Brazil is battling two avertible tragedies currently. The first is the rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths — it is now second on the list of the worst-hit countries. The other tragedy is the continuous burning of thousands of hectares of Amazonian rainforest thanks to raging wildfires. To make matters worse, president Jair Bolsonaro refuses to acknowledge either of the situations.
President denies own data
According to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Study (INPE), more than 10,000 wildfire hotspots were seen in the first 10 days of August 2020, which is 17% more than the same period last year. Bolsonaro fired the agency’s chief Ricardo Galvao, and dismissed the data as ‘fake news’ spread by the media and foreign countries. A similar denial last year provoked a global outcry. The right-wing populist came to verbal blows with world leaders over the issue.
As the blaze devours rainforests in the remote town of Apui, Bolsonaro told members of the Leticia Pact, which is an agreement between Amazon countries to protect the rainforest, that ‘not a quarter of a hectare has been deforested’.
Bolsanaro has also claimed that Brazil did not need help saving the Amazon ‘because a majority of the forest is still standing’ and it was ‘wet forest that does not catch fire’.
Experts say the fires are man-made and are meant to clear land for pasture. Deforestation grew 34.5% in the 12 months through to July this year, compared to the same period a year ago. Forest clearances, however, did fall in July, the first decline in 15 months — a point that has been emphasised by Bolsonaro.
Global investors threaten to quit
The president is under international pressure to protect the world’s largest rainforest, vital to prevent global warming because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that it absorbs.
Global investors managing more than $2 trillion have threatened to pull their investments out of Brazil’s meatpackers, grains traders and government bonds if he doesn’t stop the destruction. This has forced Bolsonaro to dispatch the military to douse fires under the guidance of Brazil’s environmental authority, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). But Operation Verde Brasil 2, as it is formally called, is not showing results.
‘Military action eyewash, Bolsonaro collaborating in deforestation’
In June, INPE’s satellite-based deforestation alert system detected 1,034 sqkm of deforestation. That’s 11% larger than the forest gutted in 2019. The peak was made public two months after the beginning of Operation Verde Brasil 2. The August peak of over 10,000 fires in the first 10 days is even worse. The military mission is just an eyewash, experts say.
“…the reality of the numbers reveals that the Bolsonaro administration is collaborating in the destruction of the largest tropical forest on the planet”, said Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of Observatório do Clima.
Bolsonaro backs illegal miners, orders to stop destruction of their assets
According to Greenpeace Brazil, data shows the truth that the government has been trying to hide. The government’s policy is to empower those who profit from the forest and threaten those who struggle to keep it standing. For instance, President Bolsonaro blamed environmental organisations of igniting fires, without substantiating his claims. At a steel industry conference he said it was his opinion that the NGOs were initiating the forest fires and filming them, but when asked the proof, he said it was his feeling.
According to internal reports of the Brazilian Ministry of Environment’s administrative arm (IBAMA), military commanders refuse to provide them with security during a crackdown on illegal loggers and gold miners. IBAMA is legally allowed to destroy assets used for illegal activities such as trucks, bulldozers and other machinery, a policy which hurts illegal miners. Bolsonaro, who is ostensibly against this policy, was caught on a video that went viral saying “nothing should be burnt, not machinery, nor tractors, nothing, that is the instruction I am giving.”
By ignoring the importance of conserving natural wealth, the Bolsonaro administration negatively impacts Brazilians, the country’s economy, and global climate, IBAMA reports stated.
Destruction 50% higher than the alerts
Experts point out that wildfire alerts underestimate the real deforested area. Brazil’s DETER system, which gathers daily deforestation alerts through satellite images, uses satellites with infrared “heat-sensing” technology to detect hotspots. According to Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), the agency that monitors fires in the Amazon in near real time, these may have a limited capacity to detect smaller fires and sub-canopy fires, which can be substantial in tropical forests. The real rate of deforestation tends to be much higher — on average, 50% higher, although this figure fluctuates a lot from year to year — compared to levels flagged by the alerts.
Last year, the alerts pointed to 6,844 sq.km of deforestation, but the actual area affected by deforestation was 10,129 sq.km, the largest since 2008. This year, if chainsaws continue to operate at this intense pace, the deforested area may exceed 12,000 sq.km. This is three times the 3,925 sq.km that Brazil had committed to reach in 2020 under the country’s statute on climate change.
According to Marcio Astrini of the Climate Observatory, Brazil has failed to comply with its climate change law. This will violate the Paris Agreement and create trade difficulties for Brazil in the critical post-pandemic period. Astrini said crime has been encouraged in the Amazon, “by the Bolsonaro administration itself.”
Most fires on ‘private property, undesignated forests’
A report by Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) last year showed that rampant deforestation across the Brazilian Amazon was linked with various categories of land use. The report said by last fall, 33% of hotspots were on land designated as private and 30% on areas with no specified land use. A staggering 20% of fires appear to have started on undesignated public forests, a strong indication that land grabbing is to blame, the report said.
Deforestation worsening COVID-19 crisis among indigenous population
In total, Brazil now has 3,340,197 COVID-19 cases and 107,852 deaths. The death rate among Amazon’s indigenous people is 250% higher compared to the general population. Experts say the indigenous people are not weak in immunity, but they are exposed to the virus by illegal explorers and land grabbers including miners, loggers and others, and have no access to medical facilities such as doctors or hospitals. Experts attribute poor healthcare in the Amazon to ‘institutional racism’.
Campaigners call for emergency measures
More than 60 civil society organizations and collectives have written to foreign investors and Brazilian and European parliamentarians proposing five emergency measures to contain the deforestation crisis.
- A moratorium of at least five years on logging.
- Heavy penalties, including the freezing of the assets of the 100 largest illegal loggers in the Amazon.
- The immediate resumption of the PPCDAm — the deforestation control plan that was shelved by Bolsonaro.
- The demarcation of indigenous lands and the issuing of property titles covering territories of Quilombo communities (Brazilians of African descent) and the creation of conservation units covering 10 million hectares.
- The restructuring of IBAMA and Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), and National Indian Foundation (Funai), which have been fragmented by the current administration.
Cauldron of crisis
Since Bolsonaro assumed office in January 2019, Brazil has fallen into a cauldron of man-made crises. According to a Lancet study, Bolsanaro is the biggest threat to Brazil’s COVID-19 response. As the country fights the worst rise in COVID-19 deaths, he has openly defied social distancing. Bolsonaro has diluted green laws, dropped fines for illegal deforestation, cut budgets for environmental law enforcement and falsely blamed NGOs for the forest fires. The victims in all of this are indigenous communities, who truly are ‘Amazon stewards’. But sadly, they are being forced into a position where they have most to lose and least to gain.