to not face penalties if they signed an agreement to replant trees, which many environmentalists say is unlikely to be enforced.

Adario added that the push by Rousseff government’s for infrastructure projects in the Amazon region was also a cause, noting that much of the recent destruction was along a government-improved highway running through Para and Mato Grosso states, which eases the transport of illegal timber. Another factor is high global food prices which drives forest clearance for cattle and soya farming.

“There are various ways to spin this figure, but there’s no way it’s good news,” said Dr Doug Boucher, an expert on tropical forests at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Certainly the amendments to the Forest Code were one reason. It’s a warning that although deforestation can be reduced rapidly and dramatically by strong policies, it can also increase again when those policies are weakened.”

Brazil has demanded funding from rich nation’s to cut deforestation and has been sensitive to criticism of its effort to develop and improve the living standards of its 200 million people. In 2009, the then president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said: “I don’t want any gringo asking us to let an Amazon resident die of hunger under a tree. We want to preserve, but they will have to pay the price for this preservation because we never destroyed our forest like they mowed theirs down a century ago.”

About three-quarters of Brazil’s emissions come from rainforest clearing, as trees are burned or felled and rot, making the nation the world’s sixth-biggest emitter of the carbon dioxide. The new global satellite study shows that Indonesia, despite being just a quarter of the size of Brazil, now destroys about the same area of forest.

“Recent progress has been made with Indonesia’s forest moratorium, which prevents new licenses to clear primary forest, but it suffers enforcement challenges,” said Prof Matt Hansen, at the University of Maryland, who led the global satellite study with Google and other researchers. “It’s too early to tell if the moratorium has actually reduced forest loss.”

Hansen said “timely” annual updates of global deforestation will start in early 2014: “Prior to this, most information about forests is years out-of-date by the time it finds its way into policymakers’ hands.”


Damian Carrington © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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