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FEATURES THE WORLD’S NEXT ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE

PROSPECT

almost a foreign land glimpsed in documentaries and read about at school. Every Brazilian has marvelled at the idea of its wide rivers, the beautiful blossoms of the victoria amazonica, its colourful birds—but these things are quickly put out of mind once the subject is over. Its preservation might, sometimes, be judged important. But it is seen as someone else’s responsibility.

The majority of Brazilian people do not explicitly vote for the Amazon to be cut down, of course. The image of the forest being burnt to the ground, of a sea of trees with vast, football-stadium sized holes in it, of animals suffocating to death from the black smoke spreading across the sky, is a miserable one. However, voting for the destruction of the Amazon is effectively what Brazilians have done for decades: one of the strongest political groups in the Brazilian Congress is the beef caucus, which represents big agricultural monopolies. The group often votes down any environmental legislation with impact, as well as any attempts to protect indigenous rights or promote agrarian reform.

To Brazilian agribusiness, the Amazon is untapped land that could make way for pastures or plantations. There is big money to be made: Brazil is the largest producer of soy in the world, while it also exports 1.6m tons of beef worth US$6.5bn every year. Most of the land used to generate these exports comes from the Amazon—in the past two decades, the number of cows in the Brazilian Amazon has risen from 37m to 85m.

The methods used to clear the land aren’t limited to chopping down the large, life-giving trees and replacing them with pasture or plantations; traditionally, the process involves torching vegetation and everything in its way, destroying nutrients from the soil. This not only speeds up the desertification process, but also reduces the lifespan of the land, resulting in further fires as farmers move on in search of richer soil.

The left is not immune from embroilment. The Brazilian Workers’ Party—the party of Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff—made several alliances with the caucus, and would constantly endorse big projects in the Amazon region, not caring about the fears of environmentalists and indigenous rights activists. Consider the Belo Monte dam—a former dictatorship brainchild that would become the fourth biggest dam in the world, built on the Xingu river. Its construction destroyed the livelihood of traditional populations— about 175km² of protected woods were chopped down, while a further 500km² was flooded.

Yet this project was brought to life not by any nefarious influence of the right, but by Lula himself. When the Rousseff government was about to collapse, one of its last remaining allies was staunch beef caucus congresswoman Katia Abreu, mocked by Greenpeace as “Miss Deforestation”(she later popped up as the Democratic Labour Party candidate for vice president).

In his virulent anti-environmentalism at least, then, Bolsonaro is not such an aberration. Neither he, nor

Deforestation detail: what the Amazon has lost The deforestation rate slowed dramatically in the mid-2000s, but has begun to rise again in recent years. As the map shows, even though the annual rate fell, the cumulative effect over the past two decades has been devastating.

Brazil

Brasília

Rio de Janeiro

Brazilian Amazon

Tree cover loss 2003

Tree cover loss 2017

27.7

Deforestation rate in the Amazon (000s km2)

19

14.2

11.6 12.9

7.9

7.4 7 6.4

4.5 5.8 5 6.2 7.8 6.9

2004

2018

SOURCES: GLOBAL FOREST WATCH; “DEFORESTATION RATE IN THE LEGAL AMAZON,” BRAZILIAN MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT

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