The Amazon Continues to Burn Under Bolsonaro
Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, was elected into office on October 28, 2018 with a wave of right-wing populist support. Throughout his campaign, he praised the old military dictatorship, made contentious social claims, and most importantly, promised to deregulate the Amazon rainforest.
Part of Bolsonaro’s deregulation includes turning a blind eye to illegal deforestation. Agribusiness, especially the beef and soy industries, is incredibly powerful in Brazil. It needs copious amounts of land for farming and grazing to maintain its growth, and has resulted in deforestation to create more space. Unfortunately, this often involves overstepping the legal restrictions that had previously been put in place to protect forests.
The effect of Bolsonaro’s deregulation is already starting to show. As one of the fastest ways to clear land is to burn trees, in the first eight months of 2018, Brazil had 49,000 forest fires. This year there has already been 87,000 so far. In fact, 2019 brought the highest number of forest fires to Brazil since 2010.
Without strong federal regulation and enforcement, farmers, loggers, and miners are able to get away with illegal deforestation, usually with minimal punishment. Fines for violations have decreased by 29.4 percent under Bolsonaro.
Moreover, indigenous lands - many of which are located near the recent fires and potential areas for agribusiness - are being invaded more frequently. In the past year, the number of states that reported invasions of indigenous land has increased from 13 to 19.
Not only are these fires incredibly dangerous in the short term, but they have dire consequences for the future as well. The Amazon is home to tens of thousands of species, as well as a sink of carbon to mitigate the effects of climate change. It makes up a fourth of the world’s carbon-dioxide absorbing forests.
In the past half century, 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down or burned, with the tipping point likely around 20-25 percent. A president in office that does not care about these statistics makes it even more dangerous.
In response to this growing crisis, the international community has begun to demand action. The Group of Seven nations offered $22.2 million to combat the fires, but Bolsonaro rejected it due to an ongoing feud with French President, Emmanuel Macron. In response, Macron threatened to end a recent deal between the European Union and MERCOSUR (a bloc made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela).
The dispute continued during the United Nations General Assembly last Tuesday where Bolsonaro announced that, “the Amazon is not being devastated or destroyed by fire, as the lying media claims.” He defended his policies of deregulation and ignored the criticism of over 4 million protesters striking on the Friday before the Assembly.
The agricultural lobby in Brazil’s congress has put more pressure on the president to follow through with his multitude of campaign promises. In response, Bolsonaro has appointed the controversial Ricardo Salles as the minister for the environment, issued executive orders weakening protections of indigenous lands, and made cuts to Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency.
These dangerous environmental policies are likely to continue. Bolsonaro may be facing the disapproval of many countries, but he still has President Trump's support and his loyal fanbase. Unfortunately, his anti-Western mindset makes it incredibly difficult to negotiate or compromise, even at a time of historic importance.
The climate crisis is assured to continue, and the fires in the Amazon worsen the global situation. This integral aspect of the world’s ecosystem will burn uninterrupted, unless the international community and Brazil manage to work together to fight the flames.