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Amazon deforestation: tragic uptick

Irene Banos Ruiz
December 1, 2016

A sad record in 2016: the Amazon rainforest has suffered the largest reported forest loss since 2008. Environmentalists are very concerned about impacts on biodiversity and climate protection.

Amazon deforestation
Image: Reuters/U. Marcelino

The rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has increased again in 2016, for the fourth consecutive year - loss of rainforest this year has been the greatest since 2008. This according to new data from the Brazilian state environmental research institute INPE.

Deforestation causes loss of biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Brazil is among the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world and at the same time, the Amazon rainforest is home to 10 percent of the world's known species.

Environmental activists are up in arms to stop the logging, but are aware that without governmental support, this is in vain. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government says it is renewing efforts to prevent deforestation.

Annual net change in forest area

A step backward

Although forest areas have been decreasing globally since 1990, the good news is that forest loss per year is half as much as it was then. But the latest Amazon rainforest data has cast a shadow over illusions of global reforestation.

Over the past four years, deforestation appears to be unstoppable for the world treasure. According to the Brazilian state environmental research institute INPE, the Amazon rainforest has lost nearly 8,000 square kilometers between August 2015 and July 2016 - that's more than five times the area of London.

While still on the topic of impressive numbers, the rate of Amazon deforestation in 2016 has increased 29 percent compared to 2015 - and this is the greatest reported forest loss since 2008.

On the bright side: the current deforestation level still represents a reduction of 71 percent compared to 2004.

Infografik weltweite Abholzung englisch

What's behind the peaks

In 2012, the rate of Amazon deforestation reached its lowest level since the 1990s - but since then, it's started to increase again.

Roberto Maldonado, South America officer of WWF Germany, explained to DW that the main reason behind the increase of almost 30 percent traces back mainly to a lack of governmental will to fight illegal logging.

By 2005, Brazil managed to strongly reduced deforestation, which had peaked the previous year. At that time, the Brazilian government created a highly successful program to reduce deforestation.

"It showed the whole world that it is possible to decrease deforestation substantially," Maldonado said.

However, around 2010, agricultural and industrial lobbies requested reform of the Brazilian forest code in favor of their interests, Maldonado explained. "Since the new code was enforced in 2012, the deforestation rate has doubled again," he stated.

Deforestation trend in the Amazon rainforest

Yet the Brazilian Ministry of Environment claims that deforestation increased in 2016 due a variety of factors out of the government's control, namely: budget cuts, financial constraints and unemployment.

"We went through a political crisis coupled with economic recession, which created the perception of less stringent command and control, and the absence of government action in the Amazon region," said Everton Lucero, the national secretary of climate change and environmental quality for the Brazilian Ministry of Environment.

Maldonado also highlighted how natural events related to climate change can contribute to increasing deforestation. "Drought, for instance, makes it easier to open forests [to logging]."

Climate and biodiversity suffer

Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of Brazil's greenhouse gas watchdog, said that the present increase in annual deforestation represents 130 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions - about twice the yearly emissions of Portugal.

Indeed, one of the most alarming consequences of deforestation is increased greenhouse gas emissions. The Amazon rainforest plays a crucial role in locking carbon from the atmosphere into trees, preventing global warming. When trees are cut down, this carbon returns to the atmosphere.

"Brazil is unfortunately one of the main greenhouse gas emitters worldwide - and this is due not to industry or transport, rather to deforestation," Maldonado said.

Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon
The Amazon is among the most biodiverse regions in the worldImage: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Andreas Kay

Biodiversity is also on the chopping block. Deforestation might drive some species extinct - due mainly to habitat loss, but also due to habitat fragmentation.

Who is responsible?

"The main responsibility lays in the Brazilian government and the company lobbies," Maldonado said.

Lucero told DW that the Brazilian government is reviewing plans to combat deforestation, addressing key deforestation vectors through satellite monitoring.

The government intends to promote sustainable development in forest areas and stimulate sustainable management of wood and non-wood products. The Brazilian Ministry of Environment moreover says it will provide a larger budget, and support for enforcement agencies and subnational authorities to prevent and control deforestation.

The forest code blamed for the increase of deforestation will support governmental efforts, Lucero added.

Maldonado pointed out that not only governments are responsible - we can all change our consumption behavior, which also has long-term impact.

The quantity of meat consumed by a single average German citizen, for instance, contributes to the deforestation of around 300 square meters of cerrado plantation in Brazil - since tropical savanna is cleared to grow crops for animal feed. 

"We can all contribute to a zero-deforestation future by changing our consumption patterns," he concluded.