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  Number 459 | Septiembre 2019
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International

Why will the Amazon continue to burn?

In an all-out crusade to increase its agricultural and mining frontiers, Brazil has been aflame with over a thousand forest fires a day. President Jair Bolsonaro responded to the sharp increase in such deforestation during his administration by sacking the director of the agency that blew the whistle on the situation. His policy has met resistance even in Congress’ “ruralist” bench and is complicating Brazil’s diplomatic and financial relations.

Marcelo Aguilar

The skies over São Paulo suddenly darkened on the afternoon of August 19, making 3 pm seem more like 3 am. Thousands of miles from this Brazilian metropolis, vast expanses of the Amazon rainforest have been burning for more than ten days as of this writing… and are still burning.

A mixture of ignorance and interests


The prophetic significance was clear: the destruction of the Amazon affects us all. The number of fires burning stretches of the rainforest to turn them into areas for cultivation or cattle-ranching is the highest ever recorded by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE). Since January, over 53,000 wildfires have been recorded in the Amazon, with 23,000 confirmed just in the first three weeks of August, more than a thousand a day. The number of fires and the arrival of a cold dry front were what carried the ashes as far as São Paulo.

Nine days earlier, on Saturday August 10, ranchers in the northern state of Pará had promoted the celebration of “Fire Day.” One of the organizers told the local news¬paper Folha do Progresso that the idea was “to show President Bolsonaro that we want to work and the only way to do that is to clear the rainforest and burn our pastureland to clean it.” According to INPE, outbreaks of fires in the region increased by 300% compared to the previous day.

Jair Bolsonaro ignored this initiative and floated the idea that the fires could have been criminally started by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in response to the government’s recent funding cuts for Amazon preservation. Brazil’s formjer environmental minister, Marina Silva, presidential candidate for the Sustainability Network (REDE) party in the last elections, wrote: “The Amazon is being burned by a mixture of ignorance and defiantly aggressive interests. The government is inaugurating a time of unfettered crime, where nature and communities can be attacked without fear of punishment.” Perhaps this is the main point. The effects of these fires can be extremely serious and their extent is still uncertain but they are correlated to an even more serious context.

“Satellites don’t lie”


INPE’s recent publication of data on deforestation in the Amazon put the issue on the front burner of Brazilian public debate and generated controversy internationally as well.

INPE had already pointed out a significant increase in land clearing in June of this year: 88% more than in the same month of 2018. The data was collected by the Deter satellite system, which tracks land clearing in real time and generates alerts in order to collaborate with the control organizations.

The government reacted immediately but, instead of addressing the fever, the President stomped on the thermometer. On July 19, he attacked the data published by INPE and suggested that its president, Ricardo Galvão, “might be working for some NGO.” Galvão responded that the President shouldn’t act “as if he’s talking in a bar” and accused Bolsonaro of making “inappropriate and unfounded comments, unacceptable attacks not only on me but also on the people who work scientifically in this country.”

Although Galvão said he wouldn’t resign, his situation became untenable and on August 2 he was sacked. New data published on August 6 showed the increase in deforestation in July: 278% higher than in same month of the previous year. The total increase in those 12 months had been 40% more than in the 12 months before them. This trend will surely be confirmed with the annually published data, expected in late October.

Carlos Nobre, who has a doctorate in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and worked in the National Institute of Amazonian Research and as a INPE researcher for 35 years, told the weekly newspaper Brecha, of Montevideo, Uruguay, that the dismissal of Galvão, “who is a renowned scientist and one of the best managers of scientific institutions Brazil has produced in recent decades, sends a very bad sign, imparting enormous insecurity about the role of public science institutions.”

Nobre sees this message as “anachronistic” when “institutions have to serve the government instead of society and if the government isn’t satisfied with some fact they publish as part of their mission it forces them to adhere to a policy of only publishing only what is advantageous.”

He warns, however, that “satellites don’t lie” which is why attacking the messenger is a shortsighted strategy: “Numerous high-quality monitoring systems in various parts of the world are measuring what’s happening with vegetation all over the planet, mainly in the tropical rainforests. It makes no sense to try to hide what’s happening in the Amazon or to get angry about our publicizing what’s happening. That policy leads nowhere.”

