Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil surged to a 12-year high in 2020, officials with the nation's space agency said.
Inpe, the Brazilian space institute, reported Monday that preliminary data showed 4,281 square miles of rainforest was razed between August 2019 and July, an increase of 9.5% from a year prior and the most rainforest destroyed since 2008.
The agency said that the number released Monday is expected to be higher in its final report to be published in the first half of 2021.
Vice President Hamilton Mourao said some 30% of the deforestation occurred on land not designated for either conservation or private use, blaming the rainforest's destruction on those stealing land.
Paul Moutinho, a senior researcher at Inpe, said if no action is taken to curb this "illegal invasion" the public heritage of all Brazilians will be destroyed.
"Public forests must be preserved as they are fundamental to maintain the climate and water balance of the Amazon," Moutinho said in a statement. "It is urgent that deforestation there be stopped and that these areas be protected."
The occupation and the deforestation is being driven by real estate speculation by those trying to profit from land grabs, the space agency said, calling for more stringent policies to be put in place to prevent the practice from worsening.
"With investment and planning, it is possible to end deforestation in the Amazon," said Inpe Executive Director Andre Guimaraes.
However, scientists and conservationist see the increase in deforestation a result of the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has encouraged agriculture and mining within the rainforest and reduced the strength of the nation's environmental protection agencies.
Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian environmentalist at Germany's Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, said in the two years of Bolsonaro's presidency, he has turned the country into "the world's top forest destroyer" and "a global environmental pariah."
"The pace of Amazon destruction increased 47.1% under Bolsonaro," Rittl tweeted. "The anti-environmental agenda of President Bolsonaro is delivering its worst expected results for the region."
The Observation do Clima said the numbers released by Inpe were not a surprise and reflect Bolsonaro's plan "to annihilate the capacity of the Brazilian state and supervisory bodies to take care of our forests and fight crime in the Amazon."
"This well-executed destruction project will cost Brazil dearly," said Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the observatory. "We are losing trade agreements, turning our soft power literally into smoke and increasing our international isolation at a time when the world is entering a critical realignment in relation to combating the climate crisis."
He said the government is acting as a machine producing only "shameful news" about the country with Bolsonaro acting as the largest saboteur of its image.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace Brazil described the deforestation in the last year as the equivalent of 1.58 million soccer fields or 7.3 times the size of Sao Paulo.
Cristiane Mazzetti, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, said in a statement that the Bolsonaro administration's response to the deforestation has been to politicize environmental protection and work to weaken civil society and democracy.
Mazzetti blamed the deforestation rate on slashing the budgets of government environmental protection agencies and the administration's anti-environmental policies.
"The Bolsonaro government's development vision for the Amazon takes us back to the past, with deforestation rates not observed since 2008," Mazzetti said. "It is a retrograde view, which does not talk to most Brazilians and does not match the efforts needed to deal with climate and biodiversity crises."