Amazon under threat: fires, loggers and now virus



The Amazon rainforest - which plays a vital role in balancing the world's climate and helping fight global warming - is also suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Deforestation jumped 55% in the first four months of 2020 compared with the same period last year, as people have taken advantage of the crisis to carry out illegal clearances.

Deforestation, illegal mining, land clearances and wildfires were already at an 11-year high and scientists say we're fast approaching a point of no return - after which the Amazon will no longer function as it should.

Here, we look at the pressures pushing the Amazon to the brink and ask what the nine countries that share this unique natural resource are doing to protect it.

Coronavirus and the Forest

The largest and most diverse tropical rainforest in the world is home to 33 million people and thousands of species of plants and animals.

Since coronavirus spread to Brazil, in March, Amazonas has been the state to register Brazil's highest infection rates - it also has one of the most underfunded health systems in the country.

As elsewhere, social distancing and travel restrictions have been imposed to limit the spread of the virus.

But many of the field agents working to protect reserves have pulled out, Jonathan Mazower, of Survival International, says, allowing loggers and miners to target these areas.



In April, as the number of cases rose and states started adopting isolation measures, deforestation actually increased 64% compared with the same month in 2019, according to preliminary satellite data from space research agency INPE.

Last year, an unprecedented number of fires devastated huge swathes of forest in the Amazon. Peak fire season is from July which some experts worry could coincide with the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

The Brazilian authorities are deploying troops in the Amazon region to help protect the rainforest, tackle illegal deforestation and forest fires. But critics say that the government’s rhetoric and policies could actually be encouraging loggers and illegal miners.

Even before this year’s spike in deforestation, the rate across the nine Amazon countries had continued to rise.

Brazil and Bolivia were among the top five countries for loss of primary forest in 2018 and both saw a dramatic increase in wildfires last year.

But that is not the only problem.

"To only speak of deforestation when we refer to the loss of the Amazon is what I call "the great green lie"," says climate scientist Antonio Donato Nobre.

"The destruction of the Amazon rainforest up till now is much bigger than the almost 20% that they talk of in the media."

To get a more complete sense of the scale of the destruction, Mr Nobre says it is necessary to take into account the figures for degradation.

This happens when a combination of pressures on a stretch of forest - such as fires, logging or unlicensed hunting - make it hard for the ecosystem to function properly.

Even if an area does not lose all its trees and vegetation, degradation strips the rainforest of properties that are vital to the planet.

Scientists say that if we don't reverse current levels of deforestation and degradation, the consequences of climate change could accelerate.

Not all deforestation is the same

The most common way of measuring deforestation is "tree cover loss" - where forest vegetation has been completely erased.

In 2018 alone, the tree cover loss in the Amazon reached four million hectares (40,000 sq km), according to Global Forest Watch.

Almost half of this was primary forest - 1.7 million hectares of forest that was still in its original state and rich in biodiversity. Its destruction was the same as three football pitches of virgin forest being destroyed every minute in 2018.
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