The fate of the Amazon is intertwined with the fate of the world. If 20 to 25 per cent of its tree cover is cut down, scientists estimate, the basin’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide would be severely compromised, taking out of operation one of the world’s largest carbon sinks.
Accelerating rates of deforestation to make way for cattle, soy farming, and gold mining means this tipping point could be reached within a decade.
A bushfire burns near Brasilia, Brazil. A state of emergency was declared for the federal district due to the number of fires in it and in surrounding states. Credit:Agencia Brasil
The Amazon basin plays a critical role in stabilising the global climate. It is vast, spanning almost 7.8 million square kilometres and incorporating 40 per cent of the world’s tropical forests, 20 per cent of its fresh water supply, and producing 20 per cent of the air we breathe. Through a process called evapotranspiration, it also influences the planet’s cloud cover and circulation of ocean currents.
But the Amazon basin is in trouble, particularly the nearly five million square kilometres of it located in Brazil. Deforestation rates there were almost 50 per cent higher between August 2018 and July 2019 compared with the same period a year before. The country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has made the opening up of the Amazon to massive resource extraction a central pillar of his government’s economic agenda.
Backed by powerful rural politicians and the agricultural and mining lobby, Bolsonaro has sought to dismantle Brazil’s environmental protections and agencies and ramp up access to mining concessions, especially on protected indigenous land.
To hasten the process, the president is freezing the demarcation of new indigenous land and stripping the national indigenous foundation, known as Funai, of its powers. Such strategies are dangerous; the protection of indigenous lands is widely considered to be among the best strategies to conserve forests and avoid loss of biodiversity.
Already, deforestation is rising and illegal mining spreading. The chief culprits for deforestation include cattle ranchers, who are responsible for more than three-quarters of land clearances. But widespread mining of iron, gold, and other minerals is credited with up to one tenth of all forest loss. Agri-industrial giants are also clearing tracts of land to make way for soy and corn, although their direct impact on deforestation is more limited because their footprints are smaller.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the Brazilian government denies that there is a problem.
Confronted with forest loss data from the National Institute for Space Research, Brazil’s national scientific agency, the president sacked the agency’s director, describing its findings as “fake news.”
That same week, he publicly rebuked the leaders of Germany and France after they expressed concern about soaring levels of deforestation and widespread human rights abuses in indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities. On learning that the French foreign minister had met with local environmental groups, Bolsonaro called off a planned meeting, potentially imperilling the ratification of a massive new trade pact with the European Union.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.Credit:AP
Most Brazilians disapprove of their government’s moves, and more than 86 per cent of them oppose opening up protected indigenous areas to mining. A number of environmental and indigenous organisations have started resisting deregulation efforts in Brazil and holding protests in the capital. In the past month, eight former environment ministers, a former agriculture minister, and seven state governors have publicly rejected the federal government’s measures.
And after months of verbal jousting, Germany and then Norway suspended their contributions to the more than $US1 billion ($1.5 billion) Amazon Fund, a mechanism created in 2008 to help Brazil protect its forests and 300 tribal groups living in the Amazon.
Not surprisingly, conservation and protection efforts face an uphill battle. A big part of the problem is that the federal government simply dismisses all opposition.
An area that has been scorched by fire in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, this week.Credit:Agencia Brasil
Several top officials do not believe that climate change is real and seem convinced that foreign governments and civil society groups are intent on sabotaging Bolsonaro’s administration. His foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, has denounced climate change as a Marxist plot. He has the backing of some in the armed forces, which have long been suspicious of indigenous and environmental groups, and of many conservative governors who support the federal government’s agenda, especially when it comes to the economic development of forested areas.
But there are ways to put pressure on Bolsonaro.
Domestically, increased investment by public and private groups in the scientific detection of illegal deforestation and environmental crime, measures to reduce land grabbing and the unproductive use of land for cattle grazing, incentives for producing alternate crops, and sustained enforcement of existing laws are all essential.
To be sure, given the current hostility of the federal government, most of these measures are off the table. But the international community has other options available, including penalties for companies with dirty supply chains, divestment strategies targeting key violators, product boycotts, and public campaigns.
Meanwhile, one of most powerful ways to protect the region is by working with businesses, rather than against them.
The aftermath of fires in Alto Paraiso municipality, Brazil.Credit:Agencia Brasil
Take the case of the cattle industry: It might not seem like a likely candidate for progressive policy, but many international importers and sellers are increasingly sensitive to “greening” their supply chains given global consumer backlash about the Amazon. Domestic meat producers in Brazil are particularly wary since the larger chains that sell their products in Brazil — Carrefour, Casino, Walmart, and others — are foreign-owned (and are committed to zero-carbon standards, in principle).
Several Brazilian business coalitions are already pushing back. The Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Brazilian Agribusiness Association have criticised government proposals to open up protected forests. And Brazilian policymakers could face more pressure soon. Given that Brazil’s finance minister has promised to phase out a wide range of subsidies to local producers, businesses will soon need to turn to much more demanding international creditors for access to capital. If they don’t change their practices, their businesses will suffer.
Already, as part of the Brazilian climate, forestry, and agriculture coalition, some of the country’s largest beef-packing companies, agricultural producers, and land owners are taking steps to clean up their supply chains.
Robert Muggah is the founder of the Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group.
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