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Part I - Burning of the Amazon and snobbish Brazil: Story So Far...

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

In 2019, the Amazon Rainforest has garnered much media attention due to the severe forest fires that have caused more than 80,000 fires in Brazil alone since January 2019 according to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE). This is an approximately 85 percent increase in fires compared to the same period in 2018 with the INPE finding that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon hit an 11 year high in 2019. These fires are not a natural phenomenon as natural fires in the Amazon are rare due to the tropical humid climate. These are intentional fires to clear the forest, this is deforestation on a substantial scale. Fires that have been intentionally set, as seen in Brazil, can be even more difficult to control compared to a sudden wildland fire. They are designed to be deliberately destructive. This rise in fire activity is associated with a sharp rise in deforestation.

The fires are expanding along the borders of new agricultural development, which is what’s often seen in fires related to forest clearing. People want to clear land through deforestation primarily to expand agriculture (amongst other reasons including illegal logging, mining, etc.). These people are land grabbers and farmers who destroy forests to raise cattle and crops for global consumption; and the Brazilian government’s current political agenda, encouraged by growing export profits, does very little to deter them, even setting policies that reduce penalties for such actions.

What led to this increased series of forest fires?

Much can be attributed to the Brazilian government’s environmental policies, which have only been worsened during Bolsonaro’s current term as president. Brazil’s Supreme Court has upheld major changes to laws that protect the Amazon, reducing penalties for past illegal deforestation to the detriment of environmentalists trying to protect this critical rainforest. These changes occurred back in 2012 when Congress agreed to sweeping revisions in the law, which included an amnesty program for illegal deforestation on “small properties” that occurred before 2008 and reduced restoration requirements in others. Environmentalists have stated that the revised laws, known collectively as the forest code, have created a culture in which illegal deforestation is acceptable.

This amnesty invites deforestation in the future. It creates the impression that if you deforest today, tomorrow you’ll be handed amnesty.

As part of Bolsonaro’s campaign for office as a far-right candidate, he called for setting aside less land in the Amazon for indigenous tribes and preservation, making it easier for industry including agriculture to come into the rainforest. Since his election in October 2018, Bolsonaro put the Ministry of Agriculture in charge of the demarcation of indigenous territories instead of the Justice Ministry, essentially prioritizing deforestation for economic benefit. His policies have been politically popular among industry and agricultural interests in Brazil but have been condemned by environmental groups and opposition lawmakers.

Actions taken to curb Amazon fire

Unsurprisingly, the recent surge of fires has brought international