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14 straight months of rising Amazon deforestation in Brazil

Deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest increased for the fourteenth consecutive month according to data released today by the Brazilian government. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is currently pacing 83% ahead of where it was a year ago.

Data from Brazil’s national space research institute INPE shows that 830 square kilometers (sq km) of rainforest was cleared in the “Legal Amazon” during the month of May, bringing the total clearing since the August 1 to 6,437 sq km, an area larger than Delaware or Palestine. Brazil tracks deforestation based on a year that runs from August 1 to July 31.

Since January 1, deforestation in the region has amounted to 2,033 sq km, compared with 1,454 sq km through the first five months of 2019, an increase of 40%.

Independent analysis by Imazon, a Brazilian NGO, tracks roughly inline with what is being reported officially by the government.

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Amazon rainforest loss topped 10,000 sq km in 2019

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surpassed 10,000 square kilometers in 2019, the according to revised data from Brazil’s national space research institute INPE. It’s the first time forest clearing in Earth’s largest rainforest has topped that mark since 2008.

INPE says that 10,129 square kilometers of forest were cleared across the “Legal Amazon” — an area that includes parts of eight Brazilian states — between August 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019, the “year” Brazil uses for tracking deforestation. That loss is 3.8% higher than the preliminary estimate the government provided in November, but it is line with the revision the normally occurs several months after the initial estimate is published.

Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since 1988 according to INPE’s PRODES system.

The new figure indicates that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was 34.4% higher in 2019 than the prior year. Deforestation has now increased in five of the past seven years since bottoming out at a historic low of 4,571 sq km in 2012.

Forest loss in 2020 is pacing well ahead of last year’s rate according to INPE’s short-term deforestation alert system called DETER. Through mid-May 2020 over 6,000 sq km of forest had been cleared since August 1, 85% more than the same time last year and the fastest rate of loss since at least 2007.

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Drone photos of the Amazon rainforest

In March 2020, just prior to COVID-19 being a pandemic, I spent a few days in the tri-border region of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. There I used a drone to capture some images of the Amazon rainforest, including the flooded igapo forest, oxbow lakes, and terra firm forest.

Below is a collection of some of my favorite shots as well as a few short video clips. Some of these images will be appearing in future Mongabay stories.

Drone view of flooded forest in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Drone view of flooded forest in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Sunset reflected in a blackwater lake in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Sunset reflected in a blackwater lake in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Sunset over the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Sunset over the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
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Using satellites to alert an Amazonian indigenous community of coca encroachment

In early March 2020, I visited the tri-border area of Peru, Colombia, and Brazil and used the opportunity to explore a cluster of potential deforestation hotspots detected by Global Forest Watch’s GLAD alert system.

According to Global Forest Watch, the patches were small and dispersed. Therefore I expected to find small-scale clearing for subsistence or local agriculture. But I was in for a bit of a surprise.

March is the height of the rainy season in this part of the Amazon, meaning that the floodplain forests are inundated and one can boat through the lower parts of the rainforest canopy. Global Forest Watch’s GLAD alert system showed some change in forest cover in these floodplain forest areas, but a look at satellite imagery from Google Earth and Planet suggested that these were indicative changes in water levels and rivers’ courses rather than actual forest loss.

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Obituary for Indonesian investigative reporter and journalism advocate Tommy Apriando

Tommy Apriando, an esteemed investigative journalist and chairperson of the Yogyakarta branch of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), died Sunday at the age of 30 after being hospitalized for complications from diabetes.

In a country where environmental reporting is potentially deadly, Apriando wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He took on politicians who used their connections with oligarchs to enrich themselves, exposed abuses by mining and palm oil companies, and told the complex stories that underpin entrenched land conflicts.

Apriando won deep respect from his peers for his courageous reporting, which regularly appeared on Mongabay, China Dialogue, The Pangolin Reports, and The Wire. In 2019, he was elected to lead AJI in Yogyakarta, where he was an outspoken advocate for press freedom and the welfare of other journalists.

Apriando is survived by his wife, Wiwid Ervita, his mother, Jamsiah, and his younger sister, Dwi Unzirzam.

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Rainforests in 2020: 10 things to watch

After a decade of increased deforestation, broken commitments, and hundreds of murders of rainforest defenders, the 2020s open as a dark moment for the world’s rainforests.

