Shocking satellite images reveal true extent of Amazon rainforest deforestation

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

Aerial images which show fires over the Amazon rainforest. The red dots represent a fire.
Aerial images which show fires over the Amazon rainforest. Each red dot represents a fire hotspots for the whole month of June 2020. Credit: INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research

Despite one of the highest death rates in the world from coronavirus, logging and burning of the Amazon is at the highest level in more than a decade, the latest satellite images of the region reveal.

During the month of June, 2,248 fires were detected in the Amazon, the highest rate since 2007, when there were 3,517, according to conservation organisation WWF.

The number also represents 18.5% more fires than in June 2019, when 1,880 outbreaks were registered by INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

In total this years burning is the worst period of forest destruction in the Amazon in the last 13 years.

The Amazon region is facing the combined threats of deforestation, burning to clear land and one of the highest rates of COVID-19 mortality on the planet amongst its human inhabitants. “The Amazon is facing perhaps the greatest challenge in its history,” says Mauricio Voivodic, Executive Director of WWF Brazil.

August 2019 saw 30,000 fire outbreaks in the Brazilian Amazon – an increase of 196% on the year before. Based on the current rate of burning experts fear this year could be just as bad, or worse.

The Amazon is one of the world’s largest terrestrial sinks of carbon dioxide. In addition to removing the planet warming gas, deforestation, burning and replacement with agriculture actually release more carbon into the atmosphere.

Satellite images show fires burning in the Amazon. Credit: INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research

Some had predicted that impact of coronavirus on the region, and on demand for commodities globally might have given the forest, and our climate, some respite in 2020. However, economic recovery plans in Brazil and Bolivia, where some of the highest rates of deforestation are currently occurring, are putting little emphasis on protecting the environment.

Chief Tashka Yawanawa of the Yawanawa people, one of the Amazon region’s many indigenous groups, fears the drive to recover from Covid-19 will, in the short term at least, make the situation worse. “The easy money is going to be logging and mining in the indigenous territories,” he said.

Campaigners here said that the UK government has so far missed an opportunity to make forest protection part of its “Build, build, build” strategy to reinvigorate the economy. They say moves to ensure supermarkets, food and commodities business can certify their products “deforestation free,” have stalled.