Brazilian Amazon at a Crossroads

by | Jul 7, 2020

Photos by Tommaso Protti for the Foundation Carmignac

The first time I traveled to the Brazilian Amazon some years ago, I visited my friend Simone in Macapá. The capital of Amapá, one of the nine states that make up Brazil’s Legal Amazon region, Macapá is a sleepy town on the northern bank of the Amazon River, close to where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. As I hovered over the line of the equator that cuts through town, one foot in the northern, another in the southern hemisphere, I was told that eggs standing on the division will not fall to either direction.

JENIPAPO, BRAZIL – JANUARY 30, 2019: Paulo Paulinho Guajajara (25), a member of the Guajajara forest guard at the Araribóia indigenous reserve in Maranhão state. For several towns in the surrounding region, the local economy is based largely on illegal timber and irregular sawmills provide jobs for poor, unskilled workers. Indigenous activists who confront logging interests routinely suffer harassment, threats and even murder.

Admittedly, my guide for the day had not actually tried the experience, but she seemed convinced of its veracity.

I remember thinking at the time that the Amazon was like one of those eggs, strong but vulnerable, hanging in a precarious balance. Would it yield to the pressure of unbridled economic development, beaconing with the promise of an elusive El Dorado? Would it listen to the voices of those Indigenous, riverine and Quilombola (former runaway slaves) peoples who have inhabited the land for centuries? Would it even survive climate change, increasing desertification and the alarming rate of species extinction the earth is currently going through?

A few years later, the Brazilian Amazon, which amounts to 64% of the rainforest, is definitely out of kilter. Deforestation had been on the rise since 2012, but after President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019,  forest destruction has expanded dramatically. July 2019 saw a staggering 278% increase in deforestation when compared to the same month the previous year and predictions do not bode well for 2020. Data for the first trimester of this year shows a record rise of deforestation alerts, growing by more than 51% when compared to the same period in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic has emboldened illegal loggers and miners, aware of the fact that Indigenous peoples are more vulnerable to the disease and, therefore, less likely to patrol their lands for fear of contagion. As the dry season (July-December) sets in the region, we are likely to see a repeat of last year’s destructive forest fires that caught the world’s attention and drew widespread international condemnation.

Spring/Summer 2020, Volume XIX, Number 3

Why does the Amazon burn? And, more importantly, why does that matter? The growing deforestation is a direct result of governmental decisions. A former army captain, who frequently praises the authoritarian military dictatorship that governed Brazil for more than two decades (1964-1985), Bolsonaro’s vision for the region is a clear continuation of dictatorship policies. He seeks to open up the Amazon for business and to exploit its natural resources by undermining the environmental protections and Indigenous rights to their ancestral lands enshrined in the country’s 1988 Constitution. His government has substantially cut the funding of environmental protection agencies such as the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), as well as of the National Foundation for the Indian (FUNAI), in charge of safeguarding Indigenous rights.

Fines for environmental crimes are at their lowest for decades since Bolsonaro took office. In a recording of a governmental meeting recently released by a court order, Brazil’s environmental minister Ricardo Salles is heard advising other members of the executive to take advantage of the media attention afforded to Covid-19 to surreptitiously pass laws deregulating environmental protections. Encouraged by the government’s lenient approach to—and often outright incitement of—deforestation, incursions into protected areas and Indigenous lands are rampant.

Once trees are cut by loggers or simply burnt to the ground, the forest is, more often than not, turned into monoculture plantations like that of soybeans or grassland to feed the lucrative Brazilian cattle ranching business. The power of the agribusiness lobby in the Brazilian congress was already responsible for overhauling Brazil’s forest code in 2012. Among other changes, this meant granting amnesty to those responsible for illegal deforestation before 2008 and reducing the protected areas of forest in the country.

Amazonian soil is, however, not particularly suitable for agribusiness ventures. Without the nutrients provided by the decomposition of plants from the rainforest, the soil gets depleted in 10 to 15 years. Farmers either have to deforest more land to keep production going or use an increasing amount or fertilizers and pesticides to maintain their yield. Beyond turning a blind eye to deforestation, the Bolsonaro administration has also legalized the use of countless toxic chemicals for agricultural purposes. The government’s Minister of Agriculture, Tereza Cristina Costa, is known in Brazil as the “Poison Muse” for supporting the use of highly dangerous pesticides that contaminate soils and waterways.

The destruction of the Amazonian rainforest is a tragedy for the people who have lived off the land long before European settlers arrived. The region was home to several million Indigenous peoples at the time when the first colonizers reached the river, a culturally and linguistically diverse population that was reduced by disease, enslavement, cultural colonization and loss of land to little more than 200,000 people by the 1980s.