Here are some key things to watch for the coming year: Brazil, destabilization of tropical forests, U.S. elections, the global economy, Jokowi’s new administration in Indonesia, market-based conservation initiatives, zero deforestation commitments, ambition on addressing the biodiversity crisis, Congo Basin, and assessment of 2019’s damage.

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2019: The year rainforests burned

2019 closed out a “lost decade” for the world’s tropical forests, with surging deforestation from Brazil to the Congo Basin, environmental policy roll-backs, assaults on environmental defenders, abandoned conservation commitments, and fires burning through rainforests on four continents.

The following covers some of the biggest rainforest storylines for the year.

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Tropical forests’ lost decade: the 2010s

The 2010s were a tumultuous time for tropical forests. The decade opened with hope and optimism built on solid momentum around recognizing the value of forests and their inhabitants, technological advances that increased transparency, empowered activists and communities, a new breed of corporate conservation commitment, and unprecedented progress in reducing deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest. But the decade closed with the outlook for tropical forests looking as bleak as ever, but with less margin for error and less time to spare to correct course.

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Obituary: Conservation biologist and wildtech journalist Sue Palminteri

Whether it was radio-collaring elephants across the savannas of South Africa, competing internationally alongside the Israeli national team in tennis, tracking saki monkeys through the rainforest in the sweltering mid-day heat of the Peruvian Amazon, or evaluating the practicalities of implementing technological solutions to conservation challenges, Sue Palminteri fully embraced all she pursued with rare tenaciousness, passion, and grace. Her persistence and intelligence enabled her to excel as an athlete, a conservation biologist, and a journalist, while her authenticity, upbeat nature, and companionship made her a good colleague, friend, and partner. That rare combination of qualities means that Sue’s passing on November 30th at the age of 54 is an especially devastating loss both to the people who knew her and the plants and animals she diligently sought to protect.

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Michael Shellenberger’s sloppy Forbes diatribe deceives on Amazon fires

This image, based on measurements taken by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), shows the areas of the Amazon basin that were affected by the severe 2005 drought. Areas in yellow, orange, and red experienced light, moderate, and severe drought, respectively. Green areas did not experience drought. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech /Google

I understand the desire to correct misinformation that proliferates in the aftermath of breaking news events. And I understand the frustration of sensationalist headlines that mislead readers. But columnist Michael Shellenberger’s attempt in Forbes to correct the record on fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon was sloppy at best, and deceiving at worst.

Shellenberger is right on several points, including the poor choice of “Lungs of the Earth” as a moniker for the Amazon rainforest, the fact that both deforestation and fires have been substantially higher in the recent past, the widespread use by the media of old or irrelevant photos to depict the current fires, the need to meaningfully engage ranchers and farmers in Amazon preservation, and the under-appreciation of the impact of sub-canopy fires.

But he’s wrong about some other important points. These are listed and refuted below.

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A healthy and productive Amazon is the foundation of Brazil’s sovereignty

Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondônia on August 23, 2019. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro likes to assert that foreigners deserve no say over the fate of the Amazon because it is a national sovereignty issue. His logic: Brazilian Amazon is Brazil’s sovereign territory and therefore it has the right to do what it wants with it, whether that be clearing it for cattle pasture and soy fields or making the decision to conserve it.

In making the argument, Bolsonaro at times lays out a grand conspiracy under which a body like the U.N. tries to “internationalize” the Amazon, claiming it as the domain of the world. This conspiracy theory is not new — it was a common refrain under Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964-1985 and is still frequently used by opponents of Amazon conservation efforts.

With worldwide attention now on the fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon, Bolsonaro is again using this rhetoric. For example, today he cited Brazil’s sovereignty (as well as perceived “insults” from French President Emmanuel Macron after Bolsonaro slighted Macron’s wife) as the reason for rejecting a $20 million G7 contribution toward firefighting efforts.

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Photo essay: Madagascar’s disappearing dry forests

Me standing at the base of a baobab while flying a drone. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

The dry forest of western Madagascar is famous for its wildlife and baobab trees, including the tourist destinations of Baobab Alley, Tsingy de Bemaraha, and Kirindy Forest. Among the species that call these forests home are the rabbit-sized giant jumping rat (Hypogeomys antimena); the puma-like fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), Madagascar’s largest predator, which feasts on lemurs; and Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi), the so-called “dancing lemur.”

