What’s in store for the future of the Amazon rainforest?

Written by Francesca Bracci, 20.

Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the 38th president of Brazil in January of 2019. His campaign ran on a strong nationalistic and right-wing rhetoric, presenting a handful of forceful anti-establishment views which have gained him the nickname “Tropical Trump”. Known for opposing left-wing policies such as same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration and drug liberalisation, most recently, it is his support for environmental deregulation that has startled the international community.

Amidst the chaos of Covid-19 which has overcome the nation, ranking second only after the United States in number of deaths, Brazil has had to fight another war: one to preserve their rapidly depleting rainforest.

The reference point many of us share of Amazonian destruction is of the fires that ravished the extraordinary rainforest throughout 2019. Bolsonaro cut the budget of various agencies in early-2019 that were responsible for fire prevention, and although the fires are a yearly occurrence, this impacted the country’s ability to contain them. The president has also been known for his anti-environmental policies that promote agribusiness and mining in the region, leaving us to question just how much he is willing to exploit this natural treasure for the promise of economic growth.

This destruction however is not new to Brazil. Projects such as the Belo Monte Dam that began it’s construction in 2011 or the opening of roads such as the Trans-Amazon highway have long been pushing the frontier of the Amazon further in, placing indigenous communities and the unique ecosystem at risk.

Why is Bolsonaro’s presidency different to those in the past that also sought to capitalize on the forest’s potential?

Well, unlike Roussef who feigned sympathy for the environment while the country witnessed spikes in deforestation, the construction of Belo Monte and cuts to the Ministery of Environment, Bolsonaro does not hide behind moral-imperatives. This is a problem because illegal miners, loggers, poachers and farmers can go about their actions with the confidence that there will be few legal repercussions. This leaves little hope for the vulnerable who call the Amazon their home.

Rapid Deregulation under Covid-19

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), deforestation has risen by over 50% in the first quarter of 2020. This deforestation is happening primarily on public land and it greatly increases the probability of uncontrolled fires later in the summer as well as placing the indigenous people in the area at extreme risk.

Forest Fragmentation in the Brazilian Amazon | NASA / Amazon Watch

The pandemic has acted as a perfect diversion, allowing the government to continue to rollback environmental regulations with little outcry — in some cases it completely removed the chances for public involvement in decision-making under the farce of “social distancing”. Although deforestation has always been perceived by Bolsonaro as a tactic to boost employment and the economy, it has become even more desirable in a period of economic crisis.

FUNAI, the agency charged with defending the boundaries of Brazil’s indigenous lands has claimed steep budget cuts and relocation of staff, leaving them under-funded and understaffed. This coupled with the lockdown that kept law enforcement officers at home created a type of free-for-all where illegal miners, loggers and poachers were free to roam with little threat.

These actions were further driven by the words of the Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, who called for further deregulation of environmental policy as people were “distracted” by the coronavirus pandemic. This creates an incentive for more illegal actions, as loggers act under minimal risk and significant payoff.

In May of 2020, following backlash from the public, the Bolsonaro administration dispatched troops tasked with “preventing environmental crimes”. Environmental activists, although not against the incentive, see the military operation as a public relations ploy to feign sympathy for the environment while continuing their business-as-usual.

What is at risk?

Both the local community and the international community stand to lose from this reckless disregard for the environment. Not only from an environmentalist point-of-view but also from a humanitarian one.

Indigenous Communities

As was described by Scott Wallace in a piece published by the National Geographic, the Indigenous communities in Brazil are suffering from a “dual threat” with the spread of Covid-19 on one side, and the surge of land invasions on the other. These two threats exacerbate each other, as illegal mineral prospectors and other intruders, along with health-care workers, have been identified as the principal vectors of infection in indigenous communities. Therefore the negligence of the Bolsonaro administration in defending the boundaries of Brazil’s indigenous lands is not only directly fueling the proliferation Covid-19 cases in these remote areas, but also putting vulnerable people at risk of losing their homes.

