Record fires are raging in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, with more than 2,500 fires currently burning. They are collectively emitting huge amounts of carbon, with smoke plumes visible thousands of kilometres away.
Fires in Brazil increased by 85% in 2019, with more than half in the Amazon region, according to Brazil’s space agency.
This sudden increase is likely down to land degradation: land clearing and farming reduces the availability of water, warms the soil and intensifies drought, combining to make fires more frequent and more fierce.
1. Why the Amazon is burning
The growing number of fires are the result of illegal forest clearning to create land for farming. Fires are set deliberately and spread easily in the dry season.
Ironically, farmers may not need to clear new land to graze cattle. Research has found a significant number of currently degraded and unproductive pastures that could offer new opportunities for livestock.
New technical developments also offer the possibility of transforming extensive cattle ranches into more compact and productive farms – offering the same results while consuming less natural resources.
2. Why the world should care
The devastating loss of biodiversity does not just affect Brazil. The loss of Amazonian vegetation directly reduces rain across South America and other regions of the world.
The planet is losing an important carbon sink, and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere. If we can’t stop deforestation in the Amazon, and the associated fires, it raises real questions about our ability to reach the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.
The Brazilian government has set an ambitious target to stop illegal deforestation and restore 4.8 million hectares of degraded Amazonian land by 2030. If these goals are not carefully addressed now, it may not be possible to meaningfully mitigate climate change.
3. What role politics has played
Since 2014, the rate at which Brazil has lost Amazonian forest has expanded by 60%. This is the result of economic crises and the dismantling of Brazilian environmental regulation and ministerial authority since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.
Bolsonaro’s political program includes controversial programs that critics claim will threaten both human rights and the environment. One of his first acts as president was to pass ministerial reforms that greatly weakened the Ministry of the Environment
Regulations and programs for conservation and traditional communities’ rights have been threatened by economic lobbying.
Over the last months, Brazil’s government has announced the reduction and extinction of environmental agencies and commissions, including the body responsible for combating deforestation and fires.
4. How the world should react
Although Brazil’s national and state governments are obviously on the front line of Amazon protection, international actors have a key role to play.
International debates and funding, alongside local interventions and responses, have reshaped the way land is used in the tropics. This means any government attempts to further dismantle climate and conservation policies in the Amazon may have significant diplomatic and economic consequences.
For example, trade between the European Union and South American trading blocs that include Brazil is increasingly infused with an environmental agenda. Any commercial barriers to Brazil’s commodities will certainly attract attention: agribusiness is responsible for more than 20% of the country’s GDP.
Brazil’s continued inability to stop deforestation has also reduced international funding for conservation. Norway and Germany, by far the largest donors to the Amazon Fund, have suspended their financial support.
These international commitments and organisations are likely to exert considerable influence over Brazil to maintain existing commitments and agreements, including restoration targets.
5. There is a solution
Brazil has already developed a pioneering political framework to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Deforestation peaked in 2004, but dramatically reduced following environmental governance, and supply change interventions aiming to end illegal deforestation.
Moreover, private global agreements like the Amazon Beef and Soy Moratorium, where companies agree not to buy soy or cattle linked to illegal deforestation, have also significantly dropped clearing rates.
We have financial, diplomatic and political tools we know will work to stop the whole-sale clearing of the Amazon, and in turn halt these devastating fires. Now it is time to use them.
The effects of European consumption are being felt in Brazil, driving disastrous deforestation and violence.
But the destruction can end if the European Union demands higher environmental standards on Brazilian goods. Hundreds of scientists and Indigenous leaders agree: the time to act is now, before it’s too late.
In an open letter published today in the journal Science, more than 600 scientists from every country in the European Union (EU) and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups asked the EU to demand tougher standards for Brazilian imports.
The letter calls on the EU to ensure a trade deal with Brazil respects human rights and the natural world.
Crucially, this can be done without harming Brazil’s agriculture, if already cleared land is used to its full potential. Indeed, in the long term, farming in the region depends on the rains brought by healthy forests.
Destruction of the Amazon under Bolsonaro
Brazil’s Indigenous people and the forests they protect are facing annihilation.
Controversial president Jair Bolsonaro is opening the Amazon rainforest to business and threatening Indigenous people who stand in the way. In his first hours in office, Bolsonaro gave power over Indigenous land to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is widely seen to be controlled by corporate lobbyists.
As Bolsonaro scraps environmental laws, forests are being cut down faster than they have been in years. And the EU is helping drive this carnage: more than a football field of Brazilian rainforest is cut down every hour to produce livestock feed and meat for Europe.
Although the situation may seem dire for the Amazon and its inhabitants, ongoing trade talks provide a chance to act.
Billions of euros flow to Brazil from business with the EU, its second-largest trade partner. Goods flowing in the other direction include environmentally and socially destructive livestock feed (usually soy grown on deforested land) which enters the EU on a tariff-free basis. Right now, European consumers have no way of knowing how much blood is actually in their hamburger. The ongoing EU-Brazil trade talks are therefore a powerful opportunity to curb Bolsonaro’s appetite for destruction.
