Journalism from the center of the world

A sumauma towers above the canopy in the Amazonian rainforest near Marachel Thamaturgo, Acre.

More than two billion trees have been killed in the Amazon rainforest since Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil. Let that sink in. Two billion trees.

A death toll on that scale is almost impossible to conceptualise. So break it down. Think of any two trees in your life: maybe those you grew up with and associate with family, or the autumnal beauties in a favourite garden or park, or the ones in your street that provide a flash of colour and life when you walk past them on the way to the shops, or the giants that have shaded you in the sun or sheltered you in the rain.

Then, in your mind, multiply those two trees first by ten, then by a hundred, then by a thousand – and sit for a while in that copse and imagine the vitality within it – birds, insects, mosses, small animals, trickling brooks. Then take those two thousand trees and multiply them by a thousand and think how many hours it would take you to wander through this forest of two million trees you have created. But you are not finished yet. Finally take that forest and once again multiply by a thousand and then stop and wonder at the immensity of existence that is two billion trees.

More than two billion trees in four years. Usually, when we talk about deforestation, we ignore numbers like this, numbers of lives. Instead, we talk about hectares, or square kilometres, or football pitches, or compare with the size of Manhattan or Wales. That is also how I have been writing about it for more than ten years. But the clearance of the Amazon must not be measured solely in terms of real estate. This land is alive. More alive than anywhere else on the planet. It is dense with plants, teeming with insects, filled with the calls of birds, frogs and monkeys. So when we talk about land clearance, we should be clear that this means a slaughter of life, a massacre of nature.

More than two billion trees in four years. On average, that is more than a million each day, or 15 each second.There is no way that could be done with an axe or a chainsaw or even a bulldozer. No wonder, the farmers have to use fire. It creates a haze across the sky during the burning season that we can see and smell even when the flames are far out of sight. Plane pilots struggle to climb above the smoke. Sometimes, football games have to be cancelled because the visibility is so bad. Yesterday evening we had such a haze here in Altamira. Last month, we saw a blaze on the horizon so intense it created its own lightning.

More than two billion trees in four years means fires have become commonplace. There is much less risk of punishment now the president has gutted the environmental protection agencies and given a green light to illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation is 86% higher than during the previous eight years. For those who thrive by flames and smoke, this has been a gilded age, but they clearly fear it is coming to an end. With Bolsonaro trailing in the polls, there is a rush to burn in case voters chose a president with less fondness for arson. As SUMAÚMA reported in its first edition, last month saw 33,116 fires in the Amazon – the worst August since Bolsonaro took power. September is on course to be still more devastating with 22,487 blazes in the first ten days.

More than two billion trees in four years. As the fires rage, how much life is extinguished? SUMAÚMA asked the highly respected Imazon research institute to estimate the impact on the Amazon rainforest. According to Paulo Barreto, chief researcher at the institute, the number of trees of at least 10cm in diameter likely to have been destroyed or affected by fire and land clearance since August (the start of the space agency’s annual calendar) 2018 is between 2.2 billion and 2.6 billion. The number of monkeys killed, injured or otherwise impacted in this period is between 1.6 million and 3.8 million, while the number of birds who have lost nests, habitats or lives is between 78.1 million and 89.9 million.

More than two billion trees in four year is an estimate calculated by using an assessment of the average number of these groups in a single hectare of the Amazon, and then multiplying that figure by 4,709,511, which is the number of hectares that have been burned or cleared in the past four years. To double check, I asked another leading researcher, Tasso Azevedo of Map Biomass for his damage assessment. It came out very similar – 2.3 billion trees destroyed since 2019.

More than two billion trees in four years and the death toll of other species is almost impossible to assess. Scientists believe they have identified less than half of the species in the Amazon. Noemia Ishikawa, the Amazon’s leading mycologist, told me so many new types of fungi are being found that it is hard to know how many more are out there, which makes the loss impossible to calculate. The situation for insects, orchids, lichen, worms and bacteria is still more obscure.

More than two billion trees in four years and that is a conservative estimate based only on fully cleared land in the Amazon. It does not account for partially degraded forest, which covers another enormous area. Nor does it include Brazil’s other vast biomes – the Atlantic Forest, the Pantanal wetlands and the Cerrado savanna. The overall tally could easily be three, or maybe even four billion. How can we value the loss of this complex web of interactions? Certainly not in market terms, which tend to value trees more highly dead than alive. Economists have repeatedly attempted to measure the “eco-system services” provided by a living forest in terms of carbon drawdown, water purification, food production, medicinal benefits, habitat provision and soil regeneration. Their dollar tallies have impressive numbers of zeros, but come nowhere close to what is really being lost. How can you price a stable climate, global water cycles, spiritual well being, interdependence and the mental health impacts of knowing your children will inherit a degraded world in which the world’s greatest rainforest is being incinerated?

More than two billion trees in four years. My friend and colleague, Dom Phillips, described Bolsonaro as “the president of death” in a WhatsApp message he sent to me last year. He was primarily talking about the Brazilian leader’s murderously contemptuous response to the covid epidemic, which has until now resulted in the deaths of more than 685,000 Brazilians – the second highest national toll in the world. But Dom also reported on and feared the worsening destruction of the Amazon, the loosening of gun laws, rising levels of food poverty, a growing sense of impunity among criminals, and increasing cases of violence against indigenous forest defenders and conservationists. He too fell victim to this murderous culture, when he and the indigenista Bruno Pereira were shot and buried in the Javari Valley while Dom was researching a book called “How to Save the Amazon”.

More than two billion trees in four years. The former captain who became president boasts about his willingness to take life. “I’m an army captain”, he said before taking power. “My specialty is killing.” Along with people and nature, this crude thuggishness has had another casualty: Brazil’s global reputation. Ten years ago, Brazil was admired around the world as a healthily-growing, multiethnic democracy that was coming to grips with inequality and environmental destruction. Today, it is a global pariah thanks to the boorishness of its leader and the scale of death he promotes. Just look at the surge of negative global headlines since he took power and it is clear the president of death is killing Brazil’s reputation, along with that city-sized number of covid victims, and the forest-scale holocaust of more than two billion trees.