Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose in March, government data showed on Friday, indicating that illegal loggers and land speculators have not stopped destroying the forest with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.
Destruction in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon rose 30% in March, compared to the same month a year ago, according to the country’s space research agency, INPE.
In the first three months of the year, Amazon deforestation was up 51% from a year ago to 796 square kilometers, an area roughly the size of New York City.
Brazil confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus on Feb. 28, and the disease reached the Amazon region by mid-March. Authorities in Amazonas, the largest state in the rainforest region, warned that the health system there was already at the brink of capacity with roughly 900 confirmed cases of the virus.
The coronavirus outbreak is upending virtually all segments of the Brazilian economy, but not environmental destruction, said Carlos Nobre, an earth systems scientist at the University of Sao Paulo.
“The data doesn’t show a strong impact like we’re seeing across every other sector of the economy,” he said. “We are not seeing this with deforestation, which continues to be high.”
The country’s environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, said last month that it was sending fewer agents into the field to combat environmental crimes like illegal logging as a precaution during the outbreak, leading researchers to fear that deforestation would grow unchecked. Ibama said the cutbacks would happen elsewhere and not affect the Amazon.
Reduced policing and an expected economic recession, leading more people to risk criminal activity to make money, could boost destruction, said Carlos Souza Jr., a researcher at the non-profit Amazon institute Imazon.
The powerful Brazilian farm lobby contends that deforestation is committed by criminals with tenuous connections to agriculture, but is nevertheless worried it risks hurting the image of Brazilian farm products globally, said President Marcello Brito of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association.
The rise in deforestation during the rainy season, which generally extends through April, is a worrisome sign for the dry season, Brito said.