Tag Archives: brazil

Unvaccinated Bolsonaro defies the pandemic and the environment at UN summit

Ignoring the mandatory requirement to be vaccinated, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro traveled to New York to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. There, he issued a defense of his administration, which is widely questioned domestically and internationally over its overall health and environmental policies. But his presentation was widely criticized as unrue.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Image credit: UN.

Bolsonaro said he wanted to present “a Brazil different from that published in a newspaper or seen on TV.” Facing falling popularity ahead of the presidential elections in Brazil next year, Bolsonaro raised expectations of a more moderate speech. But this didn’t happen, as he chose to distort facts in favor of his narrative.

He was the only G20 leader attending the UN General Assembly that hasn’t been vaccinated yet. When meeting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro said he “still” didn’t take the jab, while in Brazil he regularly says he won’t be immunized. “I had Covid. I have a very high immunization rate,” he told to reporters in New York.

You can’t make this up

In his speech, wearing a face mask (something he doesn´t do in Brazil) Bolsonaro said his government “supports vaccination” but rejects the obligation to get a vaccine. He once more supported “early treatment” drugs for Covid-19 such as hydroxychloroquine, which scientists have already dismissed as ineffective. 

He said he didn’t understand why “many countries along with much of the media” positioned themselves against early treatment of Covid-19, adding that “history and science will know how to hold all of them responsible.” He also highlighted the government’s “generous” Covid-19 welfare program that assisted Brazil’s poor. But the reality is far direr.

Brazil suffered the world’s largest Covid-19 death toll after the United States, with over 21 million confirmed cases and 590,000 deaths. The handling of the pandemic is now being discussed by the Brazilian Senate, where representatives from vaccine manufacturers said they offered vaccines that were rejected by the government. 

In New York, the Brazilian delegation was involved in several striking episodes. A group of protests shouted “genocide” in from of the residence of the Brazilian mission to the UN, to which the Brazilian Minister of Health Marcelo Queiroga replied by showing them the middle finger. Queiroga, unvaccinated, contracted Covid-19 in NYC.

To top it all off, Bolsonaro’s cruel defiance didn’t stop at the pandemic.

Growing deforestation

Bolsonaro also painted a rosy picture of his administration’s environmental record. He said deforestation dropped 32% in August compared to a year ago. This is technically true, but taken out of context: the figures are still higher than when Bolsonaro took office, and a total 918 square kilometers of forests were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon in August, Brazil official data showed. Much of this is burned by ranchers who want to grow cattle.

Aerial view of an area in the Amazon deforested for the expansion of livestock, in Porto Velho, Rondônia state. Image credit: Greenpeace.

In his speech, Bolsonaro ironically asked “which other country in the world has a policy of environmental protection” like the one of Brazil. This sparked rage among Brazilian environmental leaders, who over the past few years, have witnessed how Bolsonaro has allowed illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the Amazon since he took office in early 2019. 

While he was visiting New York, a group of environmental activists flew over the Amazon to show what’s actually happening in the rainforest. They captured images in two Amazon states between September 14 and 17. While the images don’t lie, “the same cannot be said of Bolsonaro’s speech” a press release from the activists reads. 

Aerial view of an area in the Amazon deforested for the expansion of livestock, in Lábrea, Amazonas state. Image credit: Greenpeace.

“What we saw from above was the forest covered in smoke and unchecked devastation on the ground. Setting fire to the forest is part of the deforestation cycle, which includes the initial removal of the most valuable trees, a financial benefit for those who invest in land grabbing,” Romulo Batista from Greenpeace Brazil said in a statement. 

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon only fell by 1.2% from January to August 2021 compared with the same period in 2020, according to government data. The decrease amounts to 6,026 square kilometers. Annual deforestation rates remain double what they wereduring January to August 2018, before Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental regulations. 

A new species of bird discovered in Brazil has a green head, yellow belly, and a high risk of going extinct soon

An international team of ornithologists reports discovering a new species of bird in north-eastern Brazil. Sadly, the forests it calls home have been almost completely cut down.

The black-throated trogon (Trogon rufus). Image credits Moisés Silva Lima.

The new species has been christened the Alagoas black-throated trogon (Trogon muriciensis), and is part of the Trogonidae family of tropical birds. Comprising around 43 species and almost 110 subspecies, the trogons are some of the most colorful birds in the world — at least, the males. They sport patterns of various colors including iridescent green, blue, violet, and purple, with bright red, orange, or yellow abdomens. The females have to make do with gray or brown feathers.

Bird is the word

Trogon rufus is easy to distinguish by the unique combination of a green head in males, brown in females, and a yellow belly,” said Jeremy Kenneth Dickens, a researcher at the Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo and the Fundación Para La Tierra, and lead author of the study.

“However, with the collection of more material, it soon became recognized as notoriously variable across its distribution.”

The trogon family was first described in 1788 with the black-throated trogon (Trogon rufus), which is quite common in the lower and mid-levels of humid forests spanning from Honduras to northern Argentina.

After its initial description, however, more observations of this bird made it clear that its characteristics varied quite significantly across its range. In other words, it was possible that what we were seeing wasn’t a single species, but rather a family of species.

In order to get to the bottom of it, the team looked at 547 male and 359 female trogon specimens from the collections of 17 different museums. They factored in morphological, vocal, and genetic datasets, as well as spectral and digital data of their plumage, to establish the family tree of the trogons.

All in all, they identified five populations that show signs of reproductive isolation — in other words, five groups of trogons that don’t interbreed and show differences in traits involved in species recognition such as plumage, behavior, or song. Four of these were already known as the Amazonian black-throated trogon (Trogon rufus), the southern black-throated trogon (Trogon chrysochloros), the (somewhat fancily-named) graceful black-throated trogon (Trogon tenellus), and the Kerr’s black-throated trogon (Trogon cupreicauda).

The fifth population, however, wasn’t identified as a distinct group previously. It makes its home in the mountainous stretches of the Atlantic Forest in the Brazilian state of Alagoas (hence its name). This group is distinct enough morphologically, genetically, and through behavior such as song to represent a completely new species, the team explains. It can be distinguished from most other trogon species by the combination of a green head and bright yellow belly.

“It is only known from Estação Ecológica de Murici in the Alagoas state, at just over 500 m elevation, where it occurs in mid-levels of the montane Atlantic Forest,” the team explains.

“It was presumably once more widespread throughout this habitat in the Pernambuco Centre of Endemism before the deforestation of the region.”

According to the team, finding records and individuals of this species in a single, relatively small area, does not bode well. They further explain that during fieldwork in 2019 in the region, they only found 20 individuals and “explicitly avoided” collecting more than one specimen for further study after seeing how low their numbers appeared to be.

The team recommends that the Alagoas black-throated trogon is immediately listed as Critically Endangered, as only around 30 km2 of forest remains in their known range. These forests are also “mostly small fragments and not all suitable for this species,” casting further doubt on their ability to recover.

