An area five times the size of New York City has been cleared of forests in the Amazon so far this year – a new all-time record.
Nearly 4,000 sq km (1,544 sq miles) were razed between January and June in the world’s largest rainforest, official data show.
It’s the highest deforestation rate ever recorded for the first half of any year, and is fuelling fears that the climate-critical habitat, dubbed “the lungs of the planet”, is being pushed to the brink of collapse, campaigners say.
The urgent warning came after the Brazilian Space Agency last week revealed the Amazon was suffering a record number of fire hot spots, caused by farmers burning vegetation to clear land for crops, especially for livestock.
“This escalating destruction is a result of the Brazilian government’s actions that have encouraged environmental crimes, as well as violence against indigenous peoples and traditional communities,” said Romulo Batista, spokesperson for Greenpeace Brazil.
“Especially concerning is how the increase in deforestation is concentrated in a new front in the southern Amazon.”
But the large-scale deforestation of the country’s rainforest has intensified under the leadership of outspoken right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro, raising fears the Amazon will soon start emitting greenhouse gases instead of absorbing them.
Research earlier this year showed that more than 75 per cent of the Amazon tropical forest has become less able to recover from droughts and wildfires.
Scientists say it may soon reach a watershed, with mass dieback of trees and flipping the forest to a savanna.
The state of Amazonas had the highest deforestation rate in the region for the first time, Greenpeace said, with 1,236 sq km cleared.
Pará state and Mato Grosso states had 1,105 sq km and 845 sq km of forest cleared respectively. Since coming to power three years ago, Mr Bolsonaro has reduced environmental protections and advanced several legislative proposals that would reward land-grabbing.
Environmentalists say they would also undermine or reduce indigenous territories and end environmental licensing requirements, threatening to spur deforestation at an even larger scale.
The UK government is consulting on legislation that would ban large British businesses from using commodities from illegal deforestation.
Greenpeace UK’s head of forests Louisa Casson said: “Destroying the Amazon as the climate crisis rages is like taking a hammer to the air conditioning in a room that’s already getting hotter.
“Governments and corporations need to stop fuelling the fire and pile pressure onto Bolsonaro’s government to make it stop. We need a zero-tolerance approach to Amazon destruction, or we’ll all pay the price.”
Mr Bolsonaro claims that relaxing environmental regulation is key to achieving economic growth.
At the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, as satellite images showed deforestation at its highest level since 2012, his government brought forward a pledge to end illegal deforestation by two years to 2028.
Critics say that still leaves plenty of scope for land clearing that the president deems legal.
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