How populism is destroying the Amazon

Source: Wikipedia Labelled for Reuse

Under Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership, destruction of the Amazon rainforest has skyrocketed and with the added difficulties of the pandemic, the issue is only growing worse. The National Institute for Space Research in Brazil, the INPE, has reported that deforestation in April this year is up 64% in comparison to the same month last year. While other sectors of the economy are suffering, deforestation has remained high over the past few months, despite this period being the rainy season in which rates usually decline, which only causes more worry for the coming season. By taking steps like authorising the deployment of troops to protect the forest while encouraging further deforestation to farm the Amazon’s arable land, Bolsonaro’s government is sending out mixed messages.

Although deforestation has been rising since Bolsonaro took office at the beginning of 2019 (many may remember the uncontrollable wildfires that began last summer), the Coronavirus crisis seems to be accelerating the problem. Sebastian Troeng, the executive vice-president of Conservation International attributes this to two key causes: firstly, opportunists are using the decreased monitoring during the lockdown to increase their operations; and secondly, the economic pressures resulting from the pandemic are leading to more people to relying on the forest for income and food out of necessity. Amazonas, the largest state in the country, has one of the nation’s most underfunded healthcare systems and the highest infection rates. Testing rates have been low, but Manaus, the largest Amazonian city, has observed a 578% increase in respiratory-related deaths in April and has had to resort to using mass graves. Rather than being the ‘great equalizer’ so many people have called it, the pandemic is highlighting, more than ever before, the massive social inequality in Brazil and many of Bolsonaro’s populist policies, with their complete disregard for the environment, affect this serious issue. 

The Amazon rainforest generates 20Bn tonnes of rain a day, fuelling the $240Bn agricultural economy in South America. Ecosystem services are valuable, even monetarily, so why is destroying it a popular policy? First, it is important to remember what populism is: an approach to politics that claims to be for the people and rebel against an ‘elite’. This ‘elite’ usually takes the form of mainstream politics and media; the ‘establishment’. In the case of Bolsonaro, part of this ‘elite’ is the often foreign and middle-class environmentalist movement. His policies and rhetoric have tapped into frustrations that foreign NGOs appear to be attempting to control what Amazonian regions can and cannot do with their land. This concept of the Amazon as valuable land that needs to be occupied and protected from foreign influence dates back to the 60s and 70s in which, under military dictatorship, roads were built throughout the region in order to solidify control in those regions. 

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric suggests that he prioritises using the arable land for farming over maintaining its natural rainforest. 60 million hectares of the forest are deemed ‘public areas’, meaning they have no defined legal purpose by the government. This land can be easily occupied if the forest is logged and repurposed into farmland. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that 80% of deforestation can be traced back to cattle farming and, being the largest global exporter of beef, makes up for 4.6% of exports and 7% of Brazil’s GDP. Bolsonaro’s anti-conservation stance has been popular both because of the nationalist rhetoric accompanying it and because the cleared land can translate directly into profits for farmers in the region. His policies over the last year have amplified the issue dramatically: a decree passed in April 2019 has meant that since October 2019, environmental fines have been reviewed at “conciliation hearings” which are not taking place during the pandemic. Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch, explains it simply: “They won’t be deterred by fines they don’t have to pay.” Although the president authorised the deployment of troops to guard the forest on May 7th, he refused to allow the destruction of logging equipment if it could not be removed. Recently, he has also brought a Land reform bill before Congress in order to ‘regularise’ land claims by giving settlers legal deeds. Vice President Hamilton Mourão has argued this step will help bring people to justice but there has been widespread backlash that this would legitimise illegal land seizures. Whilst Bolsonaro has not been outright in his support for loggers in recent months, his policies clearly show which side he remains on. All of this is particularly worrying as we move towards the dry season, in which deforestation is set to rise even more. 

Although the preservation of the Amazon rainforest is vital to the rest of the world, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric does raise a fair point; what right do foreign, particularly European, countries have to dictate what Brazilians should be ‘allowed’ to do? In August last year, after the G7’s $20m pledge to help fight the forest fires, Bolsonaro responded: “These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty.” It is vital that when other countries benefit from an ecosystem like the Amazon and are willing to contribute to its protection financially, the people relying on the forest are not forgotten and are supported financially as well. Inciting colonial images of European control over South America has been incredibly effective in riling up support. It does, however, feel a bit disingenuous in the context of Bolsonaro’s disregard for Brazil’s indigenous people and their land rights. As he declared last year: “Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.” Last year, between January and September, invasions of indigenous people’s land went up by 40% in comparison to the same period in 2018. Amazonian indigenous communities have been the most overlooked group in all of this and the Coronavirus crisis has only made it worse. Amidst a pandemic that hits those with respiratory illnesses the hardest, the smoke emitted from the fires over the past year has made those in and around the area particularly vulnerable. Similarly, a greater focus needs to be placed on sustainable alternative streams of income. Ecotourism has proven to be unreliable and can no longer be the only revenue stream for indigenous communities; more leadership of conservation and restoration projects must be given to those that live in and understand the region. 
The Amazon is at a tipping point – we have destroyed approximately 17% of the forest and if that number reaches 20-25%, its ecosystem will no longer function properly. Even though Covid-19 will continue to dominate headlines over the next few months, we cannot dismiss this crisis – we must realise that in our interconnected world, even seemingly disconnected problems often impact one another.