The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, nearly two-thirds of which lie in Brazil. Last month, this Brazilian part lost trees at the fastest rate in a decade as a result of the easing of environmental protections under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Does this effectively spell the end of the Amazon, the producer of more than 20% of the world’s oxygen, or is there still a way for protecting the environment?
Brazil’s recently elected President Bolsonaro, on his very first day in office, shifted the regulation of the indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest to the Ministry of Agriculture, an agency known to favour development over sustainability and indigenous rights.
Brazil has one of the world’s most diverse populations of indigenous people - around a million people who speak a few hundred different languages. Other groups too have been living in the forests for more than a century, including communities of escaped slaves. Despite the findings of many research studies that the best way to protect the rainforest is to empower indigenous people living there, Brazil has long debated how much control these groups should have over their ancestral lands.
Bolsonaro has promised to open indigenous lands to mining and other economic activities. About 13% of Brazil’s territory is recognised indigenous lands, most of them in the Amazon. For Bolsonaro, the indigenous population is a major barrier to furthering his economic agenda, as only 2% of deforestation has occurred so far inside the indigenous territory.
This is because the law protects such indigenous rights. According to Article 231 of the 1988 constitution, indigenous people have ‘original rights over the lands that they have traditionally occupied’. Despite this, there are growing concerns about whether Bolsonaro will respect these inalienable rights. He claims that his goal is to balance the environment and biodiversity with economic opportunities. However, his controversial Barão do Rio Branco development plan is far more consistent with the statements he made during his presidential campaign - that he would open the Amazon to development despite environmental laws and commitments to indigenous peoples.
Preserving the Amazon rainforest is of fundamental importance to the planet, and garners support from a majority of Brazilians. They reject the notion that development and environmental protection are mutually exclusive, and support reorienting the Amazonian economy towards sustainable livelihoods.
In such a manner, Bolsonaro has and will continue to face resistance on his path towards unrestrictedly deforesting the Amazon. Although his initial plan was to subordinate the environment ministry to the agriculture ministry, he was persuaded to drop this idea owing to criticisms from environmental NGOs and federal civil servants in environmental agencies.
External actors have also applied significant pressure on the Bolsonaro administration. For example, the government of Norway has contributed 93% of the money disbursed by the Amazon Fund to 102 different projects. Such funds provide incentives to enforce environmental laws and create sustainable livelihoods in the rainforest.
Our assessment is that the Amazon rainforest could well lose its label as the ‘lungs of the world’ as soon as the end of 2019. Unless the Brazilian government sends a clear signal that it will not tolerate a further acceleration in deforestation, a vast majority of the rainforest will be razed to the ground before we know it. Moreover, the volume of government seizures of illegally harvested timber has decreased drastically. There is thus little hope that the Bolsonaro administration will commit towards implementing any concrete measures towards bettering the environmental situation there.
Furthermore, we feel that the misuse of resources such as the Amazon Fund by the government is severely undermining the efforts of environmentally-sensitive nations such as Norway and Germany to conserve the rainforest and promote sustainability in the Amazon. Our opinion is that the opposition will grow even further when the far-reaching policies of Bolsonaro’s aggressive policies become apparent in the Amazon rainforest, and with indigenous and traditional rural populations being displaced or affected.