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A farmer tries to pour water on an area close to an illegally lit fire in the Amazon rainforest, south of Novo Progresso in the Brazilian state of Pará on August 15, 2020. (Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

A farmer tries to pour water on an area close to an illegally lit fire in the Amazon rainforest, south of Novo Progresso in the Brazilian state of Pará on August 15, 2020. (Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

Bolsonaro Is Destroying the Amazon While Pretending to Protect It

One day after Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro asked world leaders for financial support to save the Amazon rainforest, the federal government slashed the Environment Ministry's budget by $45 million.

In Brazil, the popular historical expression "for the English to see" means "for the purpose of appearance, without validity." It emerged in the nineteenth century, when England, for economic reasons, tried to abolish slavery throughout the world, including in Brazil, whose economy was based on slavery. To deceive the British, the Brazilian Empire placed ships on the coast with the supposed mission of going after slave ships. In practice, however, nothing happened. It was just a staging "for the English to see."

At the Leaders' Summit on the Climate, held on Earth Day, April 22, the speech by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the forty world leaders is a clear example of the use of this popular Brazilian expression, this time expanded: "for the world to see."

Environment minister Ricardo Salles, who in theory should be defending the environment, has already talked about loosening the laws to give more freedom to agribusiness, the main contributor to deforestation of the Amazon.

The virtual meeting was an attempt by the Brazilian government to persuade the international community that Brazil needs financial support from other countries to save the Amazon rainforest.

Responsible for at least 10% of the planet's biodiversity, the Amazon—threatened for decades by deforestation—brings moisture to all of South America, influences rainfall in the region, and contributes to stabilizing the global climate. The Amazon also absorbs carbon, a benefit that has acted as a "brake" on the planet's warming process, but which has decreased significantly over the past few years due to rapid deforestation. 

Now, due to this increasing deforestation, the Amazon may be heating up the global atmosphere instead of cooling it, according to a multi-author scientific study published in March.

For Carlos Minc, former Brazilian environment minister (2008-2010) and currently deputy of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro's speech didn't line up with the reality of the ongoing deforestation. 

"What is most striking is the total contradiction between words and facts. Bolsonaro used to say that this history of climate and emissions reduction is cultural Marxism," Minc says. "And now, he swears that he loves the climate since he was a child. The intention was to say what the others wanted to hear."

In front of world leaders, Bolsonaro highlighted the commitment of the Brazilian government to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030, but he did not mention that the goal of ending illegal logging in Brazilian forests is an old obligation for the federal government, enunciated by the government of former president Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) as a goal for 2020. In fact, the Bolsonaro administration had withdrawn the previous target, when Brazil reformulated its contributions to the Paris Agreement in December 2020.

Ecologists criticize Brazil for performing maneuvers not contemplated under current legislation or agreements.

"A real trap was created based on the actual deforestation that occurred under Bolsonaro's management, implying to achieve a deforestation volume of at least 8,700 square kilometers per year," says environmentalist Carlos Bocuhy. "That's 16% more than the volume Bolsonaro found when he took office. So, the Brazilian government intends to increase deforestation with its own target."

In 2020, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest reached more than 11,100 square kilometers, with an increase of 9.5% over the previous year, according to the Brazilian Institute for Space Research. That represents about half of the area of the state of New Jersey.

For environmentalists, this means that 626 million trees were felled in just one year—nearly three trees for each Brazilian citizen.

As a result of this deforestation, more than 800 million tons of greenhouse gases were emitted into the atmosphere. Agriculture and the change in land use from forest to pasture are the main causes of these emissions.

Some 80% of the biodiversity of the entire planet is embedded within Indigenous territories, which include just 5% of the world's population, but in a speech to the United Nations, President Bolsonaro blamed Indigenous people for Amazon forest fires.

In general, the cycle of deforestation and fire in the Amazon rainforest begins with the illegal removal of wood of high commercial value from Indigenous lands or conservation areas. After that, if the land is public, there is the process of land grabbing and deforestation. The group Greenpeace Brazil says about 80% of everything that has already been deforested today has some type of pasture, either for livestock or to give an impression of the legal use of that area, followed by a later claim of title to that land.

On the other hand, Brazilian school books are right when they say that Indigenous people do the best job of preserving nature. Some 80% of the biodiversity of the entire planet is embedded within Indigenous territories, which include just 5% of the world's population, but in a speech to the United Nations, President Bolsonaro blamed Indigenous people for Amazon forest fires.

The Brazilian constitution of 1988 recognized that Indigenous people are the first residents of Brazil. This means that the right to live in their land of origin predates even Brazil's existence as a nation. The constitution also established the need to demarcate and protect these lands, but today there are no new demarcations, and the areas that already exist are suffering from the invasion of land grabbers, prospectors, loggers, and deforesters.

Environment minister Ricardo Salles, who in theory should be defending the environment, has already talked about loosening the laws to give more freedom to agribusiness, the main contributor to deforestation of the Amazon. 

In the most recent case, on the eve of the Leaders Summit on Climate organized by the White House, Salles was suspected of trying to cover up the actions of illegal loggers in the largest seizure of irregular wood in the history of Brazil. An operation by Federal Police confiscated more than 40,000 logs from the Amazon rainforest.

On April 14, the superintendent of the Federal Police in Amazonas, Alexandre Saraiva, filed a crime report against the minister at the Supreme Federal Court. The next day, he was fired and replaced. Later, after the Biden Summit, Saraiva rebutted Bolsonaro's speech, tweeting: "By 2030, deforestation will end, due to the lack of forest."

In the Climate Summit, Bolsonaro also highlighted the important role of measures to control damage to the Amazon. "Despite the government's budgetary limitations, I determined the strengthening of environmental agencies, doubling the resources allocated to inspection actions," he said.

But in practice, the story is different.

Less than 24 hours after finishing the speech asking for the world to "count on Brazil," the federal government announced a cut of about $45 million in the general budget dedicated to the Environment Ministry, the lowest amount in two decades. Another example of how Bolsonaro's vetoes affect crucial programs that are carried out by federal agencies.

In addition, the Environment Ministry has bureaucratized the work of inspectors, who have lost their autonomy to impose fines on those who commit an environmental crime, and must report first to their superiors before proceeding.

If all this continues, the only thing for the world to see will be a Brazil without an Amazon rainforest, and a further raging climate crisis.


© 2021 The Progressive

Lobato Felizola

Lobato Felizola is a Brazilian journalist based in Europe.

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