South America

Amazon ablaze

Print edition : September 27, 2019

A fire burns on a tract of Amazon jungle near Porto Velho, Brazil, on August 31. Photo: RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS

An aerial view of a burning tract. Photo: RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Adriano Machado/REUTERS

French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

This NASA Earth Observatory map shows active fire locations (shown in orange) in South America between August 15 and 22. Photo: JOSHUA STEVENS/AFP/NASA

The Amazon, the world’s carbon sink, is in deep trouble after settlers and farmers allegedly set fire to it in order to exploit the virgin forest, with the tacit support of the Brazilian government.

Under the current extreme right-wing government in Brazil, the Amazon rainforest, often described as the “lungs of the world”, is under great threat. The forest covers a third of South America, stretching across most of the countries in the region. It is the biggest rainforest in the world and contains one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water. It is also a “carbon sink”, soaking in carbon dioxide and preventing global temperatures from increasing at an even faster rate than they are rising. Because of the raging wildfires in the forest, which started in August, both Brazil and Peru had declared a state of national emergency. Bolivia has also been seriously affected. Most of the fires are concentrated in Brazil, which has lost more than 20,000 hectares in the fires.

Under previous Brazilian governments led by the Workers Party, environmental laws and the rights of indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest enshrined in the 1988 Constitution were protected to a great extent. Between 2004 and 2012, the country created new conservation areas, increased monitoring and penalised people encroaching on the forest and breaking environmental laws. At the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen in 2009, the then President Lula Inacio da Silva said it was “not necessary to fell a single tree in the Amazon to grow soybeans or for cattle grazing. If anyone else is doing it, that is a crime—a crime against the Brazilian economy.”

Jair Bolsonaro, the current President, has been critical of Brazil’s environment policies and the protection of the Amazon from the beginning of his political career. When he was campaigning for the presidency last year, he said he would end the protection provided to the original inhabitants of the Amazon and allow rich farmers and settlers to exploit the virgin forest. A large swathe of the Amazon has already been lost and entire indigenous communities have been displaced because of illegal encroachments. In the last decade alone, the Brazilian part of the Amazon is estimated to have lost 91,890 square miles (2,37,99,401 hectares) of forest cover. This is equivalent to the size of a couple of medium-sized States in India.

Slash-and-burn operations

After he became President, Bolsonaro looked the other way as big landlords, mining interests and others started their slash-and-burn operations in the rainforest. Bolsanaro’s Cabinet is full of climate-change deniers who claim that the whole climate-change theory is a “Marxist conspiracy” to deprive the country of its god-given resources. The Bolsonaro government has signalled to big business and agro-industries that the Amazon is theirs for the taking. After an economic crisis hit Brazil in 2013, the right wing has argued that the only way to revive growth is by undoing the environmental laws protecting the Amazon.

Since the economic crisis, tens of thousands of Brazilians, hit by recession, have flooded the Amazon region, prospecting for gold or looking for land for agriculture and cattle-raising. Most of the recent fires have been deliberately caused by farmers and big landlords with the tacit support of the government in Brasilia.

There have been reports of indigenous people being killed as they were forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands. In July, a group of people prospecting for gold invaded an indigenous village in north-eastern Brazil and killed the community’s chief. The killers were dressed in military fatigues. President Bolsonaro says that indigenous groups in Brazil are in possession of large tracts of territory in the Amazon that could be put to better use by industries and agriculturalists. “Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth under it,” Bolsonaro had said on the campaign trail.

Since the beginning of the year, leaders of indigenous communities have been complaining that they have come under increasing threat from miners, loggers and farmers. Dinama Tuxa, leader of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous People, said that Bolsonaro “represents an institutionalisation of genocide in Brazil”. Experts have warned that the Amazon is on the verge of being irreversibly damaged and that there is a danger of indigenous communities being wiped out. The arrival of Portuguese colonists was responsible for the disappearance of the majority of the indigenous population. They were around five million when the colonists first arrived. By the middle of the last century, their number was a mere 100,000. The diseases the Europeans brought, along with enslavement and forced labour, were the major reasons for the high mortality rate among indigenous people.

