Brazil environment agents surprised by deforestation through rainy season

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Aggressive deforestation is starting earlier this year in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, environmental enforcement agents say, with government data on Friday showing destruction doubling in January compared with a year ago.

FILE PHOTO: Logs cut from the Amazon rainforest are laid out near the BR-319 highway in the city of Realidade, Amazonas state, Brazil, August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo

More than 280 square kilometers (108 square miles) of rainforest were destroyed last month, according to preliminary statistics released by space research agency INPE. The agency released data only for the first 30 days of the month, without explanation.

Deforestation surged last year in Brazil and right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro drew condemnation at home and abroad from environmentalists for policies seen as weakening environmental protections and for rhetoric that they say has emboldened illegal ranchers, loggers and land speculators.

Bolsonaro has said he is unfairly demonized by environmentalists and that Brazil remains a model for conservation.

Destruction is down from highs of more than 1,000 square kilometers per month in July through September, due to the onset of the rainy season, when the forest floor turns to mud, making ground transport difficult in places.

(To see a graphic of monthly deforestation, click here here)

But instead of falling to the same low levels as in past years, deforestation remains unseasonably high, with illegal loggers and land speculators still acting aggressively, three field operatives for environmental enforcement agency Ibama told Reuters.

“We see a huge difference,” said one agent, recently deployed to try to curb the destruction. “We thought there would be a drop off because of the weather and all that, but it didn’t happen.”

A second agent said that normally there is not much enforcement work needed in January, but this year “deforestation is higher so we’re out in the field earlier.”

The agents spoke on condition of anonymity, after the government banned Ibama from responding to media requests last year.

Ibama and the Environment Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, absorbing vast amounts of the greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Scientists say its protection is vital to avoiding catastrophic climate change.

The two agents said they have found loggers with heavy machinery, even “mobile lumber mills,” in protected areas such as indigenous reserves, which is highly unusual this time of year.

The agency remains severely underfunded and understaffed, which the agents say prevents them from stopping the surge.

Bolsonaro has previously railed against Ibama for what he says are excessive environmental fines.

“The situation continues to be very bad. It’s getting more dangerous and the population is increasingly encouraged to resist enforcement,” a third Ibama agent said.

Last week, a man who was caught illegally deforesting opened fire on police and Ibama agents, eventually dying in the shootout. Deadly confrontations of that kind are typically rare, with a police officer last killed in such an operation in 2016.

Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of deforestation monitoring group MapBiomas, has warned that deforestation will accelerate in 2020 unless the government steps up conservation.

“We are worried over the trend because we do not see the government taking concrete actions to combat deforestation,” one of the agents said.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Frances Kerry