Brazil's Bolsonaro Blamed As Illegal Deforestation Pushes Amazon Rainforest to 'Tipping Point,' Expert Warns

The Brazilian Amazon rainforest is being cleared away at such a fast rate that it is approaching a "tipping point" beyond which it may not be able to recover, an expert has warned.

As trees are lost, researchers say there is a risk that large swathes of the forest could transition to savannah as they lose the ability to make their own rainfall via evaporation and transpiration from plants. This could have significant implications for global warming, given that the rainforest absorbs vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

"It's very important to keep repeating these concerns. There are a number of tipping points which are not far away," Philip Fearnside, a professor at Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research, told The Guardian. "We can't see exactly where they are, but we know they are very close. It means we have to do things right away. Unfortunately that is not what is happening. There are people denying we even have a problem."

The warning comes after the latest release of Brazilian government data collected by the DETER-B satellite system, which began operations in 2015 to monitor Amazon deforestation.

The data shows that deforestation has increased to the point where more than three football fields of tree cover are being lost every minute. In this month alone, more than 500 square miles have been cleared—which is already a third higher than the previous monthly record detected by the DETER-B mission.

July looks set to be the first month for several years where the Brazilian rainforest loses an area larger than the size of Greater London—around 605 square miles.

While this data from DETER is considered preliminary—more detailed figures are usually released nearer the end of the year, augmented by observations from other satellites—some environmentalists will say the results confirm suspicions that the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro is encouraging activities that lead to deforestation, such as illegal logging and burnings.

"Unfortunately, it is absurd, but it should not catch anyone by surprise," Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of Brazilian non-profit the Climate Observatory, told The Guardian. "President Jair Bolsonaro and minister Ricardo Salles are dismantling our socio-environmental policies."

Since coming to power seven months ago—with the help of support from the agribusiness and mining industries—Bolsonaro has weakened government agencies responsible for protecting the rainforest, as well as regulations covering indigenous lands and nature reserves. The environment agency was effectively placed under the jurisdiction of the agricultural ministry, which is headed by a top farming lobbyist.

Bolsonaro and other officials in his administration have also frequently criticized IBAMA—a government ministry that fights deforestation—for imposing fines on those who clear the forest.

Moves such as these have emboldened those who want to exploit the forest for commercial gain and make it more likely that clearances in 2019 will exceed the 3,050 square miles which were lost in 2018—the year when deforestation hit its highest rate in a decade. Official government figures show that there was a 13 percent increase in forest loss between 2017 and 2018.

This is troubling given that we are moving ever closer to the "tipping point" of Amazon deforestation. Some studies have estimated this to be around 20-25 percent of total tree cover, when other factors such as climate change and fires are taken into account, Mongabay reported.

"The explosion of deforestation can be attributed both to changes in government actions, such as essentially ending inspections for illegal deforestation and fining those who are caught, and from the rhetoric form President Bolsonaro and his ministers, especially the minister of environment," Fearnside told Newsweek. "This has created a climate of impunity under the assumption that there will be no consequences for ignoring environmental regulations."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Philip Fearnside.

Amazon rainforest deforestation
Aerial view of deforestation in the Western Amazon region of Brazil on September 22, 2017. CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images