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Leap in deforestation of the world’s largest savanna alarms Brazilian scientists

The deforestation last year reached the highest level since 2015 in the Cerrado de Brazil, prompting scientists to sound alarms about the status of the world’s most species-rich savanna and a major carbon sink that helps prevent climate change.

The Cerrado, the world’s largest savanna spanning several states in Brazil, is often referred to as an upside-down forest because of the deep roots that its plants sink into the ground to survive seasonal droughts and fires.

The destruction of these trees, grasses and other plants in the Cerrado is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, although its forest density is much lower than that of the more famous Amazon rainforest with which it borders.

Deforestation and other native vegetation clearings in the Cerrado increased by 8% to 8,531 square kilometers in the 12 months to July, Brazil’s official period for measuring deforestation, according to the national space research agency Inpe.

This is more than 10 times the area of ​​New York City, at 783.84 square kilometers.

“It is extremely worrying,” said Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia. Bustamante also criticized the government’s lack of transparency for announcing deforestation data on New Year’s Eve.

The added destruction is especially concerning, according to scientists, considering that around half of the Cerrado has been destroyed since the 1970s, mostly for agriculture and ranching.

“Thousands of square kilometers are being transformed annually,” said Manuel Ferreira, geographer at the Federal University of Goias. “Few other places on the planet have seen such a rapid transformation.”

Ferreira said that new species of plants and animals are regularly discovered in the Cerrado and that many are probably being eradicated before they can be studied.

After falling from the highs of the early 2000s, deforestation in the Cerrado has risen again since the right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, calling for more agriculture and development in sensitive ecosystems.

Bustamante and other scientists blame Bolsonaro for fueling deforestation with his pro-development rhetoric and rolling back the enforcement of environmental laws.

Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment. He has previously defended his policies as a means to lift the interior of the country out of poverty, noting that Brazil has preserved much more of its territory than Europe or the United States.

“Deforestation is the most stark and stark indicator of this government’s terrible environmental policy,” said Ane Alencar, scientific director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit organization.

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