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 link below is to an article that takes a look at the Scorpion Beetle (Onychocerus albitarsis).
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.
The Amazon, often described as the “lungs of the Earth”, is the largest rainforest in the world. Its extraordinary biodiversity and sheer scale has made it a globally significant resource in the fight against climate change.
But last week the Brazilian president Michel Temer removed the protected status of the National Reserve of Copper and Associates, a national reserve larger than Denmark.
The reserve, known as “Renca”, covers 46,000 square kilometres and is thought to contain huge amounts of copper, as well as gold, iron ore and other minerals. Roughly 30% of Renca will now be open to mining exploration. Renca also includes indigenous reserves inhabited by various ethnic communities living in relative isolation.
The decision, which has been denounced by conservation groups and governments around the world, comes as the unpopular Temer struggles with a crushing political and economic crisis that has seen unemployment rise above 12%.
Political and economic turbulence
Brazil is currently in the middle of the largest corruption scandals in its history. Since 2014, an ongoing federal investigation called Operation Car Wash has implicated elite businesspeople and high-ranking politicians, uncovering bribes worth millions of dollars exchanged for deals with the state oil company Petrobas. According to the BBC, almost a third of President Temer’s cabinet is under investigation for alleged corruption.
There is no doubt that Brazil needs to find ways out of recession and unemployment. As the minister of mining and energy has said, “the objective of the measure [to allow mining] is to attract new investments, generating wealth for the country and employment and income for society.”
However it’s not clear that this move will benefit ordinary Brazilians. This is not the first gold rush into this area, and the Amazon still has high indices of poverty and many other challenges.
During the 1980s and 90s tens of thousands of miners flocked to gold deposits in the Amazon, driven by high international prices. One of the most famous examples, “Serra Pelada,” saw 60,000 men dig a massive crater in the Amazon Basin.
These mining operations typically provided little economic benefits to the local populations. Instead, they attracted thousands of people, which led to deforestation, violent land conflicts and mercury pollution in the rivers.
In reality the Amazon and its people deserve a sustainable model of development, which takes advantage of the outstanding biodiversity and beauty of its standing forests. The historical record shows mining is likely to lead to a demographic explosion, and further deforestation, pollution and land conflicts.
The principle of non-regression
One important aspect of international environmental law is called the “principle of non-regression”. The principle states that some legal rules should be non-revokable in the name of the common interest of humankind. Essentially, once a level of protection has been granted there is no coming back.
This principle is reflected in article 225 of the Brazilian constitution, which lays out the right to a healthy environment:
All have the right to an ecologically balanced environment […] and both the Government and the community shall have the duty to defend and preserve it for present and future generations.
The Brazilian constitution also describes the Amazon forest as a “national heritage”. It must then be treated accordingly.
While the Amazon is a fundamental part of Brazil’s history, it’s also an essential part of the global battle against climate change. The Amazon contains half the worlds’ tropical rainforests, and its trees absorb and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, land use, including deforestation and forest degradation, is the second-largest source of global emissions after the energy sector.
Developed countries around the world have committed resources to help Brazil offset the costs of safeguarding their forests. One example is the Amazon Fund, created in 2008. It has received billions of dollars from foreign governments such as Norway and Germany, to combat deforestation and to promote sustainable practices in the Brazilian Amazon.
But with 14 million Brazilians unemployed, further assistance is required to ensure that they can protect their forests.
As well as governments, companies have also committed billions of dollars to fight climate change and support projects that reduce carbon emissions and promote energy efficiency. Most businesses have also created self-regulatory standards to ensure compliance with international laws and ethical standards.
The decision of the Brazilian government leaves us with two questions. How will the international community honour their commitments to keep global warming below 2℃, if countries begin rolling back their environmental protections? And how will companies involved in mining projects in the Amazon honour their social responsibility commitments and moral obligation towards present and future generations?
The degradation of the Amazon will affect the entire world. The clearing of the Amazon for mining will lead to the emissions of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases, furthering global warming and causing the irreversible loss of biodiversity, and water resources, as well as damage to local and indigenous communities.
Let us not take a step back towards more destruction. Rather, let us strengthen the protection of our remaining forests.