The paper “Species limits, patterns of secondary contact and a new species in the Trogon rufus complex (Aves: Trogonidae)” has been published in the journal Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon breaks 12-year record, as administration focuses on industry

Despite the pandemic, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil reached a dire record: a 12-year high. The news drew widespread condemnation of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his support of industrial and agricultural policies at the expense of the environment.

Deforestation in the Amazon is taking a turn for the worse. Image credit: Greenpeace

‘The Amazon is ours’, Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro famously said in 2019 — cautioning other countries to mind their own business. The overall attitude of the administration was clear: the environment is the least of concerns, and as many areas as possible must be opened for mining, agriculture, and logging. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Amazon is experiencing record deforestation.

A total of 4,281 square miles (11,088 square kilometers) of the forest were destroyed in Brazil’s share of the Amazon in the 12 months to August 2020, according to Brazil’s space agency PRODES monitoring program, which monitors deforestation. This was a 9.5% increase from the previous year, when deforestation also broke a record.

“Because of such deforestation, Brazil is probably the only major greenhouse gas emitter that managed to increase its emissions in the year the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the global economy,” said the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental groups, in a statement.

But while most of the Amazon is indeed in Brazil, the rainforest affects all of us. Rainforests like the Amazon play a key role in controlling climate as they absorb carbon, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, when they die or burn, trees release carbon back into the environment. This and its valuable biodiversity made world leaders call for the protection of the Amazon.

While the new figures are preliminary and will be confirmed early next year, they clash against Brazil’s goal to slow the speed of deforestation to 3,900 square kilometers per year by 2020. The figures came just as Vice President Hamilton Mourao presented the figures in a press conference and assured the government is fighting deforestation.

“The message I bring in the name of President Bolsonaro is that we will continue working with science and technology to support the work of environmental protection agencies,” said Mourao in a press conference, a retired army general who heads Bolsonaro’s Amazon task force against deforestation.

But many aren’t buying it. Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian environmentalist at Germany’s Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, told The Guardian that the numbers were a clear sign of the damage being done to the environment since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. The area deforested this year is a third the size of Belgium, he estimated.

Bolsonaro came to power last year promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA, recently replacing its managers and coordinators.

Back in May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles claiming the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video was disclosed as part of a Supreme Court investigation.

Environmental groups have called the government to better penalize the major loggers in order to truly protect the Amazon, using not only sanctions but also blocking bank accounts, for example — because fines just won’t cut it. A study by InfoAmazonia showed that as of 2019, only 3% of the fines imposed since 1980 were actually paid, and the government isn’t taking any real measures to enforce the fines.

International pressure has mounted on Brazil so far this year to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

French President Emmanuel Macron has fiercely questioned Brazil, claiming it’s not doing enough to protect the forest. At the same time, United States president-elect Joe Biden said in the presidential debate this year that the world should offer Brazil money to fund efforts to stop deforestation. Macron is just one of many international voices criticizing Brazil’s current administration for their lack of environmental policies.

Fires in Brazil’s Amazon are the worst in a decade

The Brazilian Amazon is experiencing the worst expansion of forest fires in almost ten years, according to official figures released by the government yesterday. Fires increased 14% in the first nine months of the year compared with a year ago, as the rainforest sees a severe drought.

Image credits: NASA.

The space research agency INPE recorded in September a whopping 32,017 fire hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon — a 61% increase from the same month in 2019. August had already surpassed last year’s single-month high, showing a worrying trendin the world’s largest rainforest.

“We have had two months with a lot of fire. It’s already worse than last year,” Ane Alencar, science director for Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), told Reuters news agency. “It could get worse if the drought continues. We are at the mercy of the rain,” Alencar added.

The Amazon is experiencing a more severe dry season than last year, which scientists link in part to warming in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean pulling moisture away from South America. The entire Amazon, which spans over nine countries (60% of the rainforest is contained within Brazil), currently has 28,892 active fires, according to a fire monitoring tool from NASA.

This time of the year is usually the beginning of the fire season in the Amazon, as farmers and ranchers who have felled trees on their land take advantage of the dryer weather to set them on fire. While this is the common practice, its extension suggests deforestation is ramping up in several areas of the Brazilian Amazon, presumably due to intensified ranch activity.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with President Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest with little to no repercussion. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon and has shown no concern for the environmental preservation of the Amazon.

The warming of the North Atlantic is also helping drive drought in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which has suffered more fires this year than ever previously recorded, according to official data. A Federal University of Rio de Janeiro analysis found that 23% of the wetlands have already burned. Earlier this week, Bolsonaro, an ally of US President Donald Trump, questioned US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for “disastrous and unnecessary” comments on the destruction of the rainforest. Biden said if elected he would raise $20 billion to help Brazil to “stop tearing down” the Amazon.

Later, in a video address to a UN biodiversity summit, Bolsonaro said Brazil was “firm in its commitment to sustainable development and preserving our environmental wealth.” At the same time, he accused “certain non-governmental organizations” of perpetrating “environmental crimes” to stain the country’s image. But Bolsonaro’s actions do little to match his words.

Brazil is coming under growing pressure from foreign governments, international investors and trading partners over the scale of deforestation and forest fires. In June, investment firms managing nearly $4 trillion in assets sent an open letter to Bolsonaro, urging him to change policies.

Fires devastate the world’s largest tropical wetland in Brazil

The world’s largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal, is burning at a record speed in Brazil, with fires expanding fast and threatening its biodiversity. This is happening on a backdrop of a record fire season in the whole Amazon region, with President Bolsonaro being questioned by the international community.

The Pantanal. Credit WWF

With an area of 150,000 square kilometers, the Pantanal crosses the Brazilian border and extends through Bolivia and Paraguay. It’s known for its impressive biodiversity, attracting visitors from around the world eager to see jaguars, caimans, toucans, monkeys, giant otters, and many other species living there.

“Very few animals survive. The ones that do often suffer very severe effects. They’re burned to the bone, they often have to be euthanized, or die of hunger and thirst,” said Juliana Camargo, head of wildlife conservation group AMPARA Animal, in a statement. “The only hope is for it to rain, but that’s not expected until November.”

Nevertheless, over the last few months, the area has been challenged by record flames, fueled by an extended drought in the region. So far 12,567 fires have been recorded in the Brazilian Pantanal, which is more than in all 2018 and 2019, according to satellite data collected by Brazil’s national space agency INPE.

The flames even reached the Encontro das Aguas State Park, a nature reserve known as the home to the world’s biggest jaguar population. The park is crisscrossed by five rivers and spans 109,000 hectares or 270,000 acres. According to state authorities, firefighters are trying to protect the farms, hotels and the park itself.

Júlio Cesar Sampaio, leader of WWF-Brazil’s Pantanal Initiative, said the region is seeing one of the worst droughts in the last 47 years. The water level in the Paraguay River, which is one of the most important in the biome, is critical. While climate change partly explains the drought, human actions also have accelerated the degradation of the Pantanal, he said.

In fact, most of the fires that have happened over the past few weeks started with fires made to clean cultivation areas or pastures. The Pantanal is facing large pressures because of the extensive agriculture and livestock activities in the whole Amazon region, which have been encouraged by President Bolsonaro since he took office.

