Research indicates that forest destruction in Brazil has accelerated since 2019, when President Jair Bolsonaro took office.
Brazil recorded the largest ever deforestation in the Amazon rainforest for the month of January, according to new government data, as the destruction continues to worsen despite recent government pledges to bring it under control.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon totaled 430 square kilometers (166 square miles) last month, five times more than in January 2021, according to preliminary satellite data from government space research agency Inpe released on Friday.
It was the highest for January since the start of the current data series in 2015.
The new data came as environmental researchers said the continuing mounting destruction is largely due to President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing leader who since taking office in 2019 has weakened environmental protections in the country.
With little fear of punishment, forests are being cleared for ranches in illegal land grabs, said Britaldo Soares Filho, an environmental modeling researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. High prices for beef, soybeans and other staples are also driving demand for cheap land.
“People might be surprised it hasn’t gone up more,” Soares Filho said.
“There is a race to deforest the Amazon.”
The Environment Ministry said making comparisons using single months does not provide the best picture, saying that between August and January deforestation fell slightly compared to the same period a year ago.
The federal government is acting more forcefully in 2022 to tackle environmental crimes, the department said in a statement to Reuters.
There are also fears that the Amazon region of Colombia faces similar threats. On Tuesday, environmental groups expressed concern over a sharp rise in forest fires which they blamed on logging to make way for cattle ranches, coca fields and illegal roads.
More than 150 academics and activists from Colombia, Brazil, France and Spain sent a letter to Colombian President Ivan Duque urging the government to take a more aggressive stance against deforestation, using the military to put out fires, by creating economic alternatives for the inhabitants of the Amazon region and stopping those who finance forest clearing efforts.
Preserving the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world, is vital to curbing climate change due to the large amount of greenhouse gases absorbed by its trees.
Bolsonaro has long advocated for commercial farming and mining in the Amazon to lift the region out of poverty.
In the face of international pressure from the United States and Europe, Brazil pledged last year to end illegal deforestation by 2028.
At the 2021 UN climate summit, 141 countries – including Brazil – signed a pledge to end deforestation by 2030.
Shortly after these commitments, Inpe released data showing that deforestation in 2021 in the Brazilian Amazon reached its highest level in 15 years. Preliminary data for January shows that the destruction continues to increase.
Ana Karine Pereira, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, said that although Bolsonaro and his government changed their tune last year, their policies remain the same.
Soares Filho and Pereira said deforestation would only stop rising if Bolsonaro lost the presidential election in October.
“Changing the political profile of the president and federal government leaders is crucial right now to see a break in this trend of high levels of deforestation,” Pereira said.