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In 18 years, Brazil’s forests lost an area almost the size of Spain

. Sep 28, 2020
forests brazil deforestation Photo: Dzmitry Palubiatka/Shutterstock

President Jair Bolsonaro is facing tremendous heat for his laissez-faire approach to the environment. Since he took office in 2019, his administration has been accused by federal prosecutors of “purposely dismantling” the country’s environmental agencies and all but encouraging illegal deforestation. During an infamous April 22 cabinet meeting that became public in an unrelated investigation, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the government should take advantage of the undivided attention of the press on the Covid-19 pandemic to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all of the rules and simplifying standards.”

But as deleterious as the Bolsonaro administration has been for the environment, uncontrolled deforestation is a problem that predates the far-right leader.

A new study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) shows that, between the years 2000 and 2018, the country <a href="https://agenciadenoticias.ibge.gov.br/agencia-noticias/2012-agencia-de-noticias/noticias/28944-ibge-retrata-cobertura-natural-dos-biomas-do-pais-de-2000-a-2018">lost around 500 square kilometers</a> of its native forests — an area almost as large as Spain.</p> <p>According to researchers, all six Brazilian biomes —&nbsp;Amazon, Caatinga (semi-arid), <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2018/08/28/cerrado-preservation-forest/">Cerrado</a> (savannah), Atlantic Forest, Pampa (lowlands), and Pantanal (wetlands) —&nbsp;have lost part of their vegetation. With the exception of the latter two, the pace of deforestation had decreased until 2018, a trend which has since been reversed.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/3MHdmGG0VzFrNX4m9d7oKi" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Brazil&#8217;s lost forest in the 21st century</h2> <p>While Amazon deforestation generates international outcry, the rainforest was not actually the biome which lost the most land, proportionally speaking. The Brazilian portion of the pampa lowlands — the biome also extends to parts of Argentina and all of Uruguay — lost nearly 17 percent of its original forests between 2000 and 2018. Over that same period, the Cerrado savannahs lost almost 13 percent of vegetation.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the Amazon — the largest biome in Brazil —&nbsp;<a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/08/28/amazon-fires-whatsapp-brazil-bolsonaro-macron/">lost 7 percent of its area</a>.</p> <p>That process is tightly linked to the expansion of agriculture in the country: 43 percent of destroyed vegetation was <a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2020/09/05/meat-giant-jbs-once-again-linked-to-deforestation-in-brazil/">converted into pastures</a>, while 19 percent was used for crops. In the Cerrado, for example, plantation areas increased by 102,600 sq km between 2000 and 2018 — growth mainly driven by grain and cereal production.&nbsp;</p> <p>As a matter of fact, an paper published in August by Science magazine shows that just 2 percent of all Brazilian farms account for no less than 62 percent of illegal deforestation in the country. The study, called &#8220;<a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6501/246?utm_source=akna&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_campaign=17072020-ClimaInfo-Newsletter">The rotten apples of Brazil&#8217;s agribusiness</a>,&#8221; says that roughly 20 percent of Brazil&#8217;s soybean exports — and 17 percent of beef exports&nbsp;—&nbsp;might be linked to the illegal destruction of forests.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3840597" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3840597/embed" aria-label=""><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <h2>Pantanal: 2020 has been worse than last two decades</h2> <p>Between 2000 and 2018, the Pantanal wetlands lost roughly 2,100 square kilometers of native vegetation. During that span, Pantanal was the Brazilian biome that suffered the most intense changes to its landscape. According to the IBGE&#8217;s change intensity index (IIM), a measurement to analyze territory transformation, 75 percent of the region saw the highest intensity of change.</p> <p>For comparison&#8217;s sake, only 8 percent of the Amazon rainforest got the same rating.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3840539" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3840539/embed" aria-label=""><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>Still, nothing compares to the sheer level of devastation that the biome is experiencing this year —&nbsp;as criminal fires coupled with <a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2020/07/28/brazil-pantanal-wetland-in-flames-during-harsh-drought/">historic droughts</a>, have destroyed over 23,000 sq km of the Pantanal — a shocking ten times the area lost between 2000 and 2018.</p> <p>Still, during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro called international outcry around deforestation a &#8220;brutal smear campaign&#8221; fostered by &#8220;spurious&#8221; international interests and &#8220;unpatriotic&#8221; Brazilian organizations.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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