“The Indians are
threatening production”


The Jair Bolsonaro government’s environmental policy line had already been made very clear in December 2018 with the election of the minister who would be in charge of implementing it.

Ricardo Salles is a reactionary rightwing cadre, strongly tied to what are known in Brazil as ruralistas (agro-industrialists). He’s currently a member of the Novo (New) party, and founder of the conservative Endireita Brasil (Straighten Up Brazil) movement. During his campaign he distributed a pamphlet containing a packet of bullets labeled with their targets: “Against the infestation of wild boars,” “Against the Left and the MST [Landless Rural Workers’ Movement],” “Against the theft of tractors, cattle and supplies,” “Against outlaws in the countryside.”

A hardline advocate in defense of private property, he declared in an interview published on his YouTube account cited by the Nexo gateway: “We have to ensure a safe, stable and predictable environment so rural production can move forward.” Translation of the euphemism “move forward”: increase its expansion area by land clearance, i.e. deforestation.

In that same interview, Salles complained about “these invasions, the things MST does, and the quilombolas (Afro-Brazilian descendants) and the Indians who threaten productive property. This is a big setback, and we must defend the producers so they can work in peace. Rural producers were always careful, aware of their duties and are now threatened every day by government regulations and this lack of legal security.”

Salles’ real role within government


The precise focus of Bolsonaro’s government and hence of Salles, is to deregulate and reduce government’s role. Telma Monteiro, a Brazilian educator who has dedicated years to investigating environmental policies and the bidding processes for major works in the Amazon, sees the crusade of the minister chosen by Bolsonaro as very specific: “He’s there… to get rid of environmental laws and dismantle the environmental governance structure that has been built in the country over the years.” According to her, these structures don’t always work for the good of the environment, but at least they allow civil society some counterbalance. She believes the government’s goal is to open the way for monoculture and eliminate that ballast.

That’s why she believes the discourse against the NGOs and social organizations is so vitriolic: “Agribusiness needs to expand, and that expansion can only occur in regions that have not yet been deforested. That’s what Salles is there to do: to work from inside in favor of agribusiness and against environmental preservation.”

Not all agribusiness leaders are
happy with Bolsonaro’s policy


Monteiro told Brecha that Salles “is uninformed, doesn’t know the Amazon or its problems, or the indigenous populations; he doesn’t know where or how the rivers run, or what’s happening on the rainforest floor.” In her view, the current deforestation could reach much more dramatic levels because “we’re heading towards total chaos if the structures that stop land clearing are attacked,”

There isn’t even consensus within the ruralista sectors about this anti-environmental crusade. Katia Abreu, one of the most radical defenders of agribusiness, minister of agriculture (January 2015-May 2016) under Dilma Rousseff’s administration and currently leader of the ruralista bench in the Senate, said in an interview with the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo on August 13: “The farmers who are happy today are going to cry tomorrow.”

Abreu, once one of the most expressive voices of anti-environmentalism, thinks Bolsonaro is “transferring all his reactionary vision to the agricultural industry” and that this discourse, “in addition to fueling land clearance, could close down markets to Brazilian products.” The senator even defended the work of many NGOs, contradicting the government by describing it as “serious.” Even Blairo Maggi, who held Abreau’s same ministerial post under President Temer’s administration and is one of the major agribusiness heavyweights, told Brazil’s largest financial newspaper, Valor Económico, that Bolsonaro’s “aggressive” discourse generates “confusion” and could carry the sector “down to nothing,” endangering Brazil’s trade agreement with the European Union.

Impunity:Harbinger of more
land clearing and more violence


In an unprecedented event in early May, Brazil’s eight surviving former environmental ministers met and published a letter charging that “socio-environmental governance in Brazil is being dismantled, which is an affront to the Constitution.” They said that “through successive governments during the last three decades, Brazilian society was able to design a set of laws and institutions capable of facing the challenges of the country’s environmental agenda,” but it is currently seeing “a series of unprecedented actions that are nullifying the Ministry of the Environment’s abili¬ty to formulate and implement public policies.”