It is hard to overstate the case for strong action from Europe. People in Brazil – especially Indigenous and local communities – are being violently repressed when trying to defend their land against agricultural and mining companies.
Brutal repression and environmental catastrophe
This violence has reached record levels under Bolsonaro, with at least nine people murdered so far in April 2019. And genocide is a real possibility if nothing is done to protect Indigenous people and their land.
Alarmingly, Bolsonaro has even said:
It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.
On top of the horrifying assault on Brazil’s original inhabitants, demolishing the country’s forests, savannas and wetlands would have devastating consequences for the world.
If the Amazon rainforest alone is destroyed, the resulting carbon emissions could make it extremely difficult to limit global warming to less than two degrees. Burning fossil fuels is often seen as the only culprit in climate breakdown, but tropical deforestation is the second-largest source of carbon emissions in the world.
Even losing part of the Amazon could cause a tipping point where the forests no longer create enough rain to sustain themselves. This would cause droughts that would drive many species to extinction, devastate farming in the region and likely cause further violence.
We must act now
We are not just at an ecological tipping point, but a social one, too. The world is waking up to the risks posed by destroying our climate and natural world. Climate change is considered the number one security threat by Brazilian people and by many European nations.
Europeans believe neither their country nor the EU is doing enough to protect our planet’s life support systems. As protests flare up in Europe over environmental crises, climate change will be a key issue in the upcoming European elections.
As scientists, we use emotive words carefully. But our open letter calls on the EU to take urgent action because we are terrified of the consequences of Brazilian deforestation, both locally and globally.
We beg the EU to stand up for its citizens’ values and our shared future by making sure trade with Brazil protects, rather than destroys, the natural world on which we all depend.
The link below is to an article that looks at deforestation of the Amazon in Peru for more gold mining.
Over the past few decades the international community has watched as the destruction of Earth’s largest forest has intensified. Deforestation has been eating away at the Amazon’s fringes, mainly for commercial cattle ranching and agricultural plantation. The agriculture, livestock, mining and infrastructure sectors have been promoted due to powerful financial and development pressures for high profits and economic growth.
Meanwhile, indigenous peoples, traditional communities and smallholders have had their livelihoods imperilled, while carbon emissions have increased, water quality and quantity have declined, forest fires have increased, and wildlife has been lost.
As part of its international climate targets, Brazil’s government has pledged to restore more than 12 million hectares of native vegetation by 2030, including 4.8 million hectares (48,000 sq km) in the Amazon.
The scale of this target has catapulted restoration ecology from an academic discipline to the forefront of international debates about how conservation goals can be delivered alongside economic, human, and social interests.
Brazil has established a range of national policies, programs and commissions to pursue the target. At the 2017 UN climate summit in Bonn, the Brazilian government announced the creation of a US$60 million Amazon Fund for restoration projects. The fundraising is mostly supported by international donations from the Norway Government for the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases from deforestation.
But the main problem is that Brazil’s current conservation capabilities are far short of what is needed to meet its ambitious goals. Long-term programs and policies to restore the Amazon have habitually fallen prey to short-term political interests.
For years, a coalition of landowners and economic players have lobbied to reduce protected areas, attack indigenous land rights, and weaken restoration regulations. Another barrier is the land tenure in the Amazon, the region’s colonisation history, and a lack of ownership structures that enables illegal land-grabbing.
Small-scale restoration programs that have enjoyed success on a trial basis have rarely been successfully scaled up, because they generally ignore the need to deliver improvements to local livelihoods as well as to the rainforest itself.
All too often, these programs are conceived and implemented by universities, research agencies, companies and non-governmental organisations, rather than in a community approach with smallholders, indigenous peoples and traditional communities.
Another issue is the region’s poor infrastructure, and its lack of investments, technology innovation and business development for restoration. One of the main bottlenecks, for example, is the shortage of native seed and seedling supply. Successfully restoring forest requires hundreds of tonnes of native seed each year. Yet the seed supply system is expensive, technical, and highly regulated.
But native seed cultivation could represent a valuable source of income for local communities, boosting both conservation and the local economy. One successful emerging initiative, the Xingu Seeds Network offers payments to indigenous people, settler farmers and urban seed collectors for the seeds they collect. This kind of initiative is hampered by seed policy which has neglected a vast network of informal seed collectors and producers who are largely ‘invisible’ to the regulatory authorities.
To turn its ambitious targets into reality, Brazil needs to involve the Amazon’s local people in developing forest restoration policies, and then give them an incentive to take part. That means considering local knowledge, and providing socioeconomic opportunities rather than focusing solely on the forest itself.
This issue runs much deeper than mere forest restoration. It will necessitate revising Amazonian land tenure rules, to ensure a clear demarcation of indigenous lands and protected areas. And it calls for Brazil to make the Amazon rainforest’s values part of the economy, rather than being viewed as something that stands in the way of economic development. Doing that will help ensure that the Amazon, often nicknamed the “lungs of the planet”, survives to benefit all of humanity.
The links below are to articles that report on the Brazilian government opening the Amazon to mining by abolishing a huge nature reserve.