With the end of the military dictatorship and the introduction of legislation protecting both the forest and its people, Amazonian Indigenous groups and their cultures started to rebound. They are now again under threat. Their demarcated reserves are invaded, the trees cut down and the forest burnt, forcing many to patrol their lands, which often results in violent clashes with loggers and farmers. The Pastoral Commission for the Land, part of the Brazilian Catholic Church, has counted more than 600 assassinations linked to land disputes since 2003. The majority of these killings are of Indigenous peoples and other traditional inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest fighting against illegal landgrabs.

The impact of Amazonian deforestation reaches far beyond the region. Amazonia covers about 7% of the earth’s surface and accounts for over 40% of remaining rainforests. One fifth of the world’s freshwater passes through Amazonian ecosystems, which are amongst the most diverse in the planet, accounting for more than 10% of all the earth’s species, including thousands not yet known. The area’s dense flora produces approximately 20% of the world’s oxygen and it functions as a gigantic carbon sink and natural climate cooler.

In the past one hundred years, one fifth of the Amazon has been deforested. Scientists fear that an increasing deforestation rate might lead the rainforest to a tipping point, after which it would be unable to recover. A significant decrease in primal forest causes the temperature in the river basin to rise, leading to severe droughts. These changes, in turn, weaken the trees, which become unable to recycle as much water, creating an unending vicious cycle. Once a certain threshold is reached, the forest will start shrinking by itself and transition in a few decades to a savannah-like landscape called “cerrado,” already prevalent in drier areas of Brazil, south of the Amazon.

The disappearance of the Amazon rainforest would be disastrous, first and foremost, for those Indigenous and other peoples whose livelihood depends directly upon the forest. But the consequences of such a momentous loss would be much more far-reaching. The Amazon regulates the climate of much of South America, creating aerial corridors of humidity that bring much-needed rain to Southern Brazil and Argentina. Without the rainforest, Brazil’s position as an agribusiness powerhouse would simply not be tenable, as expenses with irrigation would render many crops unprofitable. Beyond leading to a disastrous loss of plants and animals, the end of the rainforest would also release billions of tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus speeding up the process of global warming and species extinction already well under way.

How can we avert such a catastrophe? There is no cookie-cutter solution to the problem, but a few simple steps could be taken. The most important change is perhaps one of mindset. Decision-makers should learn from the traditional inhabitants of the Amazon and move away from a short-sighted view to the region as a repository of wealth to be exploited for short-term economic gain. Unlike the Bolsonaro government, who considers Indigenous peoples to be impediments to progress, a meaningful approach to the Amazon needs to take into account the input of those who have been the stewards of the forest for centuries.

Robust environmental protection laws should be set in place and protection agencies should be given the financial means to do their jobs. Investment in sustainable economic practices in the Amazon, one of the poorest regions in Brazil, should be a national priority. Were there other ways to make a decent living, illegal logging and mining would not be so widespread. And rather than simply chiding Brazil for failing to curb deforestation, the international community should create substantial financial incentives for Amazonian countries to prevent deforestation, and even reforest already deforested areas.

I recall my friend Simone all those years ago insisting that I book a window seat on the plane from Macapá to Belém, from where I would catch my international flight back to Europe. I had only flown at night in the Amazon, and she told me that an aerial view of the region by day was not to be missed. As I sat on the plane looking out, I was amazed by the extension of the rainforest. A seemingly endless expanse of green was cut through by rivers, some enormous, some barely noticeable from above. The waterways looked like myriad snakes, their sinuous bodies opening the only visible clearings in the tree canopy. No wonder that, for many Indigenous peoples, snakes are considered to be the mothers of the river. It was an impressive sight, and a humbling one. Surely, such an immense natural wonder could not be destroyed by us humans?

I talked to Simone online a couple of days ago about the current environmental situation in Macapá. “Remember the view of the rainforest from the plane?,” she inquired. “I just flew from Belém the other day and all I could see were cleared patches of land between the trees. If this is happening here, what is taking place further south, where deforestation is supposed to be much worse?” I could hear the sadness in her voice and, even worse, the despondency of knowing that there is little political will for things to improve. But she quickly rebounded back to her usual, determined, optimism: “We will turn things around. If we don’t fight for the Amazon,” she asked, “who will?”

Patricia Vieira is a researcher  at the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra. She is also a Professor of Spanish & Portuguese at Georgetown UniversityShe co-edits the book series Future Perfect: Images of the Time to Come in Philosophy, Politics and Cultural Studies at Rowman & Littlefield Int’l. Her latest book is States of Grace: Utopia in Brazilian Culture.

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