Swath of Destruction New Brazilian President Takes Aim at the Amazon
Jair Bolsonaro, the new Brazilian president, wants to open up protected indigenous territories in the Amazon rain forest to mining, cattle ranching and farming. The decision could be a fateful one for the global climate.
Viewed from above, the destruction looks a bit like the skeleton of a fish. "First the loggers build a road for the tractors, then they punch feeder roads into the forest on the left and the right so they can haul the trees away," says Adriano Karipuna, chief of the Karipuna tribe in Brazil's Amazon region.
The environmental organization Greenpeace has provided the indigenous people here with satellite photos. Their protected territory can be seen on the images as an elongated green spot, 153,000 hectares (378,071 acres) of largely virgin rain forest. All around it, there are bright patches -- cattle farms and fields cultivated with soy beans. From its edges, trails wind their way into the indigenous territory.
"Once the invaders have taken away the wood, they divide our land into plots and sell it," says Karipuna. The 32-year-old is wearing jeans and a T-shirt and standing in the office of the indigenous aid organization Cimi in Porto Velho, the capital of the Amazon state of Rondônia.
The bright room is decorated with photos of people of various ethnicities while spears, bows and quivers full of arrows hang in a corner. Laura Vicuña, who heads the aid organization's local office, has just returned from a several-day trip into the protected territory. The telephone is ringing nonstop; the election victory of right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro has alarmed both indigenous people and aid workers.
Less and Less Respect
"We're afraid that we could lose everything now," says Karipuna. In April, the tribe chief appealed to the international community at the United Nations in New York. He reported that deforestation has increased in the past two years, with less and less respect for protected territories. "I'm seeking the help of the United Nations to prevent a massacre of our people!"
Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is a friend to cattle farmers, lumberjacks, gold prospectors and soybean growers -- the very types of people who present a threat to the rain forest. Their representatives in the National Congress, the representatives of the Brazilian agricultural industry, have a powerful lobby, and they supported Bolsonaro during his election campaign.
He's now showing his gratitude with a gesture that threatens the planet's biggest rain forest. One day after taking office, he stripped the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), which had been responsible for the protection of indigenous peoples since 1967, of its power. Under the Brazilian Constitution, the authority is tasked with identifying the traditional habitats of indigenous people and designating them as inviolable protected territories.
But that's now history. Bolsonaro has since delegated that function to the Agriculture Ministry, which is led by Tereza Cristina, a representative of the agricultural lobby. Her ministry is now responsible for administering the protected territories. The new minister has earned the nickname "muse of poison" for her advocacy of a law that would lift restrictions on the use of pesticides. It's unlikely she will resist the president's plans for opening up the indigenous territories to cattle ranchers, agriculture and mining.
A Threat to the Planet's Future
These are all developments that could have a major impact on the planet's future. In the past, these reserves played a decisive role in protecting the Amazon rain forest. Most of the last remaining intact primeval forest areas can be found in them and many of its inhabitants are resolutely opposed to overexploitation and, as such, to the destruction of the rain forest.
A total of 44 percent of the Brazilian Amazon region is protected, with almost half of that total located within indigenous territories. But the government isn't in a position to effectively protect these massive areas.
The controls are stronger in indigenous areas, with FUNAI and many international aid agencies helping these populations combat illegal logging and slash-and-burn clearance.
A Right-Wing Counterrevolution
Bolsonaro wants to get rid of what he calls as the "environmental activism" of his predecessors and has tweeted that the indigenous people have been "exploited and manipulated by the NGOs." He views the indigenous population as the victims of left-wing ideologues who acted on behalf of international powers to strip Brazil of the Amazon region and the raw materials found there.
"With the help of an international NGO, the indigenous people could one day even declare their independence," says retired General Augusto Heleno, a confidant of Bolsonaro who is responsible for the Institutional Security Cabinet portfolio. "Part of Brazil would be lost."
It's this conspiracy theory that drives Bolsonaro. His Amazon policy doesn't even take into account his country's own economic policy, let alone the effects it would have on climate change. The policy is part of a right-wing counterrevolution.
Since Jan. 1, the day that Bolsonaro rode through the capital city of Brasília alongside his wife for the inauguration in a classic convertible Rolls-Royce, the country has been experiencing an epochal shift. It is the day, the new president claimed, that Brazil began freeing itself from the ideological shackles of socialism. "Our flag will never be red unless we have to fight for it with our blood!" he said.