They also question “the discourse against environmental control agencies, especially IBAMA [The Brazilian Ins¬titute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources] and ICMBIO [The Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity] and the impugning of INPE’s monitoring data.” They say it adds to the critical budgetary and staffing situation of these agencies and reinforces “the feeling of impunity, which is the harbinger for more land clearing and more violence.”

“It’s an NGO campaign”


In reply, Salles fell back on the same clichés used by President Bolsonaro when he wrote: “What’s been damaging Brazil’s image is the ongoing, well-orchestrated defamation campaign sponsored by NGOs and alleged experts within and outside the country, whether through ideological prejudices or an undeniable opposition to our moralizing measures against the binge of conventions, eternal studies, transferred resources, sponsorships, trips, seminars and talks.”

Like Bolsonaro, Minister Salles argues that an ideological component is vitiating the action of both the State’s environmental control agencies and the Amazon Fund (FA), a mechanism created in 2008 during Lula da Silva’s presidency to attract resources from foreign governments and companies to finance projects of “environmental preservation” and the “sustainable development of the Amazon.”

At a São Paulo press conference in May of this year, Salles said he had found “irregularities in 100% of the FA contracts with NGOs” and questioned both the outcomes of the projects financed and the management of their resources (more than US $840 million in total). However, in a court report quoted by O Globo on August 14, in the midst of the forest fires, the Brazilian Court of Auditors, which began auditing the Fund in late 2018, praised the transparency of its information and the management of its resources, contradicting the minister.

In any case, the government already stated that it intended to use these resources to compensate ruralistas affected by the expropriation of land for environmental preservation units, provoking an immediate reaction by the embassies of Germany and Norway, the Fund’s main financers. Germany was the first to suspend its annual transfer of resources to the FA, followed by Norway, which suspended the equivalent to US $33 million on August 15. Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s minister of climate and environment, said the increases in the destruction rate of the Amazon demonstrated that “the Brazilian government doesn’t want to stop land clearing.”

In a discussion with Brecha, Guilherme Carvalho, who has a PhD in sustainable development of tropical rainforests from the Federal University of Pará and coordinates the NGO FASE in the Amazon, drew attention to the role of the different levels of government in weakening environment policies: “The federal government is the driving force, but this is a project of the entire power block controlling the State. The state and municipal governments are also developing a series of policies along the same lines. Many mayors use the review of municipal guideline plans to open up more areas for the big companies, and try to have increasingly more tenders implemented by borough and municipal council managers, where the companies have even greater lobbying power than in the higher organizations. If those governments get to be in charge of awarding projects in the region, a large part of Amazonia is going to disappear.”

The tracks of “Captain Chainsaw”


Amid the environmental controversies, Bolsonaro tried to make light of the matter by calling himself “Captain Chainsaw,” but the irony was not appreciated by those who recognize the extremely serious effects of his policy.

Amazon expert Carlos Nobre’s first investigation in 1989 warned of the possibility that deforestation in the Amazon could lead to a “savannization” of the region: the rainforest would never be as it was and would become a biodegraded savanna even if deforestation were stopped.

Nobre now says that with the significantly increased knowledge today about the relationship between land clearing, global warming and the increase in forest fires, academia came to the following conclusion on analyzing these factors: “If land is cleared on more than 25% of the rainforest area we would reach a breaking point, where the vegetation will begin to gradually disappear over the next 30-40 years and we will lose up to 60% of the forest. In fact with 15-17% deforestation in the Amazon basin already, we aren’t far from incurring that risk.”

Nobre explained what is at stake and what can be lost: “In the first place, if we eliminate the rainforest, the temperature will rise between one and three degrees Celsius, not only in the Amazon but also in the center of the country due to winds. You are heating up a region that is already hot. This is extremely damaging for human health and even for this region’s own agriculture, with heat spikes that greatly diminish productivity.” He also argued that “the savannization process causes an enormous burden of extinction. We are talking about tens of thousands of species disappearing from the Earth.”

