Amazon forest loss accelerated in the shadows of the pandemic

By Fernando Gimeno

Lima, Apr 22 (EFE).- The Amazon region is experiencing an alarming level of deforestation that has gone largely unnoticed amid the pandemic, with 2.3 million hectares (8,880 square miles) of jungle lost in 2020 alone, an area roughly equivalent to the Central American nation of El Salvador.

The latest estimates from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which uses satellite imagery to track forest loss, show that the rate of deforestation in that nine-country region has accelerated during the health emergency.

Indeed, despite the much greater international media coverage of Amazon fires in 2019, the blazes in 2020 were much more severe and led to a 17 percent year-over-year increase in Amazon primary forest loss.

Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru experienced record deforestation last year, while in Colombia and Brazil the level of Amazon forest loss was the second-highest and sixth-highest in recorded history, respectively.

A total of 1.5 million hectares of Amazon primary forest were lost in 2020 in Brazil, whose share of that nine-country region is by far the highest. That was an increase of 13 percent from 2019, when Amazon wildfires captured the world’s attention.

“In 2019, there was a lot of news about the fires in the Amazon, but they occurred in areas that were already deforested. They were just burning trees that had already fallen, but there were indeed forest fires in 2020 because it was a drier year,” MAAP researcher Matt Finer told Efe.

The same process is repeated year after year, especially in southwestern Brazil: sections of rainforest are initially cleared between February and April, and then during the June-to-October dry season the remaining trees are burned to expand the amount of land available for cattle raising.

But those man-made fires surged out of control in 2020 and caused even more destruction than the year before.

The same situation was evident in Bolivia, which lost 240,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest in 2020, the highest total in that nation’s history. Vast fires in the country’s southeast that affected the Gran Chaco and Chiquitano woodlands were the main culprit.

And there is little cause for optimism in 2021.

A total of 367,600 hectares of forest were lost in the Brazilian Amazon in March, up 12.6 percent from the same month of 2020 and the highest one-month total of the past six years, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

While deforestation usually occurs on a large scale in Brazil, forest loss in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru happens on small scale with the clearing of one- or two-hectare plots of land.

In a system known as migratory agriculture, families burn a small area for use as cropland. But that practice diminishes soil fertility, and therefore the process must be repeated the following year in a contiguous area.

“That’s why it’s a very difficult problem to control … There are thousands and thousands of cases of small-scale deforestation, probably linked to agricultural activity,” Finer said. EFE


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