Rio de Janeiro - Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon slowed slightly last year, a year after setting a 15-year high, according to closely watched numbers published Wednesday. The data was released by the National Institute for Space Research.
The agency's Prodes monitoring system shows the rainforest lost an area roughly the size of Qatar, about 11,600 square kilometers in the 12 months from August 2021 to July 2022.
That is down 11% compared with the previous year, when more than 13,000 square kilometers were destroyed.
For more than a decade deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined dramatically and never rose back above 10,000 square kilometers. Then came the presidency of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, beginning in January 2019.
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This will be the last report published under Bolsonaro, who lost his reelection bid and will leave office January 1. But part of the destruction that took place on his watch will not appear until next year, including the key months from August to October 2022. A because it is the dry season.
An analysis of the new yearly data from Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, shows that in the four years of Bolsonaro's leadership, deforestation rose 60% over the previous four years. That is the largest percentage rise under a presidency since satellite monitoring began in 1998.
FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2019 photo, a burned area of the Amazon rainforest is seen in Prainha, Para state, Brazil.
In one state, Para, a fierce rate of destruction fell by 21% yet it was still the center of one-third of all Brazil's Amazon forest loss. Part of the tree cutting and burning happens in areas that are ostensibly protected. One such area is Paru State Forest, where the nonprofit Amazon Institute of People and the Environment registered 2 square kilometers of deforestation in just October.
'In recent years, deforestation has reached protected areas where previously there was almost no destruction,' Jacqueline Pereira, a researcher with the Amazon Institute, told The Associated Press. 'In Paru's region, the destruction is driven by lease of land for soybean crops and cattle.'
Another critical area is the southern part of the state of Amazonas, the only state that increased deforestation in the most recent data, by 13% compared to the year before. It's largely attributable to Bolsonaro's push to pave about 400 kilometers of the only road that connects Manaus, home to 2.2 million people, with Brazil's larger urban centers further south. Most Amazon deforestation occurs alongside roads where access is easier and land value is higher.
Researchers and environmentalists have blamed Bolsonaro's policies for the surge in deforestation. The administration weakened environmental agencies and backed legislative measures to loosen land protections in the name of economic development, paired with a view of occupying a sparsely populated territory at any cost. This policy has emboldened land robbers and spurred more illegal mining.
Bolsonaro's successor, leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, promised cheering crowds at the recent U.N. climate conference in Egypt to end all deforestation in the country by 2030.
'There will be no climate security if the Amazon isn't protected,' he said.
The last time da Silva was president, from 2003 to 2010, deforestation fell sharply. On the other hand, he backed initiatives that set in motion destruction in the long run, such as the construction of the mammoth Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and generous loans to the beef industry. Chopping down forest for pasture is the primary driver of deforestation.
The Amazon rainforest, which covers an area twice the size of India, acts as a buffer against climate change by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. It's also the most biodiverse forest in the world, and the home of tribes that have lived in the forest for thousands of years, some of them living in isolation.
'If da Silva wants to decrease forest destruction by 2023, he must have zero tolerance for environmental crime from Day One of his administration. That includes holding accountable those who sabotaged environmental governance in the country while in office over the past four years,' said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory.