Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest sees its worst levels in 15 years over the past 12 months, according to a new report. 

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has climbed 22% compared to the previous year and reached its highest level in over 15 years, according to a new report by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). 

The official data showed that 13,235 sq km (5110 sq miles) was lost during the period between August of 2020 and this past July, the highest deforestation rate since 2006. Within the past three years, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil lost more than 30,000 sq km of tree cover – equivalent to the size of Belgium. 

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and one of most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. It is also home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people. Under the presidency of Jair Bolsanaro, the Amazon has been increasingly losing more tree cover due to illegal logging, land creasing for cattle ranching, and gold mining; activities which Bolsonaro encourages. 

The Amazon is an important carbon sink that helps absorb and store carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. However, persistent deforestation has converted the rainforest into a source of carbon and become more susceptible to wildfires. 

The startling numbers come right after more than 100 countries including Brazil pledging to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 at the COP26 climate summit, to prevent further degradation and as a tool to mitigate global warming. Combined, the countries represent more than 85% of the world’s forests. 

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“The numbers are still a challenge for us and we have to be more forceful in relation to these crimes,” Brazilian Environment Minister Joaquim Pereira Leite said at a news conference. “We have to be more forceful in relation to these crimes.”

He adds that the numbers do not reflect the country’s recent efforts to increase forest protection, including hiring 700 more environmental enforcement agents and the allocation of greater funding to the country’s environmental protection bodies. “The results have yet to show up in the numbers. We are going to start executing budgets worth millions [of reais] for Ibama and ICMBio to make them more modern,” Leited said. 

However many environmental groups argue the numbers reveal “the real Brazil that the Bolsonaro government tries to hide with imaginary discourses and greenwashing efforts abroad”. “What the reality shows is that the Bolsonaro government has accelerated the course of the Amazon’s destruction,” said Mauricio Voivodic, head of WWF in Brazil. 

The EU has just announced a proposal to ban food imports including beef and soy from areas linked to deforestation to help protect the world’s most vulnerable forests. European companies will be required to prove that products they sell did not contribute to legal and illegal deforestation or forest degradation.