In partnership with Brazilian allies – the Climate Observatory and Greenpeace Brazil – Amazon Watch organized a flight over the Amazon rainforest with experts and key journalists to expose fires, deforestation, illegal mining, and cattle ranching in September. This initiative was central to our Amazon Ceasefire campaign and the shocking results of the flyover helped the project to evolve into the Amazon in Flames Alliance, strengthening our belief that the protection of the Amazon must be a collective effort.
Between September 14 and 17, we flew over Rondônia and southern Amazonas, a region considered the “new Amazon deforestation frontier.” We were joined by Brazilian artists, CNN International, Agence France-Presse (AFP), China Global Television Network (CGTN), and Brazilian media O Globo and Globo TV.
Unfortunately, as expected, we documented massive destruction surrounded by immense areas of intact rainforest. Although official data claimed a reduction in the number of fires in September due to unexpected rain, data from the previous months confirm that the destruction this season was greater than in 2020. What we saw from above was the rainforest obscured by smoke and destroyed by arson and unchecked greed.
The first images were released to coincide with President Bolsonaro’s speech at the 76th UN General Assembly on September 21, vividly contradicting his lies that under his administration the Amazon experienced, “a 32% reduction in deforestation in the month of August when compared to August of the previous year.”
Brazil’s president used numbers from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) that pointed to a deforestation rate of 918 square kilometers in August. The number is almost double what was registered in August 2018, before the Bolsonaro administration came into power. However, data from Brazilian research institution Imazon – which monitors the deforested areas by satellite – points to 1,606 square kilometers of deforestation in August, a 7% rise in comparison to the same month in 2020. It is also the highest rate for August in a decade, according to Imazon’s satellite imagery.
The images showed large areas of deforested rainforest that had already been consumed by fire in July and deep scars from mining activities within protected areas, along with illegal landing strips, large plots of land being prepared for planting, and cattle grazing alongside recent fires. In Porto Velho, we spotted enormous deforested areas for the cultivation of grains, an activity that is becoming increasingly consolidated in northern Rondônia and has been recently introduced in southern Amazonas, alongside soybean planting.
We saw all the stages of the deforestation process one after another. The extraction of high-value timber, followed by the burning of vegetation to grow pasture, and then cattle herds occupying areas that until recently had been covered by intact forest. During the on-the-ground phase of the investigation, our team passed through Candeias do Jamari, the second-most deforested municipality in Rondônia between August 2020 and July 2021, behind only Porto Velho. There were numerous sawmills and countless trucks loaded with giant logs and cattle grazing next to recently burned areas.
Under the Bolsonaro administration, Amazonas surpassed Rondônia as the third state with the worst level of deforestation, according to INPE’s Prodes system. According to data from the INPE’s Programa Queimadas, from January to mid-September, 2021, there were approximately 12,000 heat spots in Amazonas state. In August alone, 8,588 spots were registered in the state, surpassing the record for the same month in 2020, which, in turn, had surpassed that of 2019. Labrea is the most critical area in the country, with 2,959 heat spots in 2021. Porto Velho is the municipality ranked second by the number of fires, recording 2,700 heat spots.
Strategic and coordinated reconnaissance actions to punish these arsonists and land grabbers are increasingly necessary and critical. Enforcement agencies such as Brazil’s Federal Environmental Agency need to recover their capacity to act. Losing the state of Amazonas, one of the most protected areas of the Amazon rainforest, could push us over the rainforest’s tipping point. This is our last chance to halt the destruction, and we cannot allow the Bolsonaro administration to cover it up. We will continue to move forward in our mission to denounce the continuing criminal destruction of the Amazon and to be in solidarity with Indigenous communities, the true protectors of the rainforest.