The Amazon rainforest is on fire. Again.

The rate of deforestation in the Amazon is increasing at an alarming pace. Since 2017, each subsequent year has seen an increase in deforestation during the January-July reporting period.

This trend continued in 2021, with forest destruction increasing by 3.5% during January-July (the months for which complete data is available at the time of writing) compared to the same period in 2020 – which was already the worst year on record for over a decade.

Now, recently published Brazilian government data suggests that Amazon deforestation could have surpassed 10,000 square kilometres for the third year in a row. That level of destruction hasn’t been seen in over a decade, and is significantly above the annual average of 6,500km2 for 2009-2018.

A study published this week showed that 20% of Brazil’s tree species are now at risk of extinction, which would have devastating impacts on biodiversity.

This year-on-year destruction is having a cumulative impact, driving the rainforest towards a tipping point at which much of it may stop functioning as a rainforest ecosystem altogether, and instead become a tropical savannah.

This would have dire environmental consequences, since rainforest traps vastly more CO2, and supports much more biodiversity, than savannah. Already, the Amazon has been found to be emitting more carbon than it absorbs – in large part due to the forest fires which release the soaked-up CO2 from this vital carbon sink.

The cause of Amazon fires is political, not natural

It’s no coincidence that the three years which have seen Amazon deforestation exceed 10,000km2 have all occurred under President Bolsonaro’s leadership.

Since achieving power in 2019, the Brazilian president has slashed protections for the Amazon. Key institutions responsible for protecting the forest have been undermined, and forest crimes are carried out with widespread impunity.

At the same time, the Brazilian government has led an all-out assault on the rights of those who have been most effective at protecting the Amazon: Brazil’s Indigenous peoples.

A series of bills moving through the Brazilian Congress threaten to make this already perilous situation even worse – eroding Indigenous land rights and making it easier for their territories to be opened up to destructive industries like mining, logging and industrial agriculture.

The solutions are political, too

When confronted with the scale of destruction and disregard for human rights taking place in Brazil, it’s tempting to think that those of us thousands of miles away can do little more than watch in despair. However, there is action that we can take.

The deforestation of the Amazon is driven by the ability to profit with impunity from the economic exploitation of the land it covers by cutting down (or burning) the trees to clear the way for mass agriculture. Global financing and the global market for the goods produced on deforested land – such as beef, soy, palm oil and rubber – includes UK banks and supply chains.

The UK government has the opportunity to end the UK’s complicity in forest destruction, by banning UK-based companies and financial institutions from doing business with those who are linked to deforestation and attacks on Indigenous people.

The Environment Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, could play a major part in halting Amazon deforestation, but only if done right. With the EU set to introduce its own proposed legislation on tackling global deforestation in the coming months, and the issue gaining traction in the US, the UK government has the opportunity to lead the way by setting the bar high with a strong and comprehensive law.

For this to be the case, the Environment Bill must be amended to ensure it does not let the UK finance sector off the hook, protects the rights of Indigenous and forest communities, and covers all forms of deforestation.

Climate action