Bolsonaro takes office on the first of January 2019 and has promised to open protected areas and indigenous territories to mining, to relax environmental laws, cut financing for their enforcement, ease licensing for new mining and infrastructure projects in the Amazon, support the expansion of agriculture, and to restrict the titling of new indigenous lands.
Why is Bolsonaro making this move?
– His actions can been seen as a continuation of previous presidents’ drive to exploit and lessen environmental laws and protection in the Amazon. The country is not doing well economically and there is high unemployment. There is a big agricultural lobby in Brazil that wants to expand agricultural land and other groups that want to extract minerals, saying that this is needed to boost the Brazilian economy.
Bolsonaro is a populist who has a very traditional and conservative view of development and progress. He sees exploitation and deforestation of ‘unused and empty’ lands as a huge potential to improve the economy and develop society.
He managed to become elected through playing to people’s fears, and to focus on development and crime. Also, many people in Basil have other priorities than the Amazon, improving their livelihood will be their first concern.
How will this impact on the Brazilian Amazon?
– If Bolsonaro does what he has promised it will be a huge backlash for indigenous people’s rights, their way of life and on the rainforest itself. The more rainforest you cut down, the more likely it is that you create further drought conditions in the regions south of the Amazon, and there has already been periods of drought in the south of the country partially attributed to forest loss. Without the Amazon rainforest, there is a big chance that there will be in fact less rain in the central and southern parts of Brazil. Ironically, this will make Brazil to lose its competitive advantage because the rainforests produces the conditions for its huge rainfed agriculture, where no irrigation is needed.
So ironically, Bolsonaro’s deforestation plan might end up actually impacting negatively on the very industry he wants to develop.
Bolsonaro has also said that he will not delineate any more indigenous territories or additional land titles to indigenous people. This is in turn is very bad for the remaining rainforest because studies have shown that that best way to protect and conserve the rainforest is to grant ownership to indigenous and local groups.
Finally, there will be severe impacts in terms of climate change. This is because deforestation, whereby trees are often burned down, release of large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere that are not recaptured again since the trees are replaced by agriculture, such as soy bean fields or cattle pasture. Some studies estimate that once you cut down 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest you have reached an ecological threshold. And from here it will be no turning back. More than 20% of the Brazilian Amazon have already been lost and with every additional hectare, there is an increased risk for ending up in an irreversible state (i.e, a tipping point).
And even it Bolsonaro detracts, a lot of damage has already been done. If you talk to activists, environmentalists and indigenous organizations in the area they say that there has been a surge in attacks, assassinations of activists, illegal land incursions, and deforestation. All the people who want to push forward with exploiting the rainforest act like Bolsonaro is already in office. There are no repercussions and assassinations already go unpunished. This sends a strong signal of lawlessness and people are afraid to stand up for their rights or for defending the forest. Sadly, Brazil is the most dangerous country for people who defend indigenous rights and the environment and last year alone there were over 60 assassinations of activists, which is likely to be an underestimation.
No matter what happens in real time politics once Bolsonaro starts his term, the damage is already done.
Is there anything that can be done to stop it?
– Indigenous people are risking both their lives and livelihood for the better good of humanity and for something we all benefit from, so we need to support them both spiritually and financially.
From a Swedish perspective, we can continue to fund small local NGO:s that stand up against the new government’s plans and organize resistance to it. They will most probably get less public funds, so this support is very important. Sweden, together with the EU, can also put pressure on Brazil for violating human rights in terms of its treatment of indigenous groups.
We can also stop importing soy, beef and timber that comes from places that have been deforested.
I also believe that science has a big role to play. Researchers can illustrate the negative effects of cutting down the rainforest for local agriculture and development. And this could be one of the best pathways to actually stop Bolsonaro moving ahead with his plans.
Finally, I do think that real protection of the Amazon and securing the rights of Indigenous people will only be achieved when both Brazil and the rest of the world fundamentally changes its economic system – we need to move away from overconsumption and the increasing import and export of minerals, produce and crops. Until we do so, deforestation, and the negative impacts it brings on communities and the climate, will continue.