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'Shameful and Outrageous': New Satellite Data Reveals Brazilian Amazon Deforestation at 12-Year High

"Instead of acting to prevent the increase in deforestation, the Bolsonaro government has been denying the reality of the situation, dismantling environmental agencies, and attacking NGOs."

Illegal Amazon logging on Pirititi tribal land in Roraima state, Brazil on May 8, 2018. (Photo: Felipe Werneck/fickr/cc)

An illegal Amazon logging operation on land belonging to the Pirititi Indigenous people in Roraima state, Brazil, seen in an aerial photograph taken on May 8, 2018. (Photo: Felipe Werneck/flickr/cc)

Immense tracts of Amazon rainforest roughly the size of Hawaii's Big Island were destroyed in Brazil over the past year as deforestation increased to a 12-year high under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, data released Monday by the country's space research agency reveals. 

The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reports satellite imagery showed 4,281 square miles of rainforest were destroyed between August 2019 and July 2020, an increase of 9.5% over the previous reporting period.

"These numbers are a deliberate result of the current Brazilian government's agenda, as well as the actions of the U.S.-headquartered investors like BlackRock."
—Daniel Brindis, Greenpeace USA

Cristiane Mazzetti, Amazon campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil, said in a statement that while the latest figures were "expected," they are still devastating.

"Instead of acting to prevent the increase in deforestation, the Bolsonaro government has been denying the reality of the situation, dismantling environmental agencies, and attacking NGOs who work on the ground in the Amazon," she added. 

Daniel Brindis, forests campaign director at Greenpeace USA, placed some of the blame for the crisis on rapacious capitalism.  

"These numbers are a deliberate result of the current Brazilian government's agenda, as well as the actions of the U.S.-headquartered investors like BlackRock," Brindis said.

"As President-elect Joe Biden urges Brazil to end deforestation, he not only needs to look at the intentional causes of this increase, but he also must address the U.S.'s role in the crisis," he added.

Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian environmentalist working at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, told the Guardian that the latest figures are "humiliating, shameful, and outrageous." 

"Gigantic areas of forest... are being lost simply because under Bolsonaro those who are doing the destroying feel no fear of being punished," Rittl said.

"Bolsonaro's great achievement when it comes to the environment has been this tragic destruction of forests which has turned Brazil into perhaps one of the greatest enemies of the global environment and into an international pariah too."

The Amazon is a critical carbon store frequently referred to as the "lungs of the planet" for its role in keeping CO2 emissions in check. The massive 2.1 million square mile forest—it's larger than India and Argentina combined—is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, boasting some three million plant and animal species. 

Nearly a million Indigenous people from over 300 tribes, including some who have never had any contact with the outside world, call the Amazon home. 

However, protecting the forest has not been a priority for the business-friendly Bolsonaro administration, which has strongly encouraged economic development including logging, mining, expansion of agricultural activity, and the construction of a major highway and dam in the region.

Many of these activities are devastating the land and the people who live there. However, Bolsonaro and administration officials have vowed to push ahead with these and other projects, calling the Amazon "unproductive" and "desert-like." Bolsonaro has also called the Amazon a "periodic table" of mineral wealth ripe for exploitation. 

As wildfires have ravaged the region in recent years, the administration has rolled back environmental protection laws and regulations and targeted scientists and officials who sound the alarm on the deforestation crisis.

Around 90% of Amazon destruction occurs illegally, according to Greenpeace Brazil. However, the administration has slashed spending on the government agencies dedicated to enforcing environmental law and punishing illicit farming and logging. 

In July, Bolsonaro sacked Dr. Lubia Vinhas, the head of INPE's Earth Observation Agency, days after the publication of a report showing record Amazon deforestation. Last year, the president fired the head of the Brazil Forum for Climate Change, which is tasked with meeting the country's obligations under the Paris climate agreement. 

Bolsonaro's aggressive development agenda has earned the former army officer the moniker "Captain Chainsaw." Like his ally President Donald Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro and his ministers have also dangerously downplayed the severity of the global climate crisis. 

"Deforestation and fires will never end," Bolsonaro defiantly declared in the face of mounting criticism last year. 

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