In July 2019 I traveled to Madagascar for the annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) meeting, which was held in the capital city, Antananarivo. Ahead of the conference, I used the opportunity to visit the Menabe region of western Madagascar to investigate some GPS points identified via Global Forest Watch’s GLAD alert system as potential recent deforestation. I already knew what I was likely to find, thanks to reporting by Mongabay contributor Emilie Filou, who filed a story in February 2019 on illegal corn farming in the region, as well as recent high-resolution satellite data from Planet.

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Ground-truthing satellite data in Borneo

Gold and sand mining near Mandor, West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Borneo has been special to me since my earliest years. As a kid, I would voraciously read books about the wilds of Borneo, with its dense rainforests inhabited by traditional indigenous peoples and wondrous animals like orangutans, clouded leopards, and pygmy elephants. As I grew older, I became aware of the environmental devastation in Borneo. Back then, in the 1980s, the story was mostly about logging. Palm oil was still a relatively nascent industry in Borneo.

When I was in high school, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Borneo in person thanks to my mother, a travel agent who specialized in international destinations. We visited forests in the state-operated Yayasan Sabah concession, in Malaysian Borneo. Some of my fondest memories are from visiting that forest: hiking under the tall trees, swimming in the crystal-clear creeks, and seeing incredible frogs, lizards, and insects. The most special moment, though, came as I sat on a log next to a creek picking leeches off my pant legs and socks. I heard some rustling and looked up to see a wild male orangutan in the trees above me. He was huge, with the fully developed face plates characteristic of adult males. He didn’t linger long, but I’ll always treasure that memory.

A few days after that experience, I returned home to California. But I kept in correspondence with Clive Marsh, the conservation biologist I met on that trip. A few months later he wrote to give me the heart-breaking news that the forest I so enjoyed had been logged for a pulp and paper scheme. That moment was an inflection point for me: born out of that sad news was a person impassioned to make a difference. Within days of getting that letter I began writing a book about tropical rainforests that would lay the groundwork for Mongabay.

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Rainforests: storylines to watch in 2019

Fungi in China

2018 wasn’t a great year for tropical rainforests, with major conservation setbacks in Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, and the United States coming on top of back-to-back years of high forest cover loss. Here are ten storylines we’re watching in the world of rainforests as we begin 2019.

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Mongabay’s origin story

Me in the Brazilian Amazon in 1999

One of the few benefits of having a father who had to fly each week from San Francisco to meet clients in Hawaii and Alaska during my formative years was the airline miles — my father had a ton. So many, in fact, that our family didn’t have to spend a lot of money on airline tickets.

The other travel perks came from my mother, who specialized in selling high-end exotic travel back in the days when being a travel agent was still a viable occupation. She had the knowledge, the connections and, on occasion, the package deals to visit interesting places all around the world.

So we traveled all over. We went to some of the “normal” destinations like Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the California Sierra Nevadas. We went to other, more distant, but not uncommon destinations, like Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe. But what set our travels apart were the far-off and “weird” destinations, at least for a family with two kids under the age of 15: places like Botswana, Ecuador, Venezuela, Australia and Zimbabwe. These travels would shape my life. I learned to make the best use of idle time and bad situations, love the outdoors, and appreciate all kinds of diversity — different cultures, landscapes, philosophical outlooks, and animals.

I was especially interested in animals, particularly reptiles and amphibians, as I explain here. My love for wildlife naturally led to a fascination with rainforests, which have the highest diversity of plant and animal species on the planet. My parents, probably to their initial dismay, encountered a boy who increasingly lobbied to go to less and less comfortable places: destinations where the spiders were bigger and hairier, the snakes more venomous, and the mosquitoes more abundant and malarial. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the plains animals in Africa, the snorkeling in Kauai, the swims in the icy mountain lakes in the Sierras, but tropical jungles were most dear to me.

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10 reasons to be optimistic for forests

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of the world’s forests. Rates of forest loss remain persistently high, especially in the tropics and boreal regions. Drought, fragmentation, degradation via logging, and climate change are conspiring to make forests more vulnerable to fire: vast areas of forest went up in smoke across Canada, Russia, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, and the Congo Basin in the past two years alone. Expanding human population and rising meat consumption are fueling a global land rush across much of the tropics. And while Brazil’s political crisis is threatening to undermine a decade’s worth of progress in curbing forest destruction, the prospect of Americans electing a president who intends to shred international climate commitments and calls for the embrace of the dirtiest of fossil fuels is downright terrifying for many environmentalists.

Yet all hope is not lost. There are remain good reasons for optimism when it comes to saving the world’s forests. On the occasion of World Environment Day 2016 (June 5), the United Nations’ “day” for raising awareness and encouraging action to protect the planet, here are 10 forest-friendly trends to watch.

