Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest surges through September

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon jumped for the fifth straight month in September compared with last year, with destruction up 93% in the first nine months of the year, according to preliminary government data published on Friday.

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Destruction of the world’s largest tropical rainforest totaled 7,854 square kilometers (3,032 square miles) for January to September, according to the country’s space research agency INPE. That’s 10 times the area of New York City.

For September alone, INPE data showed deforestation rose 96% from a year ago, an easing from the more than 200% year-on-year rises recorded in July and August. In terms of area, the month of September accounted for 1,447 square km of forest cleared, down from a peak of 2,255 square km in July.

Researchers and environmentalists blame right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro for emboldening loggers by calling for the Amazon to be developed and for weakening the environmental agency Ibama.

“Deforestation is continuing at a pace that is double that of years past. I think this is because of the messages the president continues to send,” said Tasso Azevedo, coordinator for deforestation mapping initiative MapBiomas.

Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles have said previous governments are the culprits for the rise in deforestation, saying policies including budget cuts at agencies like Ibama were in place well before the new government took office on Jan. 1.

Bolsonaro’s office, Salles and the Environment Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A rash of fires in August tore through the Amazon at the fastest rate since 2010, provoking a global outcry and leaving world leaders questioning why Brazil was not doing more to protect the rain forest. Separate INPE data released last week showed that the fires receded in September.

Scientists say that the fires are linked to deforestation, with people often clearing the forest of valuable timber and then setting fire to the remains in order to clear the land for ranching or farming.

Deforestation generally peaks in the dry season, which runs from roughly May to September but can vary by several weeks each year. This year, the rainy season is a bit late and just getting underway this month across the region.

That will bring some relief in the short term, but experts are already looking ahead to further deforestation next year.

“The big question now is what will be done to prevent this next year,” said Paulo Barreto, a researcher affiliated with the non-governmental organization Imazon.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Bill Berkrot