November 16, 2018, by Jan Rocha
If their new leader, Jair Bolsonaro, acts as many Brazilians expect him to, the Amazon forest is likely to suffer serious damage.
SÃO PAULO, 16 November, 2018 − The Amazon rainforest, the greatest remaining in the world, faces a new threat − from the policies espoused by Jair Bolsonaro, the ex-army captain who is now Brazil’s president-elect. The forest is globally vital for its ability to store atmospheric carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels.
Bolsonaro has caused alarm both in the country and abroad with his views on the environment. In anticipation of his victory, deforestation in the Amazon region increased by 50% in the three months before the poll.
The Real Time System for Detection of Deforestation in the Amazon region, Deter, which is administered by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and provides data for environmental inspectors, found that between August and October, the Amazon rainforest lost 1,674 square kilometres, an area bigger than Brazil’s largest metropolis, São Paulo. This was an increase of 48.8% compared to the same months in 2017.
“Up to 15 million hectares of the Brazilian Amazon is at risk of losing its legal protection”
In the area that showed the greatest increase in illegal deforestation, the border region between the states of Acre and Amazonas, the main cause was cattle ranching. It is the cattle ranchers, together with the soy farmers, who are among Bolsonaro’s most enthusiastic supporters.
But even they were alarmed when he announced, as one of his first measures, the merging of the Ministry of the Environment, one of whose main functions is to enforce environmental laws, with the powerful Ministry of Agriculture, more or less like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. Brazil is one of the world’s top exporters of soy and beef, and farmers know they must adhere to the strict environmental and health conditions demanded by importers.
The president-elect’s radical plans also came under fire from eight former environment ministers. In an open letter to Bolsonaro, published in the newspaper Opinião do jornal Folha de São Paulo (in Portuguese), they urged him not to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Agreement on tackling climate change, which, as an enthusiastic fan of Donald Trump, he has said he wants to do.
They point out that Brazil, host to the first Earth Summit in 1992 and to the follow-up 20 years later, Rio+20, is a world leader in sustainable development and the use of renewable energy resources, and, because of the importance of the Amazon rainforest to the world’s climate, a leading player in global environmental policy.
Double disaster possible
To abolish the Environment Ministry and leave the Paris Agreement, they say, would also be disastrous politically and commercially: “We cannot run the risk of international political isolation or the closing of consumer markets to our exports. In the 21st century Brazil can’t get off the world”.
Especially as, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in the next decade Brazil is expected to become the world’s biggest agricultural producer and food exporter, unless the reckless destruction of its natural resources prevents this.
Leaving the Paris Agreement, however, seems to be part of the anti-global mindset which predominates among Bolsonaro and his followers, very much influenced by the Steve Bannon playbook.
The president-elect has just announced the choice of an ultra-conservative diplomat to become Brazil’s new foreign minister. The new minister, Ernesto Araujo, sees globalisation as a Marxist plot, and wants Brazil, notable for its leadership of developing countries during previous governments and its active role in international organisations, to ally itself uncritically with the US, because “Donald Trump will save the Western world for Christianity.”
However, under pressure from exporters, Bolsonaro has been forced to back down and maintain the Ministry of the Environment, although he is determined to weaken its monitoring and enforcement functions, and to water down environmental licensing laws.
He has also said that too much land in the Amazon is occupied by indigenous peoples and conservation units, and wants to open up these areas to economic exploitation. SAD figures show that while private properties account for the most deforested areas (58%), and even conservation units make up 24%, indigenous territories account for only 4% of the total. In other words, they are a barrier against deforestation.
Besides the ex-ministers, scientists and environmentalists have warned that if the president-elect carries out his promises, deforestation in the Amazon could explode. A group of researchers at INPE have used mathematical modelling to simulate possible changes in land use and calculated an increase of 268% in deforestation, rising from 6.9m km² in 2017 to 25.6m km² from 2020.
There is an added danger from another source, if individual Amazon states decide to invoke a clause in the Forest Code, which allows them to authorise a reduction in the 80% of land compulsorily set aside for conservation on private properties. A new study concludes that because of this potential reduction, “up to 15 million hectares of the Brazilian Amazon is at risk of losing its legal protection.”
Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, and the University of São Paulo (in Portuguese) say this is equivalent to more than 4 times the entire forest area of the UK. As most of the newly elected state governors and members of state legislatures have declared support for Bolsonaro, the probability that they will enact the clause, leading to more deforestation, is high.
Unfortunately, many of them choose to ignore the warnings of scientists like Paulo Moutinho of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) who said that “one of the ways to value this great forest is to recognise it as a great irrigation system . . . we can say that the food that is produced in Brazil, not only now but in the future, depends on this gigantic irrigation system which is the standing forest.” − Climate News Network
Jan Rocha is a freelance journalist living in Brazil and is a former correspondent there for the BBC World Service and The Guardian.