Farmers and ranchers introduce non-native crops to the region, as they burn more easily than native vegetation, forestry engineer Vinicius Silgueiro of the Life Center Institute (ICV), said. The government has cut funds for environmental protection agencies, creating a widespread sense of impunity, he argued.

The Amazon fires

The Pantanal crisis is part of a larger forest fire problem across all the Amazon region in Brazil. Satellite images showed a record number of 29,307 fires in August, the second-highest number in a decade and only 5.2% lower than the absolute highest, in August 2019.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon’s conservation.

The Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. He came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon, even asking Congress to change environmental protection laws and to cut the budget and staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA.

Under growing pressure from global leaders, Bolsonaro recently deployed the army to the Amazon to crack down on deforestation and fires, and decreed a ban on all agricultural burning. But environmentalists remain critical of the far-right leader, asking for further action to better protect the country’s natural resources.

Burning in the Amazon is already reaching the record levels seen in 2019

Despite pressure from civil society and foreign investors, forest fires seem to be unstoppable in the Brazilian Amazon. The number of fires last month was the second-highest for August in a decade. This nears the crisis level that led to a global outrage last year against the Jair Bolsonaro administration.

Credit CIFOR Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Satellite images gathered by Brazilian space agency INPE showed a record number of 29,307 fires in August, the second highest number in a decade and only 5.2% lower than the absolute highest, in August 2019. The number might have even been larger than reported as one of the satellites had technical problems, INPE said.

Last year the number of forest fires in Brazil rose 200% in August compared to the same month in 2018, reaching 30,900 and sending smoke all across the country. This created a global alarm regarding the devastation of the world’s largest rainforest, highly important as a carbon source and for its biodiversity.

But that’s just the environmental costs. A recent report by a group of health and environmental organizations highlighted the health costs of the fires, estimating they caused 2,195 hospitalizations due to respiratory illness last year. This includes 500 infants under one year old and more than 1,000 over 60.

“The data confirm the failure of the costly and badly planned operation by the Brazilian armed forces in the Amazon, which the Bolsonaro government has tried to substitute for a real plan to fight deforestation,” said in a press release the Climate Observatory, a group of Brazilian environmental NGOs.

Slash and burn

August is usually the beginning of the fire season in the Amazon, as farmers and ranchers who have felled trees on their land take advantage of the dryer weather to set them on fire. While this is the common practice, its extension suggests deforestation is ramping up in several areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon.

The Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. He came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon, even asking Congress to change environmental protection laws and to cut the budget and staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA.

Under growing pressure from global leaders, Bolsonaro recently deployed the army to the Amazon to crack down on deforestation and fires, and decreed a ban on all agricultural burning. But environmentalists remain critical of the far-right leader, asking for further action to better protect the country’s natural resources.

“Last year, images of the Amazon in flames made headlines around the world. This year, the tragedy is repeating itself. Yet the government wants to cut the (environment ministry’s) budget next year,” Romulo Batista, spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace, said in a statement, accusing Bolsonaro of “dismantling” Brazil’s environmental protection agencies.

While Bolsonaro dismisses any sense of urgency, international pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

Environmentalists argue there’s no time to lose. The tropical forest is close to a tipping point as deforestation could alter the entire forest’s ecology and turn large areas into an arid savanna, with devastating consequences not only for the Amazon but for the entire planet’s climate.

Coronavirus cases continue to rise sharply in the US, India and Brazil

The coronavirus pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down in the worst-affected countries, the United States, Brazil and India. The three nations account for more than 60% of the new positive cases of the virus, according to recent estimations by John Hopkins University.

India reported today almost 25,000 new coronavirus infections, as the disease continues to spread among its 1.4 billion inhabitants. Meanwhile, the US reported nearly 59,00 new daily cases, close to the record of 60,000 cases from a day earlier. In Brazil, nearly 45,000 new cases were reported.

The number of confirmed cases in the US has already passed three million, which means at least one in every 100 people has been infected, with the number of deaths exceeding 132,000. President Trump stills wants to reopen schools and threatened to hold back federal money from districts that don’t follow through.

Despite the pressure, New York City announced that most of its students would return to classrooms only two or three days a week and would learn online in between. “Most schools will not be able to have all their kids in school at the same time,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a press conference.

Health experts have urged US officials to reconsider how they are planning to reopen the economy as a whole and to prioritize schools. This would mean closing down some establishments like bars to limit the spread of the virus and increase the possibility of returning to the classrooms.

“We need to think about what our priorities are as a society, and some other things may just have to wait” Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, told AP. “I think there are hard choices having to be made by decision-makers.”

In Brazil, cases of coronavirus are soaring across the country, and the healthcare system in several states has been stretched to its limit. Brazil is second only to the United States in the number of infections and deaths, and on Tuesday, president Jair Bolsonaro was also diagnosed with Covid-19.

The virus first hit Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, as well as some regions in the southeast of the country, such as San Pablo or Rio de Janeiro, but in recent weeks it has spread with force to other areas, such as the west center and the south.

Meanwhile, India remains as the third country with the largest number of cases, so far totaling 767,296. Of those, about 476,000 have already recovered. Maharashtra remains the most affected state and accumulates more than 223,000 positives, followed by Tamil Nadu (more than 122,000) and Delhi (almost 105,000).

The situation in other countries

The novel coronavirus has also been spreading quite fast in South Africa, which registered almost 9,000 new cases in the latest daily update. The government is preparing 1.5 million gravesites, according to a provincial health official, who told AP it’s the public’s responsibility “to make sure that we don’t get there.”

Meanwhile, in Australia, following initial success in containing the outbreak, the country reported 179 new cases. Most of them were located in the city of Melbourne, which has imposed a new six-week lockdown. Six new cases were from a high school that is now considered the state’s larger known cluster with 113 people infected.

The virus is also escalating in Tokyo, with more than 220 new cases today, exceeding the record daily increase from mid-April. Most of the new cases are linked to night clubs, according to Tokyo’s virus task force, but there are also growing concerns of a wider spread in the community from workplaces and households.

In Serbia, the police threw tear gas at protesters who were complaining against the president’s handling of the outbreak. The government backtracked on reinstating a lockdown in Belgrade and demonstrations turned violent, with protesters throwing stones against the parliament.

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon last month were the worst since 2007

Forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon rose 19.5% in June compared to the same month last year, making it the worst June in 13 years. With such an increase, environmental organizations are worried that this year could surpass the disastrous fires registered last year across the Amazon.

Credit Flickr

Last month was the start of the dry season in the Amazon and 2,248 forest fires were recorded, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). But the worst is actually expected in August. Last year there were more than 30,000 fires that month, a figure that will likely be exceeded this year.

Most of the forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon are caused by arson and are directly linked to deforestation, often caused by crop farmers for cultivation. Deforestation was high this year even before the start of the dry season, with more than 2,000 square kilometers lost between January and May.

