The pledge to end deforestation in the Amazon by 2030 that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro made at COP 26 is worthless, forest experts say, unless he acts now to clamp down on his own Congress, which is currently passing laws that make it easier to destroy the forests.
Two of Brazil’s foremost forest experts have a list of immediate actions that Bolsonaro must take to prove his signature on the forest agreement in Glasgow this week is not just a sham.
“Of course we were delighted that the president signed the forest accord, but also surprised. It is a reversal of all his current policies,” said Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environment Research Institute (IPAM Amazonia). Speaking in Glasgow, she said that along with stopping the legislation that makes deforestation easier, the president needs to halt all illegal mining activity on land reserved for Indigenous people, and send in the army to capture criminals and punish them as an example to society.
“I want to hear the president say with all his heart that he is now taking another route. He will clamp down on these big criminal groups,” said Alencar. She explained that half of all illegal deforestation currently takes place on public lands—a criminal offence—yet no action is being taken against the loggers.
Paulo Artaxo Netto, a professor at the University of São Paulo and former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said what Brazil needs is a “complete change of mentality.”
“The government’s current plans are very silly, showing a linear decrease in deforestation until 2030,” said Artaxo, when “it cannot happen like that.”
“What needs to happen is a strict enforcement of the law, to engage with big business, the giant beef and soya producers, and telling them that cutting down forests is no longer acceptable,” he added. “It is possible to stop deforestation in five to seven years. It can be done cheaply. All that is missing is the political will.”
Artaxo said the same basic principles apply to all the forests in the tropics—in Africa and Asia. It is fundamental to stopping the world overheating because tropical deforestation currently contributes to 17% of the world’s carbon emissions.
In its pristine state, the Amazon had annually captured half a tonne of carbon per hectare a year from the atmosphere. The stress caused by climate change and degrading the forest through burning means the entire forest is now carbon neutral, he said—and recent reports have declared the Amazon a carbon emitter.
If the global temperatures rise three or four degrees, “the Amazon forest will not survive,” said Artaxo, at which point all the 120 gigatonnes of carbon it contains would be released—the equivalent of 10 years of emissions from all the fossil fuels currently burned in the world. That, he said, would be the end of civilization.
But it’s not just a problem for Brazil, but also for several countries in South America which contain large parts of the Amazon. They, too, must halt deforestation, along with the countries of Africa and Asia.
Alencar said Brazil is trying to claim that deforestation caused by fires is down 33% from 2020 to 2021. This has nothing to do with government action, she said, but is rather an anomaly caused by heavier rainfall and a shorter dry season, which meant simply that the forest would not burn.
What is needed is transparency about what’s really happening, and enforcement. “It is hard to believe what the president says,” she said. “We already have the laws in place, we also have the institutions that could police what happens. We have the technology to see what is happening and where. What we lack is the political will to do anything to stop it.”
But there is increasing political pressure on Bolsonaro, she said, which gives her some hope. He is behind in public opinion polls and faces a presidential election next October.
“Environmental issues do matter to Brazilians. The opposition has better plans. The environment is now like a stone in Bolsonaro’s shoe, he can no longer ignore it,” she said.
However, her greatest fear is that the lawlessness will continue unchecked. “This is how the drug wars started in Columbia. Illegal logging, illegal mining, followed by illegal export of drugs. It is beginning to happen in Brazil, too. We need to halt it now,” Alencar said.
Figures for deforestation in the Amazon for October 2021 released by the Brazilian National Space Agency on Friday are the second-worst since measuring began. An area four times larger than the Glasgow metropolitan area, Scotland’s largest city, was burned, just 4.8% less than last year’s all-time high.
During the first two years of the current Brazilian administration, deforestation rates in the Amazon reached a 12-year high. Both in 2019 and 2020, over 10,000 square kilometres of rainforest were destroyed, a 67% increase compared to the average deforestation rate of the previous 10 years (2008-2018).