Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest reached a record high for the first seven months of the year, preliminary government data showed on Friday, as the region approaches the traditional peak of the annual burning season.
Government satellite data showed 5,474 square kilometers (2,113 square miles) were cleared in the region from January to July, up 7.3% from the same period of last year, equal to an area seven times the size of New York City. Exceeding last year’s record, it was the heaviest deforestation for the since period tracking began in 2015, according to national space research agency Inpe, which collects the data.
In July alone, deforestation totaled 1,487 square kilometers, roughly in line with the same month of 2021.
Environmentalists and experts blame President Jair Bolsonaro for rolling back environmental protections, opening room for loggers and ranchers to illegally clear more of the Amazon.
“The figures shock, but don’t surprise,” said Marcio Astrini, head of local environmental group Climate Observatory, adding that “out of control” deforestation in the Amazon was a consequence of government policies reducing protection.
Bolsonaro’s office forwarded a request for comment to the Environment Ministry, which said that in the 12 months through July, there was a 2.16% drop in deforestation over the previous year.
The latest figures come as Brazil approaches the worst of the annual burning season in the Amazon, when ranchers and farmers often set fire to areas deforested earlier in the year. Inpe data show that fires in the region tend to spike in August and September.
In July, Inpe fire alerts increased 8% from the previous year to a total 5,373, though remaining below an average 6,213.
Last month, Brazil’s environmental authority granted an initial permit that will allow a major highway to be paved through the centre of the rainforest, a move that threatens to further increase deforestation.
Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro on the campaign trail had pledged to repave the road, called BR-319, that would connect the largest Amazon city of Manaus year-round to the rest of Brazil.
The road was originally constructed by Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s but rapidly fell into disrepair in the harsh conditions of the rainforest. Much of the route is an impassable stretch of mud during the roughly six-month rainy season.
Paving the road would allow illegal loggers and land grabbers to more easily access remote and relatively untouched areas of the forest, environmental experts said. A study estimated the project would result in a five-fold rise in deforestation by 2030, the equivalent of an area larger than the U.S. state of Florida.
Bolsonaro’s weakening of environmental protections has already spurred soaring deforestation. (Reuters)