INPE estimates that 9,000 square kilometers of jungle already cut down since last year could go up in flames before August begins. This also has indirect consequences, as the smoke could aggravate the chaotic situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil. The country already has the world’s second-highest number of cases.

Environmental organizations have accused Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of promoting deforestation by calling for the legalization of farming and mining activities in protected zones. “We cannot allow the 2019 situation to repeat itself,” Mauricio Voivodic, executive director of the WWF NGO in Brazil, told local media.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly dismissed the criticism of his handling of the Amazon, claiming the rainforest belongs to Brazil and that its natural resources should be used for the economic development of the country. Foreign interest in the Amazon is only due to their intention of controlling its mineral resources, he has said.

Defiantly, the country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had said the government should take advantage of the fact that people are distracted by the coronavirus epidemic to move forward in the deregulation of environmental policies. “We have to push through and change all the rules,” he said.

The Amazon spans multiple South American countries but most of it (60%) lies in Brazil. Usually described as the lungs of the Earth, the Amazon is a key carbon sink that slows down the pace of global warming. It is also highly relevant for biodiversity as it hosts about three million species of plants and animals.

Many researchers have argued that the Amazon could be close to “the tipping point,” when its nature completely changes. This will actually happen when total deforestation in the area reaches between 20% and 25%, something that could happen in the next 20 or 30 years.

A study in February showed Amazon’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) is now being impaired because of illegal logging, especially in Brazil. During the last 10 years, up to 20% of the Amazon has become a net source of CO2 in the atmosphere, a piece of very bad news for the world’s climate.

Massive 700-km ‘megaflash’ stretching from Argentina to Brazil is longest lightning bolt on record

The largest lightning bolt in recorded history happened on October 31, 2018 in southern Brazil, although the flash stretched from eastern Argentina all the way to the Atlantic, the World Meteorological Organization (WHO), a United Nations agency, said. The discharge, which stretched over 700 km, is equivalent to the distance between Boston and Washington DC.

Satellite image of record extent of lightning flash, Brazil, 31 October 2018. Credit WMO

But this wasn’t the single record that was certified. The WMO’s group of experts on weather and climate extremes also reported another record for the longest lightning flash over northern Argentina. The single flash lasted for a total of 16,73 seconds and, like the one in Brazil, also spanned through several hundred kilometers.

The new records were more than double the previously known record-holders, the WHO said in a statement. The previous record for duration was of 7.74 seconds, measured on August 30, 2012, in southern France. Meanwhile, the previous record for length was 321 kilometers (199 miles) and was registered in Oklahoma on June 20, 2007.

The new measurements reveal “extraordinary records from single lightning flash events,” Randall Cerveny, the chief rapporteur in the WMO expert committee, said in a statement. “It is likely that even greater extremes still exist, and that we will be able to observe them as lightning detection technology improves,” he said.

The previous records were registered using data obtained by so-called ground-based lightning mapping array networks, which WMO experts claim have upper limits in the scale of lightning that can be observed. But recent advances in space-based lighting mapping now allow researchers to measure flash extent and duration much better.

Credit WMO

This has allowed for the detection of “previously unobserved extremes in lightning occurrence, known as ‘megaflashes’,” Michael Peterson, of the Space and Remote Sensing Group of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, said in a statement. Megaflashes “are defined as horizontal mesoscale lightning discharges that reach hundreds of kilometers in length,” he said.

For years, lightning was understood as a local event, resulting from an imbalance of electrical charge. But new research by WMO experts recently showed that some lightning events can be “mesoscale” in nature, reaching the scale of the occasionally massive sprawling storm complexes that create them.

Lightning is indeed a major hazard that claims many lives every year. For example, in the United States, lightning strikes kill on average 48 people per year, also injuring hundreds. Although most lightning occurs in the summer, people can be struck at any time of year. The most people killed by a single strike of lightning were 21 people in Zimbabwe in 1975.

Low-latitude areas experience far more lightning than higher-latitude areas, a study showed in 2017. Tropical regions can get hit by lightning strikes year-round whereas northern latitudes experience lightning only half that time. One square kilometer of Lake Maracaibo receives 233 flashes of lightning each year, more than any other place on Earth

The findings highlighted important public lightning safety concerns for electrified clouds where flashes can travel extremely large distances. The WHO advises to follow the 30-30 rule – if the time between flash and thunder is less than 30 seconds, go inside and wait 30 minutes after the last observed flash to resume outdoor activities.

Brazilian Amazon readies for record burn season this year amid coronavirus

An area 11 times the size of New York City could be incinerated this year in the Brazilian Amazon as the annual fire season is set to begin soon. A new report warns that the country could see a “catastrophe” if the peak of the fires overlaps with the current coronavirus epidemic.

According to the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM), as many as 4,500 square kilometers (1,740 square miles) have already been readied for burns starting July, when the region’s dry season and blazes begin. This would be larger than the forest fires registered last year — when images of the burning Amazon circled the world, shocking readers from all corners of the planet.

Every year, farmers around the Amazon burn down some parts of the rainforest to expand farming activity. Sometimes, the burns are legal; other times, they are not.

As president Jair Bolsonaro continues to cut down on environmental protections, this year is shaping up to be a disaster for the Amazon.

The burned area could even double to some 9,000 square kilometers as tree felling continues, said IPAM, citing data from Brazil’s national space institute. Researchers have already detected the “first major fire of 2020” in the Brazilian Amazon three months ahead of the fire season, so the outlook isn’t positive.

Unlike last year, little stands now on the way of growing deforestation in Brazil. The government officials that have to patrol the rainforest have been sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has been used by the Brazilian government as an opportunity to weaken environmental regulations and enforcement.

“Deforestation is almost entirely a reflection of public policy signals from President Bolsonaro’s government,” Tasso Azevedo, general coordinator at MapBiomas, a land-use monitoring platform, told Bloomberg. “And what he’s signaling is that illegal actors won’t be punished.”

The smoke generated by a larger fire season could aggravate the chaotic situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil. The country already has the world’s second-highest number of cases, at 672,846, according to the Johns Hopkins University site, with growing concerns on the country’s most vulnerable communities. Adding the burden of respiratory problems caused by rainforest burning could be catastrophic for the country’s health system.

Last year, air pollution rose 53% in the Amazon cities near the burned forest and the number of respiratory conditions surged. Health clinics and hospitals in Brazil typically see an increase in patients in the periods when the country experiences forest fires. But beds are already occupied by those infected with the coronavirus. The northern areas of Brazil could see the higher risk, as its death rates from coronavirus exceed by twice the national average.

President Bolsonaro has repeatedly dismissed the criticism towards the situation at the Amazon, claiming the rainforest belongs to Brazil and that its natural resources should be used for the economic development of the country. Foreign interest on the Amazon is only due to countries’ desire to control its mineral resources, he has said.

Defiantly, the country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had said the government should take advantage of the fact that people are distracted by the coronavirus epidemic to move forward in the deregulation of environmental policies. “We have to push through and change all the rules,” he said.

