In 1988, an extreme burning season in the Amazon rainforest made news worldwide and created unprecedented international pressure on the Brazilian government. A scorching North American summer and a landmark hearing in the US Senate fuelled media concerns with the climate crisis – and the clearing of the Amazon was already seen as a key source of emissions. Calls for a boycott were rife, and multilateral banks threatened to suspend loans to development projects.
Brazil reacted by launching an ambitious satellite monitoring program and creating a federal environmental agency.
Three decades later, the fate of the world’s biggest tropical forest is again the reason for global alarm. Deforestation soared 34 per cent in 2019 – the biggest jump in this century – and preliminary official data points to a similar increase in 2020. The 2019 fire season, boosted by increased clear-cutting, put Brazil in the centre of an international crisis. This year’s fire season is off to a hot start, with a drought that could make it even worse than last year’s if nothing is done. As a result, retailers are threatening to boycott Brazilian products and some of the world’s biggest investment funds are on the verge of divesting from Brazil.
Like in 1988, climate concerns are part of the reason for the international pressure. As the climate emergency strikes fiercely from Baghdad to California, from Mozambique to Australia, science tells us that halting tropical deforestation is one of the cheapest, quickest ways to curb CO2 emissions – which need to be down by 45 per cent in 2030 for humanity to stand a chance of avoiding the worst scenarios. In the last decade, Brazil showed that reducing forest destruction is feasible and doesn’t harm the economy: in fact, agricultural GDP doubled in the Amazon between 2004 and 2012, as deforestation went down by 80 per cent.
Now, however, society’s worries aren’t met with a matching government response. The Amazon and its native peoples are in the hands of their foes, who can lie in the face of satellite images without blushing.
Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, is hell-bent on opening up the forest to miners, cattle ranchers and loggers, at the expense of native Brazilians, biodiversity, and the global climate.
Even before his mishandling of Covid-19 allowed for 100,000-plus Brazilian deaths, Bolsonaro's treatment of indigenous peoples had been denounced to the International Court of Justice. Human rights advocates, including former Justice ministers, have urged the court to indict the president for encouraging the genocide of native populations – particularly in the Amazon, where they are seen by the far-right ruler and his minions as a hindrance to “development”. Bolsonaro was the first president in all of Brazilian history to publicly disavow the constitutional mandate of recognising and protecting indigenous lands. He chose to “celebrate” 400 days in office by sending to Congress a bill proposal to open up those lands for exploitation, in most cases without the need of previous consent from native populations.
He has fêted miners and ranchers who invade and degrade public forests, and at the same time ordered his environment minister to “chop the heck off” environmental law enforcement agencies. That same minister, by the way, has gone as far as suggesting that the government seized on the pandemic to “plow through” with deregulation while the press was busy counting corpses.
Bolsonaro and his allies in agribusiness are reacting to the flurry of criticism by doubling down on denial. In August, as Nasa satellite images showed thick clouds of smoke billowing from Central Amazon, the president told a meeting at the Colombian border that the forest “is not burning” and “not even a quarter of a hectare” has been cut.
At the same time, his government has launched a PR counterstrike, with video ads targeting European countries and a soft-spoken vice-president trying to soothe investors by swearing that deforestation is mostly a communications issue, that satellite measurements are flawed, and that Brazilian commodities are not tainted with environmental crime.
Alas, they are. According to a groundbreaking study published in Science magazine in July, about 20 per cent of soybean exports and 17 per cent of beef exports from Brazil to the European Union are linked to illegal clear-cutting.
Two things are clear from all this.
First, nearly two years into his term, Bolsonaro still doesn’t have a plan to curb deforestation and doesn’t intend to have one – because his agenda is the exact opposite.
Second, the president will try to lie his way out of the international pressure. We won’t let him.
The world has two things Bolsonaro wants. Right now, the European Union is deciding upon ratification of the landmark EU-Mercosur trade agreement. Countries like Austria, the Netherlands and France have already expressed opposition to the deal on the grounds of Brazil’s anti-environment policy. The OECD is also considering Brazil’s membership, and its first assessment of the country has shown huge flaws in the environmental policy. We believe any deal with the Brazilian regime must be conditional on concrete measures to stop the ecocide and the indigenous genocide – lest European and OECD countries become partners of Bolsonaro.
Some have already been outlined. Earlier this month, 63 organisations of Brazilian civil society presented both Houses of the Congress with a draft proposal of five emergency measures against the environmental crisis.
Chief among them is a five-year moratorium on all deforestation, with exceptions made for indigenous and smallholder agriculture, for instance. With 50 million hectares of degraded pastureland, Brazil doesn’t need to clear forests in order to expand agriculture.
The second measure is the resumption of the demarcation of indigenous lands and the implementation of protected areas. The third proposal is a harsher punishment for environmental crimes such as land grabbing, including the freezing of assets of the 100 top forest criminals (the government knows who they are).
Finally, the immediate resumption of the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon, a policy that was in place for five presidential terms until Bolsonaro shelved it in 2019. The plan was instrumental for the spectacular drop in deforestation seen until 2012. And also the restructuring of three government agencies that deal with environmental protection and indigenous rights and which were dismantled by the current government.
None of these measures is outlandish or impossible to achieve. In fact, most of them are legal obligations of the government. They are also measurable, reportable and verifiable, so it is easy to check if the regime is complying. Brazil already knows how to fight forest destruction; it has the technology, the legal instruments and the financial resources. It has successfully done it in the past and it can do it again. To reduce deforestation, Brazil has all the tools and the knowledge, but under Bolsonaro, the political will is simply not there.
Fortunately, as Al Gore likes to say, political will is a renewable resource.
Marcio Astrini is the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a network of 50 civil society organisations
Sonia Guajajara is the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil
This OpEd was originally published in The Independent. Reprinted with permission of the authors.