Sustainable Future

Why deforestation in Brazil's Amazon has soared to its highest level in 15 years

Key Points
  • The Amazon rainforest covers land in nine countries, but around 60% lies in Brazil.
  • According to Greenpeace, one-third of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon is linked to so-called land grabbing of public land, mainly driven by meat producers clearing space for cattle ranches.
  • At the COP26 climate summit in November, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed an international pledge to end deforestation by 2030.
Diseased palm trees affected by a virus that causes the tree to rot in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
UniversalImagesGroup | Getty Images

Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest surged in 2021, reaching a 15-year high as it emerged that the forest has begun emitting more carbon than it can absorb.

Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) estimated last month that 13,235 square kilometers (5,110 square miles) of the forest was cleared between August 2020 and July 2021 — the greatest area lost to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since 2006.

'A nightmare for scientists'

The Amazon rainforest covers land in nine countries, but around 60% lies in Brazil.

According to Greenpeace, one-third of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon is linked to so-called land grabbing of public land, mainly driven by meat producers clearing space for cattle ranches.

At the COP26 climate summit in November, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed an international pledge to end deforestation by 2030.

But deforestation has increased in Brazil under Bolsonaro's rule. He has courted controversy during his presidency for encouraging activities like mining and agriculture in the Amazon and has been criticized for making efforts to pass laws that would allow commercial developments on protected land. The president has also offered financial incentives to indigenous tribes who develop their land in the rainforest into soy plantations, according to Reuters.

In August, Brazil's lower house of Congress passed a bill that would make it easier for squatters on public land to be granted deeds to that land. It came after a separate bill, passed by the lower house in May, paved the way for mining, agriculture and other projects in the Amazon to be greenlit more easily. Both bills are now set to be considered by Brazil's Senate for approval.

Luciana Gatti, a climate scientist at INPE, described the levels of deforestation seen in the Amazon as "a nightmare."

"It's really crazy and self-destructive — this really is a nightmare for scientists because we try to advise that this is the complete opposite way from where we need to go, but we are not listened to," she told CNBC. "We need the Amazon to maintain precipitation, regulate temperatures and absorb CO2."

International responsibility

Gatti said illegal activity in the Amazon is driving the current rate of deforestation, but argued that many countries are participating in the destruction of the rainforest by importing certain products, like wood and beef, from Brazil.

"If you're importing beef from Brazil, 40% of it comes from the Amazon — [many importers] don't request any proof that these imports don't represent deforestation," she said. "The problem in the last few years is that Brazil's money has become very cheap, so for producers to export beef or corn or soybeans it's much more lucrative, and then they grow the size of their sites in the Amazon."

One key pledge made by Bolsonaro's administration has been to open Brazil's economy up to the world through international trade. When forest fires raged in the Amazon in 2019, some countries suggested Brazil should face economic sanctions if it failed to protect the rainforest. While Bolsonaro responded with anger to those suggestions, the country's biggest export market is currently China, the world's biggest polluter.

Gatti also said mining in the rainforest was poisoning the water that indigenous people and wildlife rely on to survive.

The government "doesn't see that our biggest treasure is the Amazon," she said. "The Amazon is our climate protection because it absorbs carbon and produces precipitation. But now, each dry season is drier and hotter, and this has uncontrolled burning. We try to advise, but they don't listen, and what they are producing for Brazil is a terrible future — a nightmare."

'They want to shut my mouth'

According to Gatti, federal workers like herself are under pressure to take the government line on issues like the environment.

We feel "very strong pressure to not say anything that the government doesn't like," she told CNBC. "They don't like [hearing about deforestation and climate change], they have crazy ideas that come from people who think the earth is flat — it's unbelievable. They don't like me because I say things that they don't believe in and they don't agree with. They want to shut my mouth."

A spokesperson for the Brazilian government told CNBC it was fully committed to reducing deforestation rates in the Amazon.

"Recent preliminary data showed that November 2021 saw the smallest number of Amazon deforestation spots for that month since 2015," they said in an emailed statement.

They added that the Brazilian government had endorsed the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use, issued at COP 26, which it said was "consistent with measures being implemented at domestic level to curb deforestation rates, aiming at eliminating illegal deforestation by 2028."

In 2019, Bolsonaro clashed with world leaders over his handling of huge forest fires raging through the Amazon and allegedly fired the former head of INPE after the space agency published data showing a massive surge in forest fires.

Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil's National Institute for Research in Amazonia, told CNBC that the situation in the Amazon is "definitely getting worse," with deforestation and forest degradation rising because of activities like logging and forest fires.

VIDEO5:3605:36
Why is the Amazon burning?

"Virtually all of the fires are started by people," he said in a phone call. "Once in a while one can start by lightning, but it's not a coniferous forest like the ones in North America, where you have that common cause. And it isn't only illegal deforestation and so forth, you also have legal deforestation and legal logging."

"One of the things that's been happening is making lots of things legal, that used to be illegal," he added. "And we have at least one more year of the current president, which would indicate that if these things don't increase, the numbers will at least stay high."

The legalization of claims on public land in the Amazon had made land grabbing even more attractive, Fearnside said, noting that this had stimulated forest loss as deforestation was "the way you stake your claim to the land."

He added that around 47% of the state of Amazonas fell into the category of designated public land, which was vulnerable to land grabbers.

"You have this discourse that has come from the president himself, and also from ministers below, who are sending the message that you can break laws and invade these protected areas and you will be pardoned," Fearnside said.

"Continuing at this rate means a significant emission of greenhouse gases and other climatic consequences for Brazil, but you also have the water that is recycled by the forest."

"This year, we had a severe drought with huge consequences. That's not directly because of deforestation, it's linked to global warming," he added. "But if this new level of [temperature] variation is added to, reducing the transport of water from Amazonia would be catastrophic for Brazil. Brazil, of course, is the main victim, but Argentina and so forth are also very much affected. It's not a global thing, but it has tremendous consequences in this part of the world."

Correction: This story has been updated to correct a conversion to square miles.