Conservation news

May deforestation in the Amazon hits 14-year high, with 4 days of data still to process

  • Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose sharply in May, reports the country’s national space research institute INPE.
  • According to INPE’s satellite-based deforestation tracking system, DETER, forest destruction in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon through the first 27 days of the month amounted to 1,180 square kilometers, an area 20 times the size of Manhattan.
  • Deforestation in May was the highest for any May dating back to at least 2007. The next highest May on record is May 2008, when 1,096 square kilometers was cut down.
  • Scientists are bracing for a bad fire season in the southern and eastern Amazon due to below average rainfall during the most recent rainy season. A resurgence of fire and deforestation in the Amazon is heightening concerns about the fate of Earth’s largest rainforest, which some researchers say could be approaching a point where vast areas transition toward drier habitat.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon last month reached the highest level in any May since at least 2007, reports Brazil’s national space research institute INPE. The new data come as the world’s largest rainforest heads into the dry season, when forest-clearing typically accelerates and fire risk increases.

Monthly deforestation alert data from INPE's DETER system and Imazon's SAD system. Imazon independently tracks deforestation to provide a check against official Brazilian government data.
Monthly deforestation alert data from INPE’s DETER system and Imazon’s SAD system. Imazon independently tracks deforestation to provide a check against official Brazilian government data.

According to INPE’s satellite-based deforestation tracking system, DETER, forest destruction in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon through the first 27 days of the month amounted to 1,180 square kilometers, an area 20 times the size of Manhattan. That represents a 42% increase over May 2020 and puts deforestation nearly on pace with last year’s rate, when forest loss in the region reached 11,088 square kilometers (4,281 square miles), the highest level since 2008.

With four days still left to tabulate for the month, the final figure for May is expected to rise when INPE releases its next update a week from today. So far, 96% of the deforestation registered in May has occurred in just four states: Pará (36%), Amazonas (24%), Mato Grosso (21%), and Roraima (15%). Pará and Mato Grosso normally rank as the top deforesters in Brazil due to cattle ranching and clearing for agriculture. Amazonas and Roraima typically do not top the list of states in terms of deforestation.

Deforestation associated with mining, which is attracting more attention due to the surging price of gold and associated land invasions by wildcat miners, reached the second highest monthly level since August 2016.

Deforestation detected by INPE’s DETER system since Jan 1.
Deforestation detected by INPE’s DETER system since the Aug 1 start of the “deforestation year” Brazil uses as a baseline for measuring deforestation in the Amazon.

Scientists are bracing for a bad fire season in the southern and eastern Amazon, an area known as the “arc of deforestation” for its high rates of clearance, due to below average rainfall during the most recent rainy season. Fires the past two years have made international headlines, calling public attention to the surge in deforestation under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Fires are already burning in the Amazon, according to the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which tracks burning in the region.

A resurgence of fire and deforestation in the Amazon is heightening concerns about the fate of Earth’s largest rainforest, which stores massive amounts of carbon, houses millions of people including scores of Indigenous tribes, and serves as the planet’s most expansive refuge for wildlife. Roughly 20 percent of the Amazon has been cleared since the 1970s and researchers fear that the ecosystem could be approaching a point where vast areas transition toward drier habitat akin to that of the adjacent Cerrado and Chaco biomes. There are already signs this may be underway, including changes in species assemblages, reduced humidity, and tree die-offs in the southern reaches of the Amazon.

Forest fire burning in Novo Progresso, Pará in August 2020. Photo © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

These worries have spurred international condemnation of the forest policies of the Bolsonaro administration. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has rolled back protections for the Amazon, cut budgets for environmental law enforcement, and used heated rhetoric against environmentalists and Indigenous peoples.

Deforestation under the Bolsonaro administration through its first 29 months is more than three times higher than under Dilma Rousseff, the last president for which there is equivalent period of rule, while violence has jumped — data published last month by the Pastoral Land Commission showed a record number of land conflict cases in 2020.

Deforestation registered under INPE’s DETER system for the first 29 months of three recent administrations. Rousseff’s second term is combined with Temer’s administration.