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What’s ahead for rainforests in 2016? 10 things to watch

Between Indonesia’s massive forest fires, the official approval of REDD+ at climate talks in Paris, and the establishment of several major national parks, there was plenty to get excited about in the world of rainforests during 2015. What’s in store for 2016?

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The year in rainforests: 2015

Between the landmark climate agreement signed in Paris in December 2015, Indonesia’s fire and haze crisis of the late summer and early fall, and continuing adoption of zero deforestation policies by some of the world’s largest companies, tropical forests grabbed the spotlight more than usual in 2015. Here’s a look at some of the biggest tropical forest-related developments from the past year.

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How does the global commodity collapse impact forest conservation?

Since early 2014, prices for most commodities produced in the tropics have plunged. Palm oil is down by 40 percent, logs from Malaysia and Cameroon are off by roughly a fifth, while soybeans have fallen by a third and beef a tenth. The price drop for industrial commodities like metals, minerals, oil and gas has been even more severe in some cases. The market rout is wreaking havoc on the state budgets of developing countries, curbing investment, and pushing producers to scale back on output and postpone plans for expansion.

In isolation, these developments would seem to be good news for tropical forests. After all, reduced investment and lower financial returns will make it less profitable for industries to exploit marginal lands for plantations, commercial agriculture, or resource extraction. Lower land prices may also make it cheaper to acquire or set aside areas for conservation.

But the reality is more complex: experts say low commodities prices can reduce government spending on programs for conservation, spur changes in land use including increased subsistence agriculture, provoke political pressure to reduce forest protection, and trigger different forms of investment that endanger forests.

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Indonesia’s massive haze problem is Jokowi’s big opportunity

This week data from Guido van der Werf of the Global Fire Emissions Database showed that carbon emissions from fires raging across Indonesia’s peatlands have surpassed 1.4 billion tons of CO2-equivalent, or more than the annual emissions of Japan. More conspicuously, the fires have triggered a spasm of air pollution that has mushroomed into a domestic health emergency and regional political crisis for Indonesia, with Indonesian companies seeing their products pulled from store shelves and facing multimillion dollar fines from the Singaporean government. That reaction comes on top of a steep dive in the Indonesian rupiah and a commodity market rout that has hit some of the country’s biggest exports, including oil, coal, palm oil, and rubber. These are dark days – literally and figuratively – for Indonesia.

Yet Indonesia’s public health crisis and ecological calamity presents President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – with an opportunity to finally enact reforms in the forest and plantation sectors his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono failed to implement. Jokowi has both the domestic support from citizens and business leaders to meaningfully adopt and implement policies that shift Indonesia away from practices that have wrecked the country’s forests and peatlands, heightened social conflict, eroded local food security, and made the country one of the world’s largest carbon polluters.

President Jokowi should seize this opportunity for definitive action in advance of his upcoming U.S. visit. Jokowi should use his visit with Obama, and his participation in the Paris climate meetings six weeks hence, to push for international support to help Indonesia root out the underlying problems that have created the current triple-lose crisis for his country’s environment, economy, and public health.

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Plantation companies in Indonesia struggle to combat fires

With political pressure mounting on plantation companies, including threats of fines and legal action by the Indonesian and Singaporean governments and boycotts in consumer countries, palm oil and timber giants in Indonesia are embracing an array of tactics to battle haze-spewing blazes burning across the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, according to Mongabay.com’s informal survey of six major companies.

Responses from Asia Pulp & Paper, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), Golden Agri Resources (GAR), Cargill, Wilmar, and Musim Mas indicate that several companies have adopted systems for monitoring fires within their concessions and supplier concessions, including ground and helicopter patrols, utilization of drones and cameras, and use of satellite data including Global Forest Watch, a platform that provides regular updates on potential hotspots, wind patterns, and forest cover. Those systems are helping companies concentrate fire-fighting and fire-prevention efforts, sometimes in concert with local and federal governments.

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Up to 15 billion trees are cut every year, finds study

When it comes to the world’s forests, two of the commonly asked questions are “How many trees are are on Earth?” and “How many trees are cut down each year?” A new study proposes answers: three trillion and 15.3 billion.

The research, published today in the journal Nature, is based on a combination of satellite imagery, on-the-ground inventories, and computer modeling led by Thomas Crowther of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. Crowther conducted the research while at Yale University.

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