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Brazil Becomes Key Battleground in Accelerating Global Deforestation

The destruction of the Amazon rainforest accelerated by 55% in the first four months of 2020 compared to the previous year. Brazil’s answer? Slash the budgets for ecosystem and climate protection—and double down on the notion that the military is the best defender of the forest.

As COVID-19 rampages through Brazil—with mortality rates especially high among Indigenous peoples—“efforts to keep the Amazon rainforest standing and reduce Brazil’s planet-warming emissions are being hampered by budget cuts for the country’s environmental watchdog and its main climate change program,” reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Citing data provided by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC), a leading financial watchdog in Brazil, Reuters writes that the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) has for the year to date received only R$5.3 million (just over US$1 million) for its forest inspection activities, as compared to the R$17.4 million it drew between January and May 2019.

Also being radically pruned: the country’s national climate change plan, which will see its budget cut by more than 40%, from R$436 million for 2019 to R$247 million for 2020.

Left to fall by the wayside in the wake of these cuts will be targets established in 2015 by then- president Dilma Rousseff, including “cutting illegal deforestation in the Amazon to zero by 2030, and restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares”.

Such cuts arrive even as newly-revised government data shows the deforestation of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest in 2019 was actually worse than previously reported. In a separate report, Reuters says initial data from Brazil’s space research agency that reported  9,762 square kilometres of lost rainforest between August 2018 and July 2019 has now been revised upward to 10,129 square kilometres, “an area about the size of Lebanon and a 34.4% rise from the same period a year earlier.”

What’s replacing the lost funding seems to be the notion of rainforest defence by the barrel of a gun. As he guts budgets for climate and forest protections, Bolsonaro has been opening the taps on funding to support military-led forestry defence and wildfire prevention in the Amazon region. The Brazilian military has received R$60 million to support 3,800 military personnel in the area for one month—compared to IBAMA’s total 2020 forest inspection budget of R$77 million. 

Such efforts to militarize environmental stewardship are destined for failure, said Suely Araújo, a political scientist at the University of Brasília and former IBAMA president. “The budget is a mirror of government priorities. If the money is decreasing, it means the government is paying less attention to that topic, which is very worrying,” Araújo told Reuters.

But even as Bolsonaro continues to abdicate his responsibility to protect the Amazon, Brazil’s nine states are stepping up the fight—oddly enough, with unwitting help from state-owned fossil Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras). “The oil company admitted wrongdoing related to record-keeping and internal controls, ultimately agreeing to pay a US$853-million fine to settle charges that it violated U.S. anti-corruption laws,” says Reuters in a further report. Brazilian environmental agencies will share some $27 million of that money, with plans to spend the windfall on “patrol officers, jeeps, surveillance technology, and other outlays to protect the rainforest.” 

Much is riding on their efforts. According to a recent report in the New York Times, the accelerating deforestation in regions like Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is helping to fuel some frightening global numbers. 

“The worldwide total loss of old-growth, or primary, tropical forest—9.3 million acres, an area nearly the size of Switzerland—was about 3% higher than 2018 and the third largest since 2002,” writes the Times, citing data from Global Forest Watch. “Researchers estimated that the loss of primary tropical forest in 2019 resulted in the release of more than two billion tonnes of CO2, or more than the emissions from all on-road vehicles in the United States in a typical year.”

Some regions, however, offer glimmers of hope: “In West Africa, both Ghana and Ivory Coast showed significant declines in primary forest loss”, signs that recent initiatives brokered between government and cocoa producers may be bearing fruit. Indonesia, too, has slowed its course, with “policies that include a moratorium on land clearing for certain activities, ramped up enforcement of illegal forest cutting, and coordinated efforts to limit the spread of fires.”

Meanwhile, back in Brazil, the battle to protect the Amazon from the devastation of illegal logging and mining is being further hamstrung by the ongoing threat of the pandemic. “Brazil recently became the country with the second-highest number of documented COVID-19 cases in the world, trailing only the United States,” reports Grist. The situation is far worse for the country’s Indigenous peoples: while data from the World Health Organization show Brazilians as a whole dying at “roughly double” the rate of Americans, further numbers from the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil show the mortality rate among Brazil’s Indigenous population is double even that.

Adding further to the misery of Indigenous communities in South America: the early May collapse of two oil pipelines in Ecuador, a disaster that sent some 15,000 barrels of oil streaming into Amazonian waterways. Grist notes that, in addition to the usual devastation caused by oil spills, this disaster has further imperilled access to clean water that is imperative for Indigenous communities in the fight to protect against the coronavirus.