“A member of the Karapanã ethnic group wears a hand-sewn face mask, hoping for protection against the virus.” | Felipe Dana / National Geographic

The Yanomami Indigenous Community, located in the Northern State of Roraima has experienced ongoing illegal gold mining. Local officials estimate that there are more than 20,000 illegal miners on their land. The gold mining pollutes the local ecosystem with mercury, used to divide the sand from gold in the riverbank, but it also introduces pathogens into the surrounding area which indigenous communities are not protected against. This makes these communities even more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as Covid-19. The tribe has had over 160 confirmed cases of the disease and five related deaths as of June 2020.

Future Pandemics

It seems quite ironic that a global pandemic is being used to deregulate environmental protections when these protections are exactly what protect us from future pandemics. Forest loss makes pandemics more likely by increasing the chances that disease jumps from animals to humans. These diseases are described as Zoonotic. Among these diseases we have the novel coronavirus believed to have originated from a wet-market in Wuhan, HIV/AIDS which has been traced back to chimpanzees and Ebola believed to have come from bats and non-human primates, among many others.

Three quarters of emerging pathogens that infect humans are thought to have leaped from animals. The more we restrict the natural habitats of animals, the more likely they are to swap infectious microbes, which increase the chances of novel strains that can affect humans. Fighting deforestation would protect us from these strains, as well as from the long list of other diseases that originate in forest environments such as Malaria and Zika.

In September of 2019, the US agency for International Development announced an end to funding PREDICT, a program dedicated to identifying threatening microbes in natural environments. In their 10-year effort the agency is believed to have found over 1,100 unique viruses. We are risking exposure to potentially thousands of new strains of disease by bringing these natural habitats closer to civilization.

Biodiversity and the Climate

Thomas Lovejoy, “The Godfather of Biodiversity”, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and the World Banks’ Chief Biodiversity advisor has spent five decades in the Amazon Rainforest advocating for it’s protection. To this day, we continue to let him down. The Amazon Rainforest is home to more than half of the world’s species of plants and animals, some of which are exclusive to the area (such as the Amazon river Dolphin). This is not only important for us animal-lovers but globally. A biodiverse system is able to offer solutions to biological challenges. In an interview with the World Bank, Lovejoy sites the discovery of an enzyme originated from a tropical viper of the Amazon that then went on to be crucial in hypertension drugs. Put simply, we are not only putting this unique ecosystem at risk, but we are doing so without knowing the true cost of our actions.

To add to this, the Amazon creates about half of its own rainfall, disrupting this water cycle could convert parts of the tropical forest into dry savannah or semi-arid land. Again, the irony here is striking, as the main cause for deforestation in Brazil is for agricultural purposes. If we reach the tipping-point the agricultural businesses in the area such as cattle-ranching and soy bean plantations will not be able to continue. Brazil however, would not be the only country affected. Altering this water cycle would impact rainfall throughout Latin America, but it would also impact the world. Rainforests are important carbon sinks, without them we lose a fundamental player in the absorption of atmospheric CO2, which could rapidly accelerate global temperature rise.

Although my focus has been placed on the de-regulation of environmental protections in Brazil, it’s crucial to remember that no country is exempt from some sort of environmental ‘crime’. While Norway pleads for environmental protections in Brazil, their economy survives on oil-production. Germans produce four times the carbon emissions than Brazilians. Every single one of us is funding the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon by buying the products that the forest is being cut down to produce.

What I’m trying to say is, the reason it’s so important that the Amazon be preserved is because Europe and the United States already decimated their forests and natural habitats in the name of development. Now we hope that Brazil will do differently.

This hypocrisy of the West has been the cry of Bolsonaro since he got to office, and in some ways he is right. We are hypocrites. We developed in the name of our natural habitats (and those of the nations we colonised) and now we are holding Brazil to a different standard. The Amazon is not Eden, and we should not present it as such.

This does not remove us from the fact that we are at a brink of ecological collapse, and that the Amazon is an important element in keeping rising global temperatures at bay. I don’t know what the solution is, perhaps agroforestry or more intensified farming in certain areas while reducing forest fragmentation in others.

However, I am certain that something needs to change.

This contribution was written by Francesca Bracci, 20. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words. Francesca also writes on her personal page at Medium. You can view her Medium profile here.