Reversal of Fortune in the Amazon

“Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction… more than ever before in human history.” This is one of the staggering findings of a groundbreaking report set to be released this month by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Drawing on the contributions of hundreds of experts, thousands of references, and a wealth of indigenous sources, the report summary calls for radical, foundational change, and warns that current trends are causing irreparable harm to the globe’s natural biodiversity.

It is particularly worrying, then, that the Amazon rainforest, home to 10% of the world’s biodiversity, is trending toward greater environmental degradation. Not only has deforestation been increasing for the past few years, but the election of populist president Jair Bolsonaro hints at less, not more, action against this. If the course is not reversed, consequences of Amazonian deforestation will be dire both for the region and global environment. The IPBES report summary explicitly points to the tropics of Latin America as the primary source of ecosystem diversity loss; it is possible we have already reached a threshold that will see these rates accelerate even further in the near future. In addition to this, a recent study suggests that if deforestation continues at 2017 rates, regional temperatures could see a rise of up to 1.45̊C degrees by 2050 – this is on top of global warming that could reach anywhere upwards of 1.5̊C by then.

The Amazon rainforest has been a point of contention for decades now, caught between those wanting to preserve it and those exploiting the land beneath it for economic growth. Much of the present deforestation occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s, with 17% of the Amazon lost by 2005. Almost miraculously, a series of initiatives started in this period reversed this trend by the early 2010s. According to a 2014 paper in Science, this was achieved through a combination of reforms that expanded legally protected parts of the Amazon, and industry agreements to lock suppliers driving deforestation out of the market. With deforestation decreased by 70% in the decade up to 2014, Brazil was lauded as “the world leader in tackling climate change.”

Yet cracks started showing between 2015-2016, as deforestation levels started climbing again. Alongside lowered enforcement efforts, insufficient positive incentive programs also contributed to the issue, with one expert saying, “there’s been a lot of talk about improving the lives and bottom lines of farmers and ranchers if they stop clearing the forest… and they are still waiting.” Things have worsened in 2018 as deforestation levels reached a decade-high and a total of 7,900 km2 of forest was cleared.

Further increases may be on their way with Bolsonaro as president. One of his first moves after his inauguration in January was to shift the power to manage indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture, led by representatives of the farming sector. This means that previously protected indigenous reserves can be opened to exploitation- this is particularly worrying, considering that one of the IPBES report’s key findings was that trends in environmental degradation were “less severe or avoided” in indigenous-managed lands.

In April, Bolsonaro suggested he would revoke the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (RENCA), a national reserve the size of Denmark, to commercial activity. Several Amazonian regions rich in mineral resources were excluded from exploitation under this act, and when Bolsonaro’s predecessor Michel Temer tried to open these areas for Brazilian mining, public pressure caused him to quickly renege on this decision. It is not certain that Bolsonaro will be similarly receptive – he has already encouraged miners to make use of these regions, saying, “you won’t get any trouble from the Environment Ministry.”

These reforms cannot be taken in isolation, however, and must be considered in the wider context of the fight against deforestation. Statements like the above signal that enforcement may be loosened further in the coming period, encouraging more encroachment. With a president who once said, “where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it,” miners, loggers, and farmers may be more at ease clearing these lands to find that wealth. While those hoping to protect the environment, like the former head of the Brazil Forum for Climate Change, who was “fired” by Bolsonaro earlier this month, can expect no quarter.

Brazil is not currently on track to meet their pledge to reduce deforestation by 80% by 2020. The IPBES report has found that Brazil is in good company on this front – according to its findings, neither the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of 2011, nor the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will be met if business as usual is followed. Yet the example of the Amazon shows that it is not only business as usual, but also disruptive leaders like Bolsonaro who threaten the “transformative change” the report finds is so badly needed.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 21, 2019.

Related posts