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Brazil’s Amazon deforestation again hits record high for February

Spike underscores the challenge facing new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to undo years of environmental destruction.

Deforestation in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon rainforest hit a new record in February, new data shows, as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration seeks to end years of widespread devastation.

Satellite monitoring detected 322 square kilometers of forest cover in the Brazilian Amazon last month, a 62 percent increase from the previous record set in February 2022, according to data from the national space agency released Friday.

In the Cerrado, a biodiverse tropical savanna south of the Amazon, satellites identified 558 square kilometers of destruction.

That’s 99 percent more than February 2022 and nearly double the previous record of 283 square kilometers (109 square miles) set in February 2020, the data showed.

The spike in destruction underscores the difficulties Brazil’s new president — known as Lula — faces in tackling the rampant deforestation that flourished under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

The far-right former army captain, who lost a narrow election to Lula last October, cut environmental enforcement in the Amazon region, which environmental and indigenous groups blame for an increase in illegal mining and violence.

Bolsonaro’s four years in office saw average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increase by 75 percent compared to the previous decade.

The issue is of international concern, as the hundreds of billions of carbon-absorbing trees in the Amazon provide a critical buffer in the global fight against climate change.

In November, Lula made a high-profile appearance at the United Nations’ COP27 climate summit in Egypt, where she pledged to reaffirm Brazil’s place as an environmental defender and reduce deforestation in the Amazon to zero. “Brazil is back,” he said.

Lula has taken early action to address environmental destruction, including rebuilding Brazil’s environmental protection agencies, relaunching a defunct national action plan to protect the rainforest, and persuading international donors to fund the so-called “Amazon Fund”. reviving the project, which includes more than $580 million for anti-deforestation operations.

After his election victory, Lula also appointed the well-known environmental activist Marina Silva as the country’s environment minister.

Nevertheless, observers have said reversing the trends will be a slow process.

“It is difficult to undo the damage of an anti-environmental policy in so little time,” Frederico Machado of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Brazil office said in a statement Friday.

“Reducing deforestation will only happen if there is consistent strengthening of the institutions responsible for oversight,” he said.

The most recent numbers came after encouraging data from January – Lula’s first month in office – showed Brazil’s Amazon deforestation was down 61 percent compared to the previous year.

In a presentation last week, a scientist from the space research firm Inpe blamed the large month-to-month fluctuations in cloud cover that hid deforestation on satellite images in January, but was not revealed until February.

Meanwhile, Environment Minister Silva last month called the high deforestation rate revealed by the first February data “a kind of revenge for the actions already being taken”.

She said the rate of deforestation was unusual early in the year when heavy rains make it difficult for loggers to work in the forest.

“We will continue to work towards our goal,” she told reporters.