The 1988 Constitution, introduced after the return of civilian rule to Brazil, tried to make amends for the historic abuse heaped on the original inhabitants of the country. Over 600 indigenous territories were created, occupying 13 per cent of the country’s land mass. These areas were protected under the Constitution. The Brazilian business and political elite had never reconciled themselves to the 1988 Constitution. Bolsonaro himself is an unabashed admirer of the right-wing military dictatorship that ruled Brazil with an iron hand from 1964 to 1985 and forcibly evicted many indigenous communities from their forest homes.

“If it were up to me, we would not have any more indigenous areas in the country,” Bolsonaro said immediately after he was elected President. Now he is wilfully carrying out his agenda, seemingly unfazed by either domestic or international criticism. A government blueprint called the “Triple A” project for the development of the Amazon, was leaked recently. Under the plan, hydroelectric plants and new highways are envisioned in the Amazon. Thousands of acres of pristine forests would have to be destroyed for these projects to go on stream.

The number of fires in August was the highest recorded in the last 10 years. By August end, 26,000 forest fires were recorded in the Amazon, most of them caused intentionally. The international community has indicated its extreme concern to the Brazilian government about the danger this poses to the environment. At the G7 summit in France held in the last week of August, the assembled leaders urged Brazil to take urgent action. The G7 has offered Brazil $22 million to help it bring the fires under control. Leonardo di Caprio, the Hollywood actor, offered to pitch in with an additional $5 million on behalf of Earth Alliance, a non-governmental organisation he heads.

Bolsonaro has so far refused to accept the offer of aid by the G7 countries and has termed the offer an unnecessary interference in the internal affairs of his country and an affront to Brazil’s sovereignty. Bolsonaro chose to engage in a war of words with French President Emmanuel Macron, accusing him of disparaging his reputation and the country’s. Macron had called for an “international discussion” on the Amazon and had mobilised the other G7 leaders on the issue, saying that the planet’s future was in peril.

The fires have caused heavy pollution in cities such as Sao Paulo. Eight former Environment Ministers of Brazil wrote a joint letter to the Brazilian President in May, urging him to strengthen environmental laws, not weaken them. “We’re facing the risk of runaway deforestation in the Amazon,” the letter warned.

Bolsonaro, whose twitter rants rival that of his friend United States President Donald Trump, said that Macron’s real intention was to shield French agriculture against competition from Brazil. The French President, Bolsonaro tweeted, wanted to “disguise his intentions behind the idea of an ‘alliance’ of G7 countries to ‘save’ the Amazon as if it were a colony or ‘a no man’s land’.” The Brazilian President said he would only accept the G7 aid if his French counterpart apologised for his remarks on the Brazil government’s environmental policies. Bolsonaro had no compunction in accepting $10 million from Britain. The aid amounts offered so far by the international community are paltry. Environmental experts say much more money, equipment and expertise are needed to quell the devastating fires.

Macron responded to Bolsonaro’s insults with the observation that the Brazilian people deserved a better leader. “I have a lot of friendship and respect for the Brazilian people; I hope that they very quickly have a President who behaves properly,” Macron said. Brazil’s Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, was of the view that the international aid should be accepted as it would help in the purchase of equipment needed to fight the fires. The Brazilian government had cut the budget of the country’s main environment inspection agency, IBAMA, by 25 per cent in the beginning of the year. The funding for fire-prevention agencies such as the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation was also cut. Germany and Norway, major donors of the “Amazon Fund” that was set up in 2008 when the Workers Party was in power, have stopped contributing after Bolsonaro disbanded its governing board.

Bolsonaro belatedly agreed to deploy the Brazilian Army for firefighting in the Amazon in the third week of August after the Governors of six Brazilian States formally asked for help. As criticism of the government’s inaction increased, Bolsonaro seemingly reversed course and proclaimed that he would be adopting a “zero tolerance” policy on environmental crimes. Until recently, he was even opposed to fines being charged for breaking environmental laws. He himself had refused to pay a fine imposed for fishing in a prohibited zone. Public opinion in Brazil is turning against him in a big way even before he has completed one year in office. A recent opinion poll showed that the President’s approval rating had dipped dramatically, with 53.7 per cent of Brazilians deeming his performance as dismal.

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