Deforestation last year rose to the highest level since 2015 in Brazil’s Cerrado, prompting scientists to raise the alarm on Monday about the state of the world’s most species-rich savanna and a major carbon sink that helps to avoid climate change.
The Cerrado, the world’s largest savanna that spans several Brazilian states, is often called an “upside-down forest” because of the deep roots that its plants sink into the ground to survive seasonal droughts and fires.
The destruction of these trees, grasses and other plants in the Cerrado is a major source of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, although it is much less densely forested than the more famous Amazon rainforest that it borders.
Deforestation and other clearing of native vegetation in the Cerrado increased 8% to 8,531 square kilometers in the 12 months to July, Brazil’s official period for measuring deforestation, according to the national space research agency Inpe. That’s more than 10 times the size of New York City’s land area of 783.84 square kilometers.
“It is extremely worrying,” said Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia.
Bustamante also criticized the government for the lack of transparency in announcing deforestation data on New Year’s Eve.
The additional destruction is particularly concerning, scientists say, considering that roughly half of the Cerrado has been destroyed since the 1970s, primarily for agriculture and ranching.
“You are transforming thousands of square kilometers a year,” said Manuel Ferreira, a geographer at the Federal University of Goiás.
“Few other places on earth have seen such a rapid transformation.”
Ferreira said that new species of plants and animals are being discovered regularly in the Cerrado and that many are likely being eradicated before they can be studied.
After falling from highs in the early 2000s, deforestation in the Cerrado has risen again since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, calling for more agriculture and development in sensitive ecosystems.
Bustamante and other scientists blame Bolsonaro for encouraging deforestation with his pro-development rhetoric and rolling back environmental law enforcement.
Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment. He previously defended his policies as a means to lift the country out of poverty and pointed out that Brazil has preserved much more of its territory than Europe or the United States.
“Deforestation is the most stark and stark indicator of this government’s terrible environmental policy,” said Ane Alencar, scientific director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit organization.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism