Amazon rainforests must be saved from Bolsonaro

Amazon rainforests must be saved from Bolsonaro

Aerial view of damage caused by wildfires in Otuquis National Park, in the Pantanal ecoregion of southeastern Bolivia, on August 26, 2019. AFP

The news that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is increasing rapidly since January since Jair Bolsonaro took office as President is deeply disconcerting. Right from the beginning of this year, Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, has threatened to carry out his campaign promise to weaken the Amazon’s environmental protections that had helped curb deforestation for the past two decades and open up the rainforest to economic development. That forests are giant reservoirs of carbon and biodiversity that must remain largely intact if we want to bring global warming under control and preserve life on earth seems entirely lost on him. To that threat has been added the devastating fire that has engulfed this amazing universe that provides some 20% of the world’s oxygen.

Not that the fires are new, but the scale certainly is. For example, in 1998, when a strong El Niño episode triggered severe droughts in the Amazon and Southeast Asia, Amazon fires burned 2.6 million hectares of forest in the south of Pará and north of Mato Grosso. But the difference is that the forest fires this year are accompanied by an unimaginable apathy towards environmentalism. Earlier, the road construction and paving plans in the Amazon as part of the ‘National Plan for Development Acceleration’ was an instance of how the environment loses miserably to the imperatives of economic activities. But economic imperative alone cannot justify the predation of the Amazon rainforest. Bolsonaro’s shenanigans have incentivised illegal expansion into forests with reports of gold-hunting marauders invading the tribal areas and killing a tribe leader in Amapa.

According to the Brazilian government, compared to the fires last summer, there are 80% more fires this year, which could have passed for a freak occurrence had not this surge in burning accompanied a spike in deforestation in general. More than 1,330 square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been lost since January, a 39% increase over the same period last year, according to the New York Times. As fire has always been a major tool used by humans for environmental change and landscape transformation, given the tendency for human-initiated fires to escape and spread today, the raging fire in the Amazon rainforest that precipitates deforestation to an alarming scale may well have been a human act, accidental or not. It is interesting that Bolsonaro accused non-governmental organisations of deliberately starting the fires after their funding was cut.

As Bolsonaro’s anti-environment rhetoric, prizing ‘development’ in the form of timber extraction and agricultural expansion, the construction of hydropower, exploitation of biological and mineral riches over environment, has been blamed for harming the Amazon and indigenous tribes already, the fire in the rainforest also has brought his government under fire. Going by the scale of the Amazon fire that needed Colorado-based Global SuperTanker to despatch its Boeing 747-400 fire-fighting plane to douse the blaze and the intervention of the Brazilian army, the threat of wholesale deforestation never looked bleaker. According to an estimate made by Lydia Bjornlund in her well-researched book ‘Deforestation’, more than 80% of the earth’s natural forests have already been destroyed. Today’s deforestation rate is about 32 million acres (13 million ha) per year. Accounting for forest area offset by forest planting and natural forest growth, the net rate of loss is about 18 million acres (7.3 million ha) per year. Bolsonaro has been pilloried for his “nationalistic bravado” that has worsened the crisis caused by accelerating deforestation that might well lead to important trade repercussions for Brazil.

The fire is assuming the overtones of an international crisis, over which France’s President Emmanuel Macron took on Bolsonaro. Bolsanaro responded on Twitter: “The French President’s suggestion that Amazonian issues be discussed at the G7 without the participation of countries in the region evokes a misplaced colonialist mindset in the 21st century.”

That brings us to the big question: should economic development happen at the cost of the environment? It is worthwhile to note that deforestation was primarily driven by subsistence activities and government-sponsored development projects like transmigration in countries like Indonesia and colonization in Latin America, India, Java, and so on, during the late 19th century and the earlier half of the 20th century. By the 1990s, much deforestation was being caused by industrial factors, including extractive industries, large-scale cattle ranching and extensive agriculture. A great deal of India’s deforestation can be traced to the colonial period, notably when the expansion of railways was undertaken – between 1860 and 1884.

If Bolsonaro is searching for a model, the state of Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil (at 157 million hectares, and with 98% forest cover), is a case in point. In 2003, the state government assumed an official commitment, locally known as the ‘Green Free Trade Zone’ to convey sustainable development options for local rural people while keeping the forests standing and environmental services flowing. Since 2003, this commitment has produced a number of good results; the state economy grew at a brisk pace, the state area protected by law increased and, in the same period, the rate of deforestation declined by 53%, partly due to the creation of new state protected areas and the fall in international prices for commodities as soy and beef.

In September 2006, during a UNFCCC workshop on deforestation in developing countries in Rome, Brazil presented a proposal “to provide positive financial incentives for developing countries that voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.” It opened an official way to definitively engage the Brazilian government and society in reducing deforestation, with real potential to contribute to climate change mitigation. Bolsonaro has rejected the offer of international help to fight the Amazon fires made at the G7, but the international community must continue to engage with Brazil to save the “lungs of the world.”