THE AMAZON UNDER FIRE: To aid its struggling economy, Brazil has allowed massive destruction of the rainforest, raising fears about the consequences for the rest of the planet.

AuthorSmith, Patricia

For months late last year, black clouds hung over the Amazon rainforest as work crews burned and chain-sawed through it. When the rainy season arrived in December, the smoke finally cleared and gave the world a shocking view of the damage.

Brazil's space agency reported that in a single year, more than 3,700 square miles of the Amazon had been razed--a swath of jungle nearly the size of the entire country of Lebanon torn from Earth's largest rainforest.

It was the biggest loss in Brazilian rainforest in a decade, and many scientists saw it as stark evidence of just how badly the Amazon has fared during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office.

Bolsonaro, a pro-business populist, has vowed to open the rainforest to industry and scale back its protections. His government has followed through, cutting funds and staffing that had been dedicated to enforcement of environmental laws. In the absence of federal agents to protect the Amazon, waves of loggers, ranchers, and miners moved in to satisfy global demand for timber, beef, and soybeans.

Environmentalists and scientists are deeply worried about whether the Amazon can survive the onslaught.

"It confirms the Amazon is completely lawless," says Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo, adding: "It is a worrying warning for the future."

Nobre says the Amazon may soon cross a tipping point and begin to self-destruct: Once a certain amount of the rainforest has been destroyed--perhaps 20 to 25 percent--the resulting lower rainfall and longer dry seasons will eventually turn the area into a grassland. There's no accurate measure of total deforestation, but many researchers believe about 17 percent of the rainforest has been lost already.

Global Implications

At more than 2.1 million square miles, the Amazon stretches across parts of nine South American countries, but the bulk of it is in Brazil. Home to 2.5 million different kinds of insects and 20 percent of the world's bird species, the Amazon has huge ecological significance (see "Why the Amazon Matters," below). Beyond that, the rainforest plays a critical role in soaking up carbon dioxide and mitigating climate change: The Amazon's plant life stores around 100 billion tons of carbon. For these reasons, the Amazon's destruction has global implications.

Bolsonaro has long treated conservation efforts with disdain. He once said that Brazil's environmental policy was "suffocating the country." He vowed on the campaign trail that not "a square centimeter" of land would be designated for Brazil's indigenous people. And in November he dismissed his own country's official data about deforestation.

His attitude has had a big impact on the Amazon frontier, where the rainforest is being steadily transformed into land for cattle, soybeans, and other crops in a process that can be murky, sometimes illegal, and frequently violent.

"Deforestation and fires have always been a problem, but this is the first time it has...

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