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Editor's note: The following story by reporter Stephanie Nolen first appeared in The Globe and Mail, where it is accompanied by stunning images and video.
Every single day, cameras on satellites 700 kilometres above the Earth sweep over the five million square km of Amazon rainforest in Brazil and record a series of images.
The pictures show the soaring trees that spike above the canopy...and the tangle of jungle below, threaded through with rivers, some swift and muddy brown, others nearly as green as the sea of trees.
They show the cities and the towns and the Indigenous aldeias that are home to the 30 million people who live within the forest.
And the pictures show the fires that rage across the Amazon, the bare patches of charred ground, the gouged raw earth of the mines, the speckled sprawl of hectares of grazing cattle, and the fresh scars where trees stood yesterday and have disappeared today.
As the satellites pass over the forest, they record its disappearance in real time.
Brazil began to collect these images (on satellites belonging to NASA, China and India) in 2004, a key part of the country’s big push to stop the burning and the gouging. The pictures are sent to teams of field agents who head to the sites of fires and patches of newly denuded land, to make arrests, levy fines and destroy the equipment of loggers and miners and those who cleared the land for ranches and farms.
And it worked. Between 2004 and 2014, Brazil drove deforestation down by 82 per cent.
The early pictures photographed the forest at a resolution that showed the land in 25-hectare blocks. And so those who cleared it started to strip out smaller patches, hoping to elude the satellites. Over time, Brazil’s Ministry of Environment and the Brazilian space agency developed a new camera that zoomed in to capture images as precise as a single hectare. Deforestation rates fell further.
Yet the forest was still disappearing: A chunk bigger than Prince Edward Island vanished last year alone. And when I set out to try to understand why – and what that means, not just for Brazil, but for the rest of us humans – the most knowledgeable people I talked with seemed to be filled with a level of despair I had never encountered before when reporting on climate issues.
Again and again, scientists told me that the future of the forest had never been as uncertain as it is right now.
The satellites give a constant picture of what’s happening in the Amazon. But there is a limit to what you can learn from the sky.
You can’t hear the voices of the people who live in the Amazon, and who see their own future, and Brazil’s, tied to how they use the forest every day. You can’t see those who feel they have a stake in – and a right to – the wealth that the rainforest holds.
And you certainly can’t feel the taut, maybe irresolvable tension between all their many and conflicting visions.
To try to understand how we reached this moment, I drew up a list of the many actors involved, and the multiple forces that seemed to have coalesced to get us here.
Then I laid out a map of Brazil, and traced the borders of the remaining forest. I noticed a road, the BR-163, that seemed as if it might help me see the whole story.
From the air, the Amazon is, still, predominantly, a sea of trees.
On the roads that cut through it, it’s something else entirely.
There are active legal mines, exploration sites or purchased concessions on almost one million square kilometres of land in the Amazon; mining in this region was worth four per cent of Brazil’s GDP in 2016, or $32-billion. Mines must undergo an extensive environmental licensing procedure, and companies are required to later “restore” the area they have mined, which means the impact of mining can appear relatively small, compared to farming or logging.
But new research has found that mining leaves a significant footprint. Australian ecologist Laura Sonter recently demonstrated that 9 per cent of the forest loss between 2005 and 2015 was due to mining. That’s 12 times more than occurred within mining lease areas alone. The additional deforestation comes from urban areas that grow up to house the work force, industries that expand to serve the supply chain, and big infrastructure projects built to support the mine.