Despite recent headline-grabbing promises to protect its rainforest before the end of the decade, Brazil has once again seen a jump in deforestation.
The latest figures released by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which tracks the state of the Amazon rainforest, showed a 22% increase from last year. Some 13,235 square kilometers (5,110 square miles) disappearing between August 1, 2020 and July 31, 2021. The new statistics were dated October 27 — before the start of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow — prompting environmental organizations like Greenpeace to accuse the Brazilian government of trying to clean up its image during the crucial talks.
"There is no amount of greenwashing that can hide what [President Jair] Bolsonaro is doing to destroy the Amazon. If anyone believed Bolsonaro's government's empty promises at COP, the truth is in these numbers. Unlike Bolsonaro, the satellites don't lie," the group said in a press statement.
A pledge to save the rainforest?
Brazil, along with more than 100 other global leaders, pledged during the UN climate conference in Glasgow to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030. Its Amazon rainforest represents about a third of all the tropical forests left on Earth.
This huge, biologically rich region is key to helping absorb planet-warming CO2; forests absorb roughly 30% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Resources Institute.
But, despite a significant drop in deforestation from a high of 27,700 square kilometers (10,700 square miles) in 2004 to just over 4,500 square kilometers in 2012, illegal logging, agricultural expansion and damaging wildfires have slowly pushed that rate back up over the last decade — especially since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019.
"The environmental track record of Brazil's federal government is appalling, and multiple lines of evidence show that they have been simultaneously encouraging deforestation whilst reducing investment in environmental enforcement," said Jos Barlow, a British conservation science professor based at Lancaster University, who has worked in Brazil since 1998.
"Without a dramatic change in their approach, the commitments made at COP should be seen in this context — at least until the election in a year's time," he told DW.
Amazon has 'already changed beyond all recognition'
The Brazilian rainforest plays a key role in mitigating climate change, but Bolsonaro is primarily concerned with its economic possibilities. Under his government, environmental authorities have been defunded and land protections loosened. This has encouraged loggers, farmers and cattle ranchers to further develop the Amazon region, some 60% of which — about the size of western Europe — is found in Brazil.
"The Amazon is in the center of the global debate on climate change," said Andre Guimaraes, executive director of Brazilian think tank, Amazon Environmental Research Institute, in an email to DW. "It stocks carbon, and it is a source of rain to agriculture and energy. But nothing seems to echo [with] the federal administration, that has chosen wrong, expensive and inefficient ways to deal with deforestation."
Some observers believe parts of the world's largest remaining rainforest may be nearing a tipping point, beyond which its ecosystem could collapse and substantially weaken any efforts to limit global heating.
Barlow, a co-founder of the Sustainable Amazon Network research group, has noticed significant changes in the Santarem region, in the eastern part of the Amazon. Since the 1980s, he said the region has seen a 34% decrease in rainfall during the dry season, a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) and an increase in huge wildfires that have wiped out more than 1 million hectares of forest.
"The forests and the landscapes have already changed beyond all recognition in the past 20 years, and the rate of change is speeding up. So yes, it is very close to a tipping point. But I like to hope we can still avert it, even in these regions," he told DW.
EU takes steps to limit deforestation
Barlow was encouraged by the actions of state-level governments in the Amazon region, some of which have made their own commitments to stop deforestation. "There is also increasing international pressure, with Europe and the UK committing to deforestation-free commodity imports," he said.
On Wednesday, the European Commission presented a proposal to restrict imports on goods linked to deforestation, among them soybeans, palm oil, beef, wood and products made from them. Brazil, which produces many of these products, would be hit particularly hard.
"These initiatives show that the European Union is serious about the green transition," said Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice president in charge of the EU's Green Deal, adding that this would help "promote sustainable consumption."
"This is an important step in the right direction, and it provides a powerful incentive for business to adapt and regulate itself," said Barlow. But, he added, it wasn't enough: implementation would be a "huge challenge," as would compliance. And, he pointed out, much of Brazil's beef is exported to places outside of the EU, like Egypt and, more generally, the Middle East. "We need all countries to agree to this."
The measure, which could still undergo changes before coming into force, will still need approval from EU member states and the European Parliament.
Barlow also said measures to limit forest degradation and support the livelihoods of local Amazonians were crucial, a stance echoed by Giulia Bondi, an EU forest campaigner with transparency group Global Witness.
"The European Parliament and EU member states must now strengthen this law to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, stop EU financiers bankrolling and profiting from global deforestation and associated abuses, and include key commodities like rubber and maize," she said in a statement.
Edited by: Jennifer Collins