Is Bolsonaro bad news for the Amazon Rainforest?

October 2018 saw the election of the far-right political leader Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s President. Both environmentalists and indigenous community leaders have been vocal in expressing their concerns as to how this result will impact the future of the Amazon Rainforest. But if Bolsonaro delivers on his promise to open up the country’s rainforest to developers then it could be bad news for the entire planet.

In this article, I want to divert from the local arborist industry and take a look at an issue that, whilst connected to forests and their conservation, is on a scale far larger and more far-reaching.

The Amazon

The Amazon is the single biggest tropical rainforest in the world and contains over 10 per cent of the world’s known biodiversity. It is home many endangered plants and animals and the Amazon River accounts for around 15 percent of the globe’s total river discharge into the seas and contains the largest number of freshwater fish species anywhere on the planet.

Perhaps most importantly of all though is the role the Amazon rainforest plays in storing 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide. This ‘carbon sink’ also traps carbon dioxide produced by human activity, helping to absorb and mitigate our own greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Amazon also has another key role and that is its production of around 20% of the planet’s oxygen (oxygen being a byproduct of photosynthesis in which trees and fauna absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to convert it into energy to grow). In fact, the Amazon has been described as the lungs of the world due to the release of oxygen into the atmosphere rhythmically as the southern hemisphere tilts towards and away from the sun during the course of a year.

Deforestation in the Amazon takes on a far-reaching meaning then if you consider it in this way. Every tree removed is reducing the capacity of the Amazon not only to store carbon but to produce oxygen.

Is Bolsonaro bad news for the Amazon Rainforest?

Image courtesy of WWF

The Campaigning and the Elected Bolsonaro

From the outset, Bolsonaro’s campaign pledged to curtail the laws that afford the Amazon rainforest the protections and safeguards that protect its habitat and its indigenous populations. The intent is to gain wealth for the country by exploiting the rich natural resources that are found both above and below ground. In Bolsonaro’s view, protecting the natural environment and indigenous populations comes second to generating wealth for the country.

The big political question is whether Bolsonaro will uphold these pledges now that he is in power.

Beto Marubo, leader of the Javari Valley Indigenous Land, summed up the distress amongst the indigenous communities when he said: “If what he has promised comes to pass, there will be chaos and upheaval in the Amazon.”

The only hope for the Amazon is that Bolsonaro fails to deliver on his election promises and this is a distinct possibility as he tries to form a coalition government. He has stated that he would follow the lead of his American counterpart Donald Trump, and take his country out of the Paris Climate Agreement. This, however, could be hard to achieve considering it was agreed to by nearly every member of the Brazilian congress.

This is what we call realpolitik and one of the Amazon’s great hopes is the difference between the popular (and populist) promises of the campaigning Bolsonaro and the hard reality of office.

The Paris Climate Agreement

It’s perhaps more likely that the newly-formed Brazilian coalition government will fail to comply with some of the commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement, which came into force in November 2016.

Will Brazil actually reduce deforestation and cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases? The statistics regarding deforestation of the Amazon are poor. After hitting an all-time low in 2011, deforestation rates have increased in the last half decade and it’s estimated that Brazil would need to cut its annual deforestation rate by two-thirds to fulfil its Paris obligations.

Some hope hangs on the influence of Brazilian producers. High deforestation rates do negatively affect the global image of Brazil and if this leads to a depression in sales, it is hoped that Brazilian producers may start to exert political pressure in favour of conservation.

Concerns of Indigenous Populations

Bolsonaro made his plans to exploit the Amazon’s natural resources very clear. Such plans could see what was once indigenous territory expanded into agricultural land, intrusive infrastructure or even mining, with Bolsonaro planning a 541-mile long highway through the rainforest.

Prior to the election, there was an ongoing process of demarking indigenous reserves in order to afford them at least some protection. This process is now in limbo. A typical example is Kaxuyana-Tunayana reserve which is found on the border of Pará and Amazonas states. It is known that at least 18 indigenous groups live there but now their lands may be at risk.

Bolsonaro has made no secret of his disregard for the indigenous populations of the Amazon. It is a community of some 900,000 people including around 100 uncontacted tribes. He has openly expressed his view that he sees the indigenous peoples as an “obstacle to agribusiness”.

Speaking to National Geographic in October 2018, Felipe Milanez, professor of humanities at the Universidade Federal de Bahia, was clear that “All indigenous communities are afraid right now. There is a risk of brutal, violent attack.”

Clearly, the concerns of the communities for whom the Amazon is their ancestral home, are more immediate and closer home than the slow creep of climate change. International bodies like the UN have already found considerable evidence that rules regarding trafficking timber and exotic species are being openly flouted by criminal gangs. This leaves indigenous communities in a situation where they have to patrol their homelands themselves and violent attacks and clashes are the likely results.

There are other dangers lurking for the local population. Illegal gold mining operations have seen an influx of migrant workers who are introducing diseases to the local, immunologically vulnerable population. As a consequence, the Yanomami tribe who have territories that reach to Venezuela are suffering from a measles epidemic. This disease is deadly to uncontacted tribal groups who have no natural immunological protection whatsoever and no access to medical support. So far, there have been many deaths and this is likely to increase with further deregulation.

Indigenous Populations and Conservation

History has taught us that indigenous populations are the most effective guardians of local ecology. There is more and more research that shows that indigenous peoples’ stewardship of forests is not only the most efficient but also the most cost-effective form of conservation. Tribal people are able to manage the rainforest and preserve it far better than any environmental group or activists. Damage to the indigenous population results in damage to the forest.

To some degree, the protection of indigenous communities is perhaps more politically dangerous territory for Bolsonaro than the effects of increased deforestation on climate change. This is because the fallout will be more immediate and the resultant suffering more visible and obvious to internal and external observers. Bolsonaro may be able to sidestep the issue of climate change but risks damaging his country’s standing and his personal reputation on the world stage for decades to come if he is seen to be sanctioning brutal removal of the rights, lands, and lifestyle of the indigenous population.

Whatever direction current politics may take, the greatest hope for the Amazon is that the Brazilian democratic system can wield sufficient influence to curtail commercial pursuit at the expense of ecological heritage. The lungs of the world and the indigenous tribes of Brazil depend on it.