'We Will Restore Order'
He declared the end of the era of corruption, the privileges and advantages that the political class had gained. "We will restore order," Bolsonaro promised. The distinguished guests in the stands applauded his words -- including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump's secretary of state.
Bolsonaro views himself as a pioneer in a global right-wing cultural revolution. Like Trump, he doesn't much care for multilateral agreements and he may seek to scrap agreements signed by his predecessors. And like Trump, he places the interests of business above all else, especially environmental policy, and Bolsonaro also considers climate change to be a fantasy. He has filled three key posts in the cabinet with ideologues who are to drive the transformation: the Education Ministry, the Family Ministry and the Foreign Ministry.
The new education minister is Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, a theologian and philosopher whose stated aim is that of "cleansing" the educational system of presumed leftists. Evangelical pastor Damares Alves, who wants to push forward with missionary work among the indigenous people, became family minister and announced in a video that girls would henceforth wear pink clothes and boys would wear blue.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is considering withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement just as Trump has done. Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo has described climate change as a Marxist invention and under pressure from Bolsonaro, an international climate conference scheduled to be held in Brazil this year had to be moved to another country.
Scientists consider the destruction of the rain forest to be an important factor in global climate change, and a withdrawal from the Paris agreement by the president would be a radical reversal of the policies of his predecessors. Close to 20 percent of the rain forest has already been destroyed.
'Turning Into a Savannah'
Under the Paris Agreement, Brazil pledged to halt illegal deforestation in the Amazon entirely by 2030 and to reduce CO2 emissions by 43 percent compared to 2005.
"If we don't succeed in drastically reducing deforestation, we will miss the agreed reduction in CO2 emissions," says Carlos Rittl of Observatório do Clima, a nongovernmental organization that studies climate change in Brazil. "In some places, the tropical rain forest is already turning into a savannah."
The entire planet would experience the consequences and the warming of the atmosphere could accelerate. Jürgen Kesselmeier, a biologist and chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, has been conducting research in the Amazon rain forest for 30 years. He, too, is alarmed by current developments. "The billions of plants in the Amazon region store as much CO2 as humanity releases in 10 years through the burning of fossil fuels. If a large part of the rain forest were to disappear and release this CO2, the consequences would be unimaginable."
European governments are considering slapping sanctions on Brazilian products should the country withdraw from the deal. Bolsonaro's environmental policy, warns French President Emmanuel Macron, is a hurdle to the establishment of a free-trade agreement between the European Union and the South American trade bloc Mercosur. "I am not in favor of signing any major trade accords with powers who have announced that they won't respect the Paris Agreement," Macron said in late November.
The head of the International Trade Committee at European Parliament, German Social Democrat Bernd Lange, says: "If Bolsonaro forces the clearcutting, then the deal is dead."
Brazilian business leaders, who welcome the new president's ultra-liberal policies, are divided about the environmental policy reversal. Though many cattle ranchers and beef producers support the government's policy, the agriculture industry is concerned about possible consequences. Brazil is the largest exporter of meat in the world. Should it turn out that a significant share of this meat comes from cattle that were fed on fields carved out of the rain forest, food corporations could end up facing image problems.
International cooperation aimed at protecting the rain forest could also be in danger. Ever since the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, industrialized countries have been working closely together with Brazil. Billions in funding is at stake and one major recipient is the Amazon Fund established by then-President Lula da Silva in 2008. It finances hundreds of projects that combat deforestation and has received around $1.2 billion thus far, with Norway responsible for fully $1.1 billion of that total. Germany has provided $55 million.
It should really be in Bolsonaro's own interest to protect the rain forest. If it disappears, it would have dramatic consequences for the densely populated southeastern part of the country, where the cycle of rainy and dry periods is determined to a large degree by the climate in the Amazon basin. The moisture that rises out of the rain forest is pushed south by the wind, where it falls to the earth as rain. Meteorologists call the phenomenon "flying rivers."
This process has already begun to malfunction. Scientists believe that Amazon deforestation is partially to blame for the serious drought that hit southeastern Brazil from 2014 to 2017. The water shortage even led to rationing in some parts of Sao Paulo.
Seen from above, formerly forested areas now look like a patchwork of grazing land and soya plantations, with an ever-increasing amount of beige breaking up the thick green. In 2005, and again in 2010, the Amazon basin experienced two major droughts, with river levels dropping so significantly that they could no longer be navigated.
