This story is part of Down to Earth, a new Vox reporting initiative on the science, politics, and economics of the biodiversity crisis.
We’re just four months into the year and things are already looking bleak in the Brazilian Amazon.
About 430,000 acres of its lush, species-rich forests have been logged or burned so far in 2021, according to a new analysis of satellite imagery by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). That’s an area roughly 30 times the size of Manhattan.
The analysis, published earlier this week, comes as Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is negotiating a deal with US officials to funnel what could be billions of dollars into his administration to eliminate illegal deforestation within the decade.
At President Joe Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit last week, Bolsonaro vowed Brazil would become carbon neutral by 2050 and recommitted to net-zero deforestation by 2030 — a target his government had previously deserted. “We could not agree more with your call for establishing ambitious commitments on the climate agenda,” Bolsonaro said at the virtual event.
The US is among a handful of foreign governments that have been pushing Brazil to better protect its forests. But a large number of activists, organizations, and former environment ministers warn that giving money to the Bolsonaro administration won’t solve the problem, and could even make it worse.
Either way, the new MAAP report shows that the situation on the ground is dire, as the Amazon gets one step closer to a dangerous tipping point — beyond which it could dry out.
Deforestation surged under Bolsonaro and Trump ignored the problem
Brazil was once a poster child for slowing rampant forest loss. For much of the last two decades, various policy and market interventions “achieved a huge reduction in deforestation in the Amazon,” Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI), wrote in a recent blog post. “Now we’re witnessing a heartbreaking unraveling of that success,” she writes.
Much of that unraveling has taken shape under President Bolsonaro, a populist and Trump ally who took office in 2019. In the first six months of Bolsonaro’s term, enforcement measures to protect the Amazon — such as levying fines and destroying logging equipment in protected areas — fell by 20 percent, according to a New York Times analysis of public records. He also cut funding to the main environmental agency, Ibama, and fired some of its officials. Meanwhile, critics say Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental rhetoric emboldened illegal loggers and land grabbers.
“Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is not the result of a lack of money, but a consequence of the government’s deliberate failure of care,” former Brazilian ministers for the environment Marina Silva and Rubens Ricupero wrote in an op-ed lambasting Bolsonaro on April 22. (The Brazilian government did not return a request for comment.)
Though the exact amount of deforestation varies by source, one thing seems clear: Forest loss has ratcheted up since Bolsonaro took office. “The size of the average deforestation patch experienced a substantial shift in the last two years in response to the current policies, increasing 61 percent in comparison to the average for the previous ten years,” Ralph Trancoso, a researcher at the University of Queensland, wrote in a paper published earlier this month.
Last year, amid an economic lull, primary forest loss in Brazil was up 25 percent compared to 2019, and much higher than any other country, according to WRI. (A spike in forest loss in 2016 and 2017 was mainly due to forest fires.)
All the while, Trump — who withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement and sought similar environmental rollbacks in the US — did little to thwart the destruction. In 2019, for example, Trump backed Bolsonaro as the president rejected foreign aid for fighting wildfires that were raging across the Amazon, Politico reported. (Bolsonaro did issue a decree banning fires in the Amazon and mobilized the military to put them out.)
Even in a post-Trump world, however, there’s no sign that deforestation is slowing in 2021.
The high price paid for forest loss in the Amazon
The MAAP analysis shows that primary forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon amounted to roughly 433,000 acres this year through April 4, and much of it occurred in the southernmost regions of the ecosystem.
The data set is new, so there’s no comparison to the same period in prior years, but it indicates deforestation “remains high,” according to Matt Finer, who directs the MAAP project. (It’s also worth adding that deforestation tends to peak from July through September during the dry season when forest fires are more common.)
Forest loss comes at a high price and runs counter to any plan to curb climate change, especially in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest home to vast amounts of carbon and biodiversity.
Deforestation undermines the Amazon’s ability to offset rising carbon emissions. In fact, a recent study suggests human activity has actually turned the Amazon Basin into a net emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s even scarier is that it could trigger a runaway reaction that may turn regions of the rainforest into a savanna-like ecosystem, stripping it of its many benefits.
Could things change under Biden?
President Biden has made it clear that protecting the Amazon will be part of his ambitious climate change agenda, though it’s not clear how he’ll manage to do it.
At a debate last fall, Biden said foreign governments should provide Brazil with $20 billion in aid to stop deforestation. He added that the country should face consequences if forest loss continues unabated.
Bolsonaro called those comments “disastrous and gratuitous” on Twitter, according to AP. “The greed that some countries have over the Amazon is a reality,” he said. “But the confirmation by someone who is fighting for the command of his country clearly signals that he wants to give up a cordial and profitable coexistence.”
But since Biden took office, Bolsonaro’s administration appears to have struck a much more conciliatory tone.
In the weeks leading up to the Earth Day Summit, officials from the Biden administration held closed-door meetings with Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s minister of the environment, to “find common ground,” the New York Times reported. And in mid-April, Bolsonaro sent a letter to Biden reaffirming a commitment to net-zero deforestation by 2030, in which he emphasized that such a goal would only be achievable with “substantial resources.”
What’s substantial? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal ahead of the summit, Salles said $1 billion “is a very reasonable amount that can be mobilized upfront.”
Critics warn Biden not to trust Bolsonaro and to avoid making a deal
President Bolsonaro is deeply untrusted by environmental and social groups, who have called him the Amazon’s “worst enemy.” They say that any deal with Bolsonaro will be bad for the Amazon and the people who live there.
“Negotiating with Bolsonaro is not the same as helping Brazil solve its problems,” nearly 200 organizations wrote in a letter to Biden in early April, pleading with him not to strike a deal until Bolsonaro’s administration shows tangible results.
“Any project to help Brazil must be built from dialogue with civil society, subnational governments, academia, and, above all, with the local communities that know how to protect the forest and the goods and services it harbors,” they wrote.
Other critics also point out that Brazil had millions of dollars for conserving the rainforest, but the Bolsanaro administration lost access to at least some of that money after it restricted operations of a key fund that received the aid.
The US and other governments have indicated that foreign aid would be contingent on Brazil drawing up a clear plan to curb forest loss that involves local communities. So far this year, however, Brazil seems to have made little headway toward that goal.
In the same week that Bolsonaro sent Biden the letter recommitting to net-zero deforestation, his administration changed the rules for fining environmental crimes that slow their payments, Mongabay reports. And while Bolsonaro said he’d double the budget for environmental enforcement during the Climate Leaders Summit, he approved a cut to the budget of Ibama a day later.
“What the government is missing is not cash,” the ministers wrote in the op-ed, “but a commitment to the truth.”