Deforestation in the Amazon has skyrocketed in the past half a year, according to analysis of satellite images issued by Brazil's non-profit research institute, IMAZON.
The results compared the deforestation in a particular month with figures from the same month a year before, and the difference ranged from a 136 per cent increase in August to a 467 per cent rise in October.
"Rates have way more than doubled over the equivalent period in the previous year," says Phillip Fearnside, an ecologist with Brazil's Amazon research agency INPA. And the numbers probably underestimate the problem, because the satellite system used, DETER, can only recognise clearings larger than 250,000 square metres. Many farm plots are smaller than that.
Deforestation rates started inching up in Brazil in 2013, a year that saw a 29 per cent rise in deforestation compared with 2012, according to IMAZON. But the latest figures come as a surprise, given the recent trend: deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined by 77 per cent between 2004 and 2011.
Several factors may be to blame, according to Fearnside. As the world economy continues to recover, demand has increased for beef and soybeans – commodities that are often produced on deforested land – and so too have the prices for these risen on the global market. The Brazilian currency, the real, has been gaining strength, which has spurred investment in new agricultural projects.
Fearnside also blames an update to Brazil's Forest Code, enacted in 2012, which includes an amnesty for individuals who cleared rainforest illegally before 2008. "The expectation now is that if you violate the law and cut down the forest without a permit, you'll eventually be pardoned," he says. "It's a very perverse message."
Brazil's Amazon is not an isolated case, and a larger global pattern is emerging. A study released last week shows that the rate of loss of tropical forests between the 1990s and 2010 accelerated by 62 per cent, instead of slowing down by 25 per cent as previously claimed by a UN agency.
"The message is clear," says lead author Do-Hyung Kim, from the University of Maryland. "The rate of deforestation is way up. If this trend continues, it won't be long before the world's tropical forests are essentially gone."
Brazil's ruralist bloc, a group that represents large landowners and agro-businesses, successfully lobbied to weaken the Forest Code and Fearnside now fears it might be pushing an aggressive growth agenda in the Amazon that will lead to further deforestation.
Also, recently re-elected President Dilma Rousseff has proposed constructing 19 large dams in the region and vowed to go ahead with BR 319. This controversial mega-highway would link the city of Manaus in the heart of the Amazon with the arc of deforestation in the south, where much of the jungle has already been lost. Typically, wherever roads are built in the Amazon, farmers and ranchers follow in droves to cut the forest.
"I don't like to look at the Amazon forest as something that could be gone in 30 or 40 years," says senior INPA researcher Rita Mesquita. "But that may be where we are headed if we don't change course."
"The Amazon is nearly 20 per cent deforested, which may be close to a tipping point in terms of its ability to maintain itself and the climate system and rains that it helps to create," says Thomas Lovejoy, a pioneer in Amazon biodiversity studies, currently at George Mason University.
Lovejoy says that preserving tropical forests, which take carbon out of the atmosphere, is crucial if we hope to moderate some of the worst impacts of climate change.