Until just a few years ago, the deforestation primarily proceeded from the edges inward and the so-called arc of fire, a region where slash-and-burn deforestation was prevalent, was south of the Amazon River. But now, loggers, gold prospectors and cattle ranchers have begun advancing into the largely intact areas north of the river.
The new government's plans call for the upgrading of several roads that cut through the Amazon region, arterials that have thus far only been passable in the dry periods. Bolsonaro is planning to pave the road from Porto Velho to Manaus, which cuts through several indigenous territories. Environmental activists are concerned that doing so could attract tens of thousands of settlers from the south, resulting in the acceleration of deforestation in the last region of intact rain forest.
The city of Manaus, with a population of over 2 million, has long been something of an island in the middle of the rain forest and is only reachable from the south by plane or boat during the rainy season. But in many parts of the city, there are hardly any trees anymore. The average temperatures in the city are several degrees higher than in the surrounding forest.
No More Land for Indigenous Populations
The American biologist Thomas Lovejoy and the Brazilian climate researcher Carlos Nobre believe that the tipping point after which the Amazon region will irrevocably transform into a savannah landscape will be reached when 25 percent of the forest is destroyed. Should the current pace of deforestation continue, that point will be reached in just a few years or decades.
"The whole system is oscillating," the two scientists write in a joint paper published in the journal Science Advances in February 2018. They say that countless plant and animal species, including many that haven't yet been discovered, would likely go extinct.
Bolsonaro's predecessors also didn't give environmental protection a high priority, but they were at least aware of the dangers. They established new conservation areas and upgraded the Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the government agency tasked with enforcing environmental laws. From 2004 to 2017, they were able to slow the rate of deforestation by 75 percent.
The new president, by contrast, has already largely disempowered IBAMA. During the campaign, he complained that the agency was penalizing those who transgressed environmental laws far too often and that the fines were much too high. He has since transferred the administration of protected lands to the Agriculture Ministry, where they are now under the supervision of a close friend of Bolsonaro's who is the former president of the Rural Democratic Union, which represents large land owners. The new president has also announced his intention to cease the policy of setting aside land for indigenous populations.
A total of 485 indigenous territories have been specified and 236 additional territories are waiting for confirmation from the president, though that is not now likely to happen.
There is hardly a better place to observe the advance of ruthless exploitation than in Rondônia, the state where the territory belonging to the Karipuna people is located. Fully 28 percent of the rain forest in the state has already been cleared, resulting in a swath of destruction stretching across the Mato Grosso into the Amazon basin.
The state is primarily populated by descendants of settlers from the south with European roots, people who came in the 1970s and '80s, following the call of the generals who then ruled the country. The military wanted to populate the sparsely settled region to establish a bulwark against possible enemy invasion. The motto of the program was "land without people for people without land" -- and tens of thousands of Brazilians took advantage.
Threats and Violence
The new arrivals logged the rain forest and planted grass for cattle grazing land. Later, they began farming corn and soya. Along the main road that cuts through Rondônia, dozens of vast farms can be seen, their owners seeing themselves as pioneers and as drivers of the country's prosperity. But the Amazon region was never a land without people as the country's military leaders suggested. More than 50 different tribes live in Rondônia, including the Karipuna.
The tribe was largely isolated until about 40 years ago, when government representatives established contact. Today, there are just 58 men, women and children from the tribe, most of whom live on the indigenous territory set aside for them. They fish, hunt and gather Brazil nuts. They have internet in their village, a generator produces electricity and the children go to school.
Adriano Karipuna and his brother André lead the small municipality together. Adriano works as a doorman at the state-run hospital for indigenous people in the city of Porto Velho, five hours by boat from his village. The territory belonging to the Karipuna has existed since 1998 and its protected status is codified in the Brazilian constitution. Still, trespassing from loggers and illegal settlers has been on the rise. Karipuna says that indigenous people have also faced an increasing number of threats and attacks since Bolsonaro's victory.
In the protected lands of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, which is also located in the state of Rondônia, the Instituto Socioambiental discovered 42 freshly logged areas between September and October. The environmental protection organization Imazon says that between August and October, deforestation in the Amazon region increased by 72 percent over the previous year.
On the night of the election, Karipuna says, supporters of the president in Porto Velho pointed their fingers at indigenous people as they would a pistol. A day later in Paraná, located in southern Brazil, unknown perpetrators shot a man from the Guaíra tribe in the back and he is now paralyzed.
Adriano Karipuna has likewise been threatened. He recently received a WhatsApp message reading: "Did you know that your mother will soon be missing you?"