Most scientists now agree that we need to go in the opposite direction: “Restoring forests throughout the planet, especially in the tropics, is a remarkable mechanism for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” argues Nobre. “We need forest restoration policies and have to change the paradigm: The economy has to be based on biodiversity, on the living rainforest. Its economic potential is much greater than that of meat or soya.”

Bolsonaro: “I’m who gives the orders”


In 1977, the well-known Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro (1922-1997) wrote that the effects of civilization’s impact on indigenous populations are so dramatic and destructive that Brazil’s surviving tribes will unques¬tionably disappear if the federal government doesn’t specifically protect them more effectively than at present. He argued that the secular war of decimation and oppression was still killing our Indians, concluding that “We must stop!”

Some 42 years later, the Bolsonaro administration insists on attacking the very point that for Darcy Ribeiro is the only one that could ensure the survival of indigenous peoples: protection by the federal government. On his first day in office, Bolsonaro instead transferred responsibility for the demarcation and regulation of indigenous lands from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to the Ministry of Agriculture, headed by Tereza Cristina, former leader of the ruralista bench in Congress. On analyzing this presidential decision at the end of May, Congress reversed it, but Bolsonaro insisted and issued a new decree reinstating his decision. At the time, he said: “I’m the one who demarcates indigenous land. I’m who gives the orders.”

His crass anti-indigenous
racism smacks of Trump-talk


On August 1, the Supreme Federal Court unanimously upheld FUNAI’s responsibility, after a session in which Justice Celso de Mello said he had seen “undisguised traces of authoritarianism” in the President’s actions. Ten days later, during an event in Pelotas, Río Grande del Sur, Bolsonaro stated: “Petrified Indian poop makes it hard to put important works out to tender” and said it was necessary to “integrate the Indians into society and find a project for Brazil.”

The reference to excrement harks back to one of his previous statements, when he had mocked environmentalists’ argument about the amount of methane gas cows produce by suggesting that the environmental issue could be resolved “by only pooping every other day.” On other occasions, the President had already defended the forced integration of indigenous peoples, claiming in in January 2019 that they “live in isolation and are manipulated by the NGOs.”

Another government attack on original peoples, in March 2019, was the threat to close the Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health, which depends on federal government resources, and shift its responsibilities to municipal govern¬ments, which would overwhelm their resources and the already saturated local hospitals. After protests in several regions of the country, the government backed down.

Another phase in the
looting of indigenous lands


Cleber César Buzatto, executive secretary of the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an organization of Catholic bishops that has been working alongside Brazil’s indigenous peoples since 1972, told Brecha that a radical change currently underway is fundamental to understanding the seriousness of the present moment: “Through Bolsonaro’s discourse, the government not only shows signs of omission, but points out where indigenous peoples’ attackers can and should go, and gives them incentives. That makes his discourse much more serious than a simple carte blanche. It’s not only a kind of authorization: it’s fuel.”

He explained that omission by the State has always existed and still does but now “it’s the government itself that is directing the threats and the actual aggression and attacks.” Buzatto is seeing a “significant increase in reports and complaints about new invasions, which indicate that a new phase is taking place in the looting or theft of indigenous land in Brazil, where even lands already demarcated and duly regularized are attacked and divided into lots, illegally marketed or victim to clear-cut deforesting.” This is added to a suspension in the demarcation of new indigenous lands, which “increases the potential for conflict in the regions and ends up perpetuating the socioeconomic vulnerability suffered by these people.”

The original peoples will fight and resist


In this new phase, warns Buzatto, “there’s a very serious risk of genocide, especially in the Amazon region, against peoples that are numerically smaller, or isolated and free groups that live without contact with the rest of the population.”

But he sees that there is always room for hope, just as there was more than 500 years ago: “The original peoples have shown that they aren’t going to change their position and their determination to fight and resist. They haven’t been frightened. This is what fuels hope that this government’s genocidal project will be defeated by the peoples just as the military dictatorship’s genocidal project was defeated.”


Marcelo Aguilar is a journalist. This article was first published in Brecha titled Selva arrasada (Scorched rainforest).


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