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How Bolsonaro’s regime and Climate Change are killing the Amazon?

by Nabaraj Mahanta

Amazon Fires: BBC

Often referred to as the ‘lungs of our planet’, Amazon produces almost one-fifth of the oxygen that we breathe. Almost 20% of the freshwater comes from the Amazon. These tropical rainforests are home to half of the species of our planet. Doubtless, the Amazon hosts an ecosystem that the entire world needs for its survival. Yet, the entire existence of this ecosystem has been jeopardized by the likes of treacherous and selfish politics of human beings. Just a few years back in 2019, we saw the rampant wildfires in the Amazon, almost three times as many as in August 2018. The destruction of the precious natural resources of the Amazon is twofold: the impending devastation driven by anthropogenic factors and the related disfigurement of climate and ecology.

By the 1980s, the world had known that the Amazon was endangered, and it was a beginning of a new era for the forests, scarred forever in the name of economic boom. To understand the anthropogenic factors, let’s divide them into three phases of deforestation:

First phase of deforestation

This wave started somewhere in the 1970s when Brazil’s military regime saw the potential for profit deep in the Amazon. It was an area of more than 5 million square kilometers filled with abundant natural resources. However, most of it was inaccessible. Therefore, the government started an ambitious project of building the 3200 km long Trans-Amazonian highway through the remote parts of the forests. The government wanted the inhabitants of the more urbanized and industrialized areas of South-eastern Brazil to move towards the east, cultivate the land and grow the economy. So, they offered free land along the highway and paid them to settle deeper into the rainforests. The result was obvious. It led to a land rush, and rates of deforestation began to increase. Most of them converted their lands into pastures to raise cows to sell them as beef. And when these ranchers needed more land, they would clear another plot of land and move their cattle in. Between 1978 and 1988, an average of more than 20,000 square kilometers of land was cut down each year.

Soon, there was another factor that had intensified this problem. The rate of consumption of meat was ever-increasing during this period. This trend raised the need for more soybeans, which served as high-protein feed for farmed animals. Brazil took this as an opportunity, and soybean exports from Brazil shot up in the mid-'90s. But it came at the cost of the rainforest. By the early 2000s, the beef and soy industries of Brazil were booming the economy, as well as unprecedented rates of deforestation.

Second phase of deforestation

This phase was a ray of hope for the dwindling Amazon. This phase had three main factors for the declining rate of deforestation:

1) In 2003, the Brazilian government under President Lula da Silva stepped in. Marina Silva became the environment minister, and she helped craft a plan to stop deforestation. It was defined by the government's actions of expanding the area of Amazon under protection. During this time, only about 28% of the land was under protection. But after the actions, almost half of the rainforest was brought under some form of protection. To prevent further deforestation, the government strengthened the Forest Code: which said landowners could only clear 20% of their private land. The Environmental Ministry monitored this. The key to enforcing this entire plan was strengthening IBAMA: a police agency that would track and fine people for illegal deforestation. For such efforts, deforestation rates had fallen by more than 50% in 2006.

2) The staggering deforestation in the Amazon attracted fierce resistance from various environmental groups. Such activist groups were forcing the agricultural companies to bring changes. Considering the delicate issue of deforestation burning among such groups, major food companies started feeling pressure from the consumers. Therefore, in 2006, several companies got together and signed a soy moratorium. As per this, they could only continue to operate within their existing farms, but they were not allowed to buy soy from any newly deforested land in the Amazon. Three years later, beef companies signed a similar moratorium.

3) Several world organizations and countries such as Norway and Germany donated money to Brazil for the protection of the Amazon

Under such various actions, deforestation rates plummeted to historic lows. Moreover, due to the utilization of efficient techniques, Brazil’s beef and soy industries continued to thrive.

Third phase of deforestation

Despite such brighter days, the fate of Amazon appeared to be bleak because various groups still wanted Amazon to be a more profitable place. The ruralistas started gaining influence in Brazil. It is a group of conservative politicians who represent the interests of the agricultural industries, farmers, and ranchers. In the early 2000s, they only had about 17% of the seats in Congress. But by 2012, they constituted about 30% of the seats, enough power to push President Dilma Rousseff to weaken the Forest Code, which allowed landowners to get away with clearing more land. Matters got worse when in 2016, they pushed President Michel Temer to reduce IBAMA’s budget. They also influenced to pass a law that made it easier for people to keep the land they had seized in the Amazon. Such actions stimulated the people to clear further the rainforests, which led to an increase in deforestation.

Jair Bolsonaro: President of Brazil by Financial Times

In 2018, as the ruralistas controlled about 44% of Congress, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman and an ally to the ruralistas, was sworn in as the president. On his second day in office, he transferred the forest service, which monitors the forest code, to the agricultural ministry led by a ruralista. He has constantly worked to weaken the Environmental Ministry. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation shot up significantly in 2019, even in the protected areas of the Amazon. Fires had been historically used in the Amazon to clear off lands. But, in August 2019, more than 30,000 fires were burning in Amazon, nearly three times higher than in 2018. Bolsonaro’s regime has encouraged the ranchers and farmers to destroy the Amazon further, and this time, it is unlikely that Amazon will survive another wave of deforestation.

The Amazon’s destruction due to anthropogenic factors coupled with the underlying politics and interests is relatively easier to understand. But when we dive deeper and try to look at the interaction of habitat destruction and climate change, Amazon may be caught up in “feedback loops” that may intensify the rate of degradation and forest loss and take Amazon to the point of no return. In the last decades, more than 17% of the Amazon has been lost, and a 2018 report suggests that if it reaches 20-25%, the whole ecosystem of the forests could start to collapse. All the biogeochemical cycles, including hydrological cycles, could be dead, causing trees to die. This would, in turn, release a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further warming the planet. In a way, rather than being a ‘carbon sink’, these rainforests could potentially be a massive ‘carbon source’. Ironically, these rainforests could contribute to the warming temperatures of our planet and the resultant Climate Change. Climate Change, in turn, can increase the frequency of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events in the Amazon, which are associated with unusually dry conditions leading to further destruction deep in the rainforests.

Despite this threat, many Brazilian politicians and agricultural enterprises continue to be ignorant of the imminent destruction of the Amazon and the ravages of Climate Change for the sake of a booming economy. The importance these forests have for the entire humanity has been downgraded to the extent that our descendants may not see the rich biodiversity that the Amazon possesses. There is a reason why this precious forest was once saved before, and yet, ignorance has seemed to be an easier response.

About the Author

Nabaraj Mahanta is a research intern at Ytharth.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.

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