Brazil stops releasing key coronavirus numbers amid growing death toll

Brazil decided to stop releasing the cumulative numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in its daily report, only supplying stats for the last 24 hours instead. The move was harshly questioned by health experts and state governors, describing it as an attempt to hide the magnitude of the health crisis.

Credit Flickr

Brazil’s last official figures suggest that the nation has the world’s second-highest number of cases, at 672,846, according to the Johns Hopkins University site. Johns Hopkins removed Brazil from its global count on Saturday but later reinstated it.

On Friday, the country’s Health Ministry took down a website that used to show daily, weekly and monthly statistics on positive cases and deaths in Brazilian states. On Saturday, the website was back online but the cumulative numbers were no longer there. The site now shows only numbers from the last 24 hours.

Explaining the move, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted that disease totals are “not representative” of the country’s current situation. A close ally to Bolsonaro told O Globo local newspaper that some states were sending false data to the Health Ministry, which he said was exaggerating the toll.

“There are many people dying for other causes and public managers, purely interested in having bigger budgets for their towns, their states, were putting everybody as Covid. We are revising these obits,” Carlos Wizard, a businessman who is taking over as secretary of science, technology and strategic supplies at the health ministry, said.

Health experts have been warming over the past few months that Brazil’s statistics are deficient, and in some cases manipulated, claiming it will be borderline impossible to understand the actual extent of the pandemic across the country due to these structural problems.

Last month, academics going through death certificates compiled by the Civil Registration Office, which compiles data from all the states, discovered a drastic fluctuation in monthly deaths in recent years that couldn’t be explained as well as discrepancies between states.

Widespread criticism

The response to the government’s controversial decision came fast. Doctors, state governors, and medical associations questioned what they described as an attempt by the Bolsonaro administration to control information regarding the pandemic.

Public prosecutors said they will carry out an investigation and asked for an explanation from the government, while a council of state health secretaries said it would fight the changes made by Bolsonaro’s administration –- who is notorious for downplaying the pandemic since it started and avoided imposing national measures such as social distancing and quarantines.

“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhuman and unethical attempt to make those killed by COVID-19 invisible will not succeed. We and Brazilian society will not forget them, nor the tragedy that befalls the nation,” said Alberto Beltrame, president of Brazil’s national council of state health secretaries, in a statement.

Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes said on Twitter that “manipulating statistics is a maneuver of totalitarian regimes.” Meanwhile, João Gabbardo, the Health Ministry’s former No. 2, told television channel GloboNews that reviewing the death toll “shows the management inexperience in the Health Ministry.”

The lack of information will likely affect the management of the pandemic, Brazilian doctors warned, as outbreaks are moving from large cities to the interior of the country. “How is a manager going to reallocate resources and organize vacancies and transporting the sick if they don’t have data?” Guilherme Pivoto, an infectious diseases specialist in Manaus, told The Guardian.

Health experts fear the coronavirus outbreak could wreak havoc on Brazil’s most deprived and vulnerable communities. This is especially worrying for indigenous communities living in the Amazon region. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has always downplayed the pandemic, rejecting what he considers to be a “hysteria”.

Deforestation: 2019 is the third most devastating year of the century

The world lost almost 120,000 square kilometers of forest in 2019 or about 46,000 square miles–an area the size of North Korea or Malawi. Agriculture, illegal logging, wildfires, and corruption are to blame. Brazil, Bolivia, and Congo were some of the countries with the highest losses last year.

Brazil, Bolivia and Congo were some of the countries with the highest figures last year
Credit Flickr

The World Resources Institute (WRI), which published the data, said almost a third of that loss, an area the size of Switzerland, came from tropical forests, highly important for climate regulation and for their outstanding biodiversity.

The new statistics end a two-year decline on global deforestation and represent the third highest year of forest loss since the turn of the century. Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Bolivia were some of the countries with the largest forest loss, according to the report.

With the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro disregarding the environment, Brazil had the highest rate of deforestation in 2019. About 46% happened in primary forest, clearing out 14.000 squared kilometers (5,405 squared miles). The forest loss was higher in 2019 than at any other time during the previous 13 years.

Mining, agribusiness and forest fires were only some of the drivers behind Brazil’s deforestation. Environmental organizations have warned that the rhetoric of Bolsonaro has encouraged farmers to invade forests, even in protected areas. The country has seen record forest fires last year.

The DRC ranked second with 4,750 square kilometers of primary forest lost in 2019 and 12,000 square kilometers of general tree cover lost. The numbers were slightly lower than in 2018 but remain close to the record tree-loss seen by the country in 2016 and 2017

Deforestation in the DRC is mainly explained by small-scale agriculture. Nevertheless, the report warned over the expansion of industrial deforestation and that the country is on track to losing all its primary forests by the end of the century if the current deforestation rates continue.

Meanwhile, Bolivia’s forests also had an especially bleak year, losing more trees since data began to be collected in 2001. The country lost 1.3% of its tree cover last year, explained by record-breaking wildfires in the second half of the year. The fires were especially severe in the department of Santa Cruz.

The forest fires in Bolivia were mainly intentional to convert forest to farmland, local NGOs have warned. President Evo Morales signed in 2019 a decree to expand land for the agribusiness sector, which partly explains last year’s deforestation rate – likely to follow the same trend this year.

Some countries are making progress

It wasn’t all bad news for the world’s forests in 2019, as some countries are actually making efforts to bring down their deforestation rates.

Forest loss declined in Indonesia in 2019, accumulating three years in a row with lower deforestation. Primary forest loss especially plunged, reaching its lowest number since 2003. The decline is explained by stronger forest protection policies implemented in the country since its 2016 fire crisis.

Colombia also reported last year its first reduction in primary forest loss in five years. Deforestation dropped 35% from a 17-year high seen in 2018. Nevertheless, WRI warned that deforestation could be again on the rise this year in Colombia, based on preliminary data that shows agribusiness moving into national parks.

At the same time, data from West Africa shows that forest loss declined 50% in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in 2019, following an increase in 2018. The drop is explained by ambitious conservation initiatives and pledges from countries and companies to end deforestation.

Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at WRI, told The Guardian that the level of global forest loss was unacceptable and that it was clear what was needed to reverse the trend. “If governments put into place good policies and enforce the law, forest loss goes down. But if governments relax restrictions on burning, or signal an intent to open up indigenous territories for commercial exploitation, forest loss goes up.”

The international community could help address the problem, Seymour said, introducing economic or market incentives for protecting forests. There are key steps the governments should embrace, she said, such as increase the monitoring and enforcement and provide the poor with other alternatives rather than forest exploitation.

Let’s use the epidemic to dismantle environmental regulations, Brazilian environment minister says

Brazil is not only being challenged by a whopping increase of coronavirus cases, making it the second country after the US with the most cases. The environment is also taking a toll, with growing deforestation and an open call by one of the government ministers to deregulate environmental policies.

Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles. Credit Flickr

The country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the government should take advantage of the fact that people are distracted by the coronavirus epidemic to move forward in the deregulation of environmental policies – leading to widespread criticism from environmental leaders.

Salles spoke at a ministers’ meeting, which was recorded and the video was later released. “We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about COVID, and push through and change all the rules and simplify norms,” he said at the meeting.

