The scale of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high in 2020, official government data showed on Monday, with destruction soaring since President Jair Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental enforcement.
In 2020, destruction of the world’s largest rainforest rose 9.5 percent from a year earlier to 11,088 square kilometers — about 4,280 square miles, or a little smaller than Connecticut — according to data from Brazil’s national space research agency, Inpe.
That means Brazil will miss its own target, established under a 2009 climate change law, for reducing annual deforestation to about 3,900 square kilometers. The consequences for missing the target are not laid out in the law but could leave the government open to lawsuits.
The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, and its protection is crucial to stopping catastrophic climate change because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs.
The official annual measure of the extent of deforestation is taken by comparing satellite images. The latest annual destruction is a substantial increase from the 7,536 square kilometers that were deforested in 2018, the year before Mr. Bolsonaro took office.
While the total size of deforested land was a 12-year high, federal officials hailed the percentage-of-growth figure of 9.5 percent as a sign of progress, far lower than the 34 percent increase recorded in 2019.
“While we are not here to celebrate this, it does signify that the efforts we are making are beginning to bear fruit,” Vice President Hamilton Mourão told reporters at Inpe headquarters in the São Paulo satellite city of São José dos Campos.
Mr. Bolsonaro has weakened the environmental enforcement agency Ibama and called for more commercial farming and mining in the Amazon region, arguing that it would lift the region out of poverty. Environmental advocates say that emboldened illegal ranchers, miners and land grabbers to clear the forest.
The figures “show that Bolsonaro’s plan worked,” the Brazilian nongovernmental organization Climate Observatory said in a statement. “They reflect the result of a successful initiative to annihilate the capacity of the Brazilian State and the inspection bodies to take care of our forests and fight crime in the Amazon.”
European leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France have fiercely criticized Brazil, arguing it is not doing enough to protect the forest.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. a said in a debate that the world should offer Brazil money to fund efforts to stop deforestation, and threatened economic consequences if it did not. The comment drew fierce criticism from Mr. Bolsonaro, who said it was a threat against Brazil’s sovereignty.