Photo by Felipe Wernicke
By Isana Raja
The Amazon rainforest, home to over 3 million plant and animal species and over 120 Indigenous groups, has been and continues to be under threat. Deforestation by means of illegal logging, mining, and land clearance fires have surged at a rate of 55% since 2019. Not only do these practices endanger thousands of species and put Indigenous communities at risk, but they are also one of the greatest contributors to climate change. Much of these rapid changes to the world’s largest rainforest lies within the hands of Brazil’s government.
Nearly two-thirds of the 2.5 million square miles of rainforest is found within Brazil, but the country has been put in a strained position environmentally under the rule of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. His policies regarding the protection of all forms of Amazonian life while simultaneously dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been unfavorable in both areas.
During President Bolsonaro’s presidency, he cut funding to Ibama, Brazil’s principal environmental agency, even though deforestation has risen to the highest level in over a decade . Furthermore, measures to enforce protection of the Amazon, such as destroying logging equipment and levying fines, have fallen by 20%. As a consequence of his policies, wildfires burned flagrantly in 2019, garnering international backlash.
President Bolsonaro’s antagonistic stance towards environmental protection mirrored that of the former U.S. President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The rhetoric of these two populist leaders made it clear that combating climate change was not of utmost importance for either leader, despite Brazil being one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters due to deforestation.
Now with President Biden in office, international protection deals are seemingly taking a different course. During a recent US-led climate summit, Biden and Bolsonaro have come to an agreement in terms of pledging greater climate action. Bolsonaro has vowed to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, ten years ahead of schedule.
Bolsonaro is asking the international community to give billions of dollars to help achieve these conservation goals. However, given his recent track record, many doubt the legitimacy of his claims, and are reluctant to donate funds to support. Environmentalists, celebrities, and Indigenous rights activists stand in opposition to the deal, claiming that Bolsonaro’s intentions are ingenuine.
Critics believe that the billions of dollars requested by Bolsonaro will essentially go to waste, especially in light of his administration’s fiscal mismanagement. Previously, he had lost access to a part of the millions of dollars set aside for rainforest conservation. The Bolsonaro administration, in mishandling copious amounts of money, undermines environmental protection and instead increases the rate of deforestation.
As a consequence, statistics regarding the rate of deforestation continue to worsen. Amazonian deforestation is 216% higher than it was in March 2020. Tree cover loss — the complete eradication of forest vegetation— reached 1.5 million hectares in the Brazilian Amazon alone in 2019, rising 15% from the previous year.
Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies have directly exacerbated these gross rates of tree loss, and in doing so, have also contributed to climate change.
Trees play a vital role as the lungs of the Amazon. They are necessary for taking in carbon from the atmosphere, acting as one of the best combatants of climate change. When these trees are destroyed, through fires and clear-cutting, CO2 is then emitted back into the atmosphere. If these harmful deforestation practices continue, the Amazon’s trees may end up emitting more CO2 than they absorb, a process which will accelerate global warming.
Once deforestation reaches levels between 20-25%, the planet will be close to what scientists call “the tipping point.” As a consequence, the Amazon will experience less rainfall and rapid spread of disease, which is already a major concern due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Amazon’s tripping point has grave implications on a global level; the catastrophic effects of global warming, such as sea level rise, wildfires, droughts, and mass displacement, will ensue.
Besides badly damaging the environment and accelerating global warming, Bolsonaro’s policies have also done much to endanger those living in the Amazon. Land invasion, illegal mining groups, and environmental destruction continue to infringe upon the rights and lands of Indigenous communities. Gold miners in the Amazon are one of the greatest contributors to deforestation while the very act of mining poses a threat to community health due to the potential contamination of food and water via mercury poisoning.
In the Tajapós Basin of Brazil, various Indigenous groups have been protesting against the encroachment of miners in their homeland. Mainly, the Munduruku Indigenous people have voiced their concerns to the Brazilian government through dialogue with federal agencies. Among the host of issues regarding the endangerment of their environmental territory, they also worry that the miners will spread COVID-19 throughout their communities.
Complaints haven’t made much progress with the government. Instead, many Indigenous people receive threats and intimidation from armed groups supporting the miners. The suppression of Indigenous voices is not an isolated incident in Brazil. For centuries, the government has silenced those who have disagreed with their actions, especially when it comes to environmental degradation.
Nevertheless, Indigenous resistance persists. Social and political movements spearheaded by Indiegenous leaders have been crucial in the mobilization of environmental protection. Living on and knowing the land gives Indigenous peoples personal insight in the best methods to protect the rainforest. Organizations across the Amazon, such as NOSSAS, IMAZON, and the Kanindé Association, are consolidating their social power to stop deforestation while simultaneously vying for greater equity and justice as Indigenous peoples.
A majority of their objectives center around changing local, national, and international rhetoric regarding the Amazon rainforest. First, they argue that clearing the rainforest for economic growth simply is not sustainable, and will result in more loss than benefit. Secondly, Indigenous groups want their presence to be known and respected as coexisters in the Amazon. Lastly, they propose a new approach to green development which emphasizes climate and social justice. These ideals are fully embodied in Indigenous movements to protect the Amazon.
Many researchers and scholars advocate for Indigenous approaches to stopping the Amazon’s destruction. Brazilian and international actors will have to take them into consideration, in order to implement policies that will do more good than harm. However, with Bolsonaro in power, the future of the Amazon remains uncertain. Unless serious action is taken to reverse the damage done by anti-environmental legislation, the Amazon— with its lush and diverse forms of life — will continue to be endangered.