Following the repercussion from the statements, the Environment Ministry issued a comment from Salles: “I have always defended de-bureaucratization and simplifying norms, in all areas, with good sense and all within the law. The tangle of irrational laws hinders investments, the generation of jobs and, therefore, sustainable development.”

Swedish climate activists Greta Thunberg shared the news on her social media networks and said: “Just imagine the things that have been said off camera. Our common future is just a game to them.” Meanwhile, Greenpeace activist Luiza Lima said Salles has an “anti-environmental project” he wants to push ahead.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon soared by 55% in the first four months of the year compared to the same period last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Destruction in April was up by 64% from the same month a year ago. A total of 5,606 square kilometers of forest have been lost since the “deforestation year” began on August 1, 2019.

Last year, over 10,000 square kilometers of forest were lost to fires and illegal deforestation. The vast majority of losses took place between May and October. Experts are concerned about the scale of destruction for 2020 since deforestation is normally hampered during these months due to the high rainfall.

A report by the Brazilian environmental organization Climate Observatory said the country could produce 10-20% more climate-warming gases in 2020 due to deforestation and farming as compared to the most recent data from 2018 – while global emissions are declining this year due to the pandemic.

“In total, the trend is for 2020 GHG emissions in Brazil to rise,” the report said. “This is because the principal source of emissions, land use change (44% of emissions in 2018), is booming due to the rise in Amazon deforestation, which is advancing despite the pandemic.”

Brazil now has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases

The reluctancy of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to take the coronavirus epidemic seriously has led to Brazil now having more positive cases of the virus than any country in the world other than the United States.

Credit Flickr

The country reached 363,211 infections, registering 15,813 new infections in the last 24 hours, according to the Ministry of Health. The number of deaths, meanwhile, also increased. A total of 653 new victims were reported, with a total of 22,666 people losing their lives due to the pandemic so far.

Brazil, which last week reported 17,500 cases a day on average, has already surpassed Russia, which is now in third place on the list of countries with the most COVID-19 cases, with just over 344,000 positive cases. The United States remains the nation most affected by the pandemic, with more than 1.6 million cases.

San Pablo, the richest and most populous state in Brazil, with some 46 million inhabitants, is the epicenter of the pandemic in the country, registering 6,163 deaths and 82,161 confirmed cases. Rio de Janeiro has 37,912 infected.

The state of Ceará, in the impoverished northeast of the country, ranks third with 35,595 infections and 2,324 deaths — alarming numbers for its population, estimated at some nine million people. Amazonas, another of the regions most affected by the pandemic in Brazil, registered 29,867 cases and 1,758 deaths.

In Amazonas, the first state in the country to be hit by the coronavirus, the numbers begin to drop in the urban region, but those of indigenous populations raise alarms. According to the latest report from the Ministry of Indigenous Health, 60% of the Brazilian natives affected by the virus are located in Amazonas.

In this context, President Bolsonaro once again challenged COVID-19 by participating in a demonstration of followers, in which he mixed with the crowd, again ignoring the recommendations to avoid being infected by the virus. He did so without a mask, whose use is not mandatory in the country.

Almost unable to move among the crowds, Bolsonaro greeted several of the followers and even hugged and carried children in his arms. The head of state was happy with the support of his followers at a time when his credibility is being questioned due to its lack of policies over the epidemic.

Bolsonaro’s stance is largely in line with his counterpart and ally U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been stressing the need to put people back to work as unemployment figures keep growing. However, while Trump has been kept in check by the rest of the administration and by Congress, Bolsonaro has been given a freer hand.

Since Brazil confirmed its first coronavirus case on 26 February, Bolsonaro has continually downplayed the pandemic, rejecting what he considers to be “hysteria” over its dangers. Asked about a record 474 deaths in a day in early May, he told reporters “so what?” and “what do you want me to do?”

The epicenter of the pandemic has shifted to South America as cases in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo explode six months after the new coronavirus emerged on the other side of the world in China, the World Health Organization declared last week.

“We’ve seen many South American countries with increasing numbers of cases and clearly there’s a concern across many of those countries, but certainly the most affected is Brazil at this point,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said at a news briefing

For Brazil, the coronavirus isn’t just a health crisis – it’s also an environmental one

For Brazil, the coronavirus epidemic isn’t only a health crisis. While the country has already 179,000 confirmed cases and 12,000 deaths, the environment is also taking a toll, with an increase of logging and mining operations.

Image credits Flickr.

Environmental organizations said the pandemic has provided a cover for extractive activities across the country, blaming Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for what they say has been a tacit approval of deforestation in the Amazon region.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon soared by 55% in the first four months of the year compared to the same period last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Destruction in April was up by 64% from the same month a year ago. A total of 5,606 square kilometers of forest have been lost since the “deforestation year” began August 1, 2019, the highest on record for this time of year. Forest loss in Brazil has now risen 13 consecutive months relative to year-earlier figures.

Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, acknowledged that government data showed rising deforestation this year and said the coronavirus pandemic had “aggravated” the situation, without explaining exactly how. He said he was confident in the government’s actions to lower deforestation.

“Government agencies are in quarantine, the population is in quarantine, good people are in quarantine — but the criminals are not, so they are taking advantage of this momentum to increase their activity,” said André Guimarães, the head of Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit organization.

The Brazilian state of Amazonas has been one of the hardest-hit regions of the country by the coronavirus pandemic, with many of the country’s resources going to fighting the virus. Campaigners fear this may mean that less attention is being given to the deforestation.

Fernando Azevedo, Brazil’s Defense Minister, said armed forces were establishing bases in three Amazon cities, with 3,800 troops mobilized against illegal logging and other crimes, at an initial cost of $10 million. The military is currently authorized for deployment for 30 days until 10 June but this could be extended.

“We have no doubt this problem will continue to exist,” the vice president said. “We don’t consider this the best job for the armed forces, to be always engaged in this type of action, but unfortunately it’s the means we have to limit these crimes from happening.”

Last year, over 10,000 square kilometers of forest were lost to fires and illegal deforestation. The vast majority of losses took place between May and October. Experts are concerned about the scale of destruction so far this year, since deforestation is normally hampered during these months due to the high rainfall.

Brazil’s environmental agency has seen large staffing and budget cuts since Bolsonaro’s tenure as president began. Environmentalists have repeatedly said that supporting Brazil’s environmental protection agencies would be a more effective plan than sending in military forces.

As Bolsonaro scoffs, coronavirus expands in Brazil with over 100,000 confirmed cases

With open borders and virtually no national lockdown, the figures of the coronavirus epidemic in Brazil are shocking and continue to worsen every day, as with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to acknowledge the extent of the problem.

Credit Flickr

The country has registered 7,025 deaths from COVID-19 (275 of them in the last 24 hours) and has exceeded the barrier of 100,000 confirmed cases, now with 101,147 cases, with a much worse situation than what is seen in other countries in South American.

And the real situation may yet be worse.

The real number of cases could be over a million, as Brazil has a severe lack of tests, according to different studies recently published – with the peak of the infection expected in two weeks.

The state of Sao Paulo, the richest and most populous in Brazil, with some 46 million inhabitants, continues to be the hardest hit by the pandemic with 2,627 deaths and 31,772 infected by COVID-19. The state of Rio de Janeiro follows with 1,019 deaths and 11,139 infected.

In a rally on Sunday, Bolsonaro reaffirmed his rejection of a lockdown and questioned governors who imposed measures to limit the movement of people. Each state in Brazil has the right to decide whether to set a lockdown or not. Sao Paulo, for example, has a lockdown in place since mid-March. Overall, however, Brazil is still not experiencing a lockdown against the outbreak.

“The number of jobs that are being lost because of the lockdown is irresponsible and inadmissible. This will cost us a lot in the future,” Bolsonaro said in the rally. “The people are with us and the army in the side of the law, the order, the liberty and the democracy.”

Bolsonaro’s stance is largely in line with his counterpart and ally U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been stressing the need to put people back to work as unemployment figures keep growing — in opposition to the advice from health experts and governors. However, while Trump has been kept in check by the rest of the administration and by Congress, Bolsonaro has been given a freer hand — and the results are frightening.

Since Brazil confirmed its first coronavirus case on 26 February, Bolsonaro has continually downplayed the pandemic, rejecting what he considers to be “hysteria” over its dangers. Asked about a record 474 deaths in a day last week, he told reporters “so what?” and “what do you want me to do?”

Health experts fear the coronavirus outbreak – which is moving into poor regions, having initially affected middle- and upper-class areas – could wreak havoc on Brazil’s most deprived and vulnerable communities. This is especially worrying for indigenous communities living in the Amazon region. Figures including Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, David Hockney and Paul McCartney have sent an open letter to Bolsonaro and warned the pandemic meant indigenous communities in the Amazon faced “an extreme threat to their very survival”.

“Five centuries ago, these ethnic groups were decimated by diseases brought by European colonisers … Now, with this new scourge spreading rapidly across Brazil … [they] may disappear completely since they have no means of combating Covid-19,” they wrote.

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva told The Guardian Bolsonaro is leading Brazilians “to the slaughterhouse” with his irresponsible handling of coronavirus. “Brazil is going to suffer a great deal because of Bolsonaro’s recklessness,” he said, claiming bodies would soon start to pile up in Brazil.

Opposite angles

Close to Brazil, neighboring Argentina has set up a strict lockdown from early March, which has prevented the virus from spreading further and even delayed the peak of infection – first expected in April and now expected in June.

Citizens are only allowed to go outside to buy groceries or assist family members, with only essential workers such as doctors allowed to break the lockdown. The use of face-covering is advised but not mandatory on a national scale.

So far, this has clearly paid off. The country has only 4,700 confirmed cases, 246 deaths and 1,341 recovered patients, mainly concentrated in Buenos Aires province, the most populated area of the country. The lockdown is likely to be extended until the end of the month.

Research comparing Brazil and Argentina can be even more illustrative. Both countries had only two deaths from coronavirus on March 17, but the situation has evolved much differently. If nothing changes, Brazil would have 28,600 deaths by the of May, while Argentina would have 532.

The wide gap is worrying South American countries, who fear the virus could spread faster across the region due to the large number of cases in Brazil. They are now working in coordination to set up measures such as restricting traffic in routes and further controlling trucks coming from Brazilian cities.

The Amazon is facing its tipping point, scientists warn

Reaching most headlines this year because of a set of forest fires, the Amazon in South America represents more than half of the remaining rainforest and is one of the most biodiverse places of the world. Nevertheless, the region is already close to its tipping point, researchers warned.

The Amazon has its own hydrological cycle through which rainforest trees regulate evaporation, transpiration, and rainfall in the region. Nevertheless, as tree cover is loss, droughts are intensified. For the rainforest, not getting enough rain means trees die off and transform into a form of savanna or shrubland.

Climate scientist Carlos Nobre and conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy in a new science policy editorial warned the Amazon is on a self-destruct mode, dealing with the consequences of growing deforestation and the effects of climate change in recent years.

“Current deforestation is substantial and frightening: 17% across the entire Amazon basin and approaching 20% in the Brazilian Amazon,” they wrote in Science Advances. “We are scientists who have been studying the Amazon and all its wondrous assets for many decades. Today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now.”

For the researchers, the solution to the changes currently experienced in the region is an ambitious reforestation program, improving the quality of life in most Amazonian cities and the development of a bio-economy based on the forest. Plus leaving behind the current drive for agriculture and cattle driving deforestation.

Previous predictions of the Amazon tipping point were mainly based on climate models developed through mathematics. But now there are real-life manifestations of the changes happening in the Amazon, which led researchers to believe that there are signs of a tipping point happening on the ground and the atmosphere.

A study by NASA in October recorded a growingly dry Amazon via satellite. Also, in 2018, a study that combined the findings of 103 researchers showed that tree species that were adapted to a wet climate were dying at a record rate, while species adapted to dry weather were thriving.

Moving from a rainforest to a savanna has severe consequences for the Amazon, according to Lovejoy and Nobre. It would mean the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a change in the natural water cycle, likely affecting Brazilian aquifers, and a sudden effect on biodiversity.

Biomes like Amazon have been subject to changes in the past. But the problem here is how sudden the move is and the consequences it brings for species and biodiversity in general. Without further action, researchers warn, the shift to a savanna will happen in just a few decades.

Despite the scenario they describe, Lovejoy and Nobre agree there’s still a way forward. “The peoples and leaders of the Amazon countries together have the power, the science, and the tools to avoid a continental-scale, indeed, a global environmental disaster. Together, we need the will and imagination to tip the direction of change in favor of a sustainable Amazon”.

New parasite species causing drug-resistant disease in Brazil

A new species of parasite causing symptoms like visceral and cutaneous leishmaniasis but resistant to currently available treatments have been identified by researchers from Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Universidade Federal de Sergipe, Universidade de São Paulo, US National Institutes of Health, and Fundação Oswaldo Cruz in patients treated at the University Hospital in Aracaju, state of Sergipe in Brazil. At least one person has died from complications associated with infection by the parasite.

Phylogenomic analysis showed that the recently discovered parasite does not belong to the genus Leishmania, which comprises over 20 species of parasites that are transmitted to humans by the bites of the infected female phlebotomine sandfly – a tiny insect vector. There are three main forms of leishmaniasis: cutaneous, visceral (VL) or kala-azar, and mucocutaneous. VL is the most severe form of the disease and can be fatal if misdiagnosed or untreated. Cases of VL in Brazil account for >90% of annual reported cases in Latin America.

“From the phylogenetic standpoint, the species analyzed in this study is closer to Crithidia fasciculata, a mosquito parasite that cannot infect humans or other mammals. We managed to infect mice with it, and for this reason we believe it’s a new protozoan, which we propose to call Cridia sergipensis,” said João Santana da Silva, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto Medical School (FMRP-USP).

The first case was confirmed in a 64-year-old man, first treated in 2011 for classic symptoms of visceral leishmaniasis: fever, enlarged spleen and liver, and decreased production of all types of blood cells (pancytopenia).

The patient was given the standard treatment and improved but suffered a relapse a few months later. He was then administered liposomal amphotericin B, the best drug available for these cases, responded, but suffered another relapse some months later. Unfortunately, the patient died after the relapses and an operation to remove his spleen, as recommended in severe cases that do not respond to treatment. A biopsy of the skin lesions found cells full of parasites, which were isolated and cryopreserved for analysis.

The group initially thought the patient had been infected atypically by Leishmania infantum but molecular tests available to identify this pathogen were all inconclusive in the analyses performed on the parasites isolated from the patient. They then opted to do a whole-genome analysis of the parasites isolated from the patient in order to find out exactly what they were dealing with.

The bioinformatics analysis that revealed the phylogenetic similarity between the new species and C. fasciculata was conducted by José Marcos Ribeiro at the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Sandra Regina Costa Maruyama, a researcher in the Department of Genetics and Evolution at the Federal University of São Carlos. The team also performed a whole-genome analysis of parasites isolated from two other patients in Aracaju who were not responding to treatment, confirming that they too belonged to the new species.

According to Maruyama, initial results gathered from an analysis of fragments of the genome identified as key to the characterization of the species suggest that most of the protozoans present in the isolates match the profile of Cridia sergipensis.

Maruyama and co-investigators would like to know whether Cridia sergipensis alone can cause severe and potentially fatal disease or whether the cases observed resulted from co-infection. Another research priority is to discover how Cridia sergipensis emerged and how it is transmitted to humans. The team also plans to search for compounds (or existing drugs) that can kill the new parasite efficiently.

Two million animals die in Bolivia due to forest fires

As a result of the raging forest fires that continue to burn in areas of Latin America, more than two million wild animals have died in Bolivia, including jaguars, pumas, and llamas, among many others.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Scientists estimate about 2.4 million animals perished in fires burning in protected forest and grassland areas, such as the tropical savannas of the Chiquitania region in eastern Bolivia.

“We have consulted the biologists of Chiquitania and we have exceeded the estimate of more than 2.3 million missing animals in many protected areas,” Professor Sandra Quiroga of Santa Cruz University said.

More than 34,000 fires have so far affected Bolivia. They have been linked to farmers clearing land for their crops, as well as extended dry periods. Sergio Vasquez, a disaster response manager at World Animal Protection, described it as the biggest emergency Bolivia has ever seen.

The main victims of the fires have been Latin American ocelots, and other wild cats like pumas and jaguars, as well as deer, llamas — and smaller forest animals like anteaters, badgers, lizards, tapirs, and rodents, according to biologists investigating the scale of the damage.

“The forest is totally charred, and the damage is irreversible. It will never get back to normal,” said Quiroga.

Among the country’s nine departments, eastern Santa Cruz has been the hardest hit since the fires began in May and intensified in late August. Back then, the government enlisted special firefighting planes, a Supertanker Boeing 747 and a Russian Ilyushin, as well as helicopters, 5,000 firefighters, soldiers and police

Nevertheless, the fires have still not been extinguished. Environmentalists blame laws enacted under leftist President Evo Morales, who has encouraged the burning of forest and pastureland to expand agricultural production. The government attributes the blazes to dry weather and flame-fanning winds.

The situation faced by Bolivia is not much different than what’s happening in the Brazilian Amazon, though Brazil has received far more attention. In Brazil, the fires are also endangering the countless species but with no clear understanding of the consequences yet.

“The scale, intensity, and velocity of fire destruction are alarming and more intense than any other threat in comparable timescales,” Esteban Payan, the South America regional director for Panthera, said. “This is so alarming because there isn’t an equivalent collective response.”

Mound fields.

Sprawling termite complex from Brazil is visible from space — and 4,000 years old

As ancient Egypt was building its pyramids, termites in Brazil were busy building their own sprawling monument.

Mound fields.

Some of the mounds at the site. Each is roughly 2.5 meters tall and 9 meters across (8 and 30 feet, respectively)
Image credits Roy Funch.

A new study reports that a sprawling complex of still-inhabited termite mounds in northeastern Brazil is up to about four millennia old. The structure is immense, covering nearly the same size as Great Britain (230.000 sq km), making it the largest known insect-made structure on the planet.

Public works

“These mounds were formed by a single termite species that excavated a massive network of tunnels to allow them to access dead leaves to eat safely and directly from the forest floor,” says first author Stephen Martin of the University of Salford, UK.

“The amount of soil excavated is over 10 cubic kilometers, equivalent to 4,000 great pyramids of Giza, and represents one of the biggest structures built by a single insect species.”

The mound complex is so large that it’s easily distinguishable on Google Earth. However, they’re not where the termites (Syntermes diruslive, per se. They’re actually a byproduct of the insects’ slow and steady excavation of a network of underground tunnels. All that digging (over thousands of years) has resulted in a lot of extra soil, which the termites deposited in 200 million cone-shaped mounds. Each mound is roughly 2.5 meters tall and 9 meters across (8 and 30 feet, respectively).

“This is apparently the world’s most extensive bioengineering effort by a single insect species,” adds co-author Roy Funch of Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana in Brazil. “Perhaps most exciting of all —  the mounds are extremely old, up to 4,000 years, similar to the ages of the pyramids.”

The mounds were erected in the dense, low, and dry type of forest specific to northeastern Brazil — the caatinga. They’re usually inconspicuous, hidden from view by the trees and thorny shrubs of the area. However, when some of the lands were cleared to make way for pastures in recent years, the mounds stood out like so many sore thumbs.

For the study, the team collected core samples from 11 mounds and dated the material therein. This step revealed that the structures were filled in between 690 and 3,820 years ago, making them about as old as the oldest-known termite mounds (in Africa)..

Next, the team analyzed whether the regular spatial pattern of the mounds was driven by competition among termites in neighboring mounds — in other words, if the overall layout was ordered because termites tried to be equally-far away from all their aggressive neighbors. However, this didn’t pan out: field tests revealed there was little aggression and conflict to be found at mound level. This stood out in stark contrast to the behavior of termites collected in other sites from mounds spaced further apart, which are quite ill-tempered against one another.

Based on this result, the team proposes that the mound pattern arose through the termites’ self-organization and was driven by episodic leaf-fall in the dry forest (which the insects feed on). The tunnels are used to secure access to a sporadic food supply, they add. Finally, they suspect that a pheromone map might help the termites orient themselves from the colony to the nearest such waste mound.

“It’s incredible that, in this day and age, you can find an ‘unknown’ biological wonder of this sheer size and age still existing, with the occupants still present,” Martin says.

There are still many things we simply don’t understand about the site — for example, no one knows how these termite colonies are structured because a queen chamber of the species has never been found. Hopefully, Martin and his team will return to the colony to answer all these questions.

The paper “A vast 4000-year-old spatial pattern of termite mounds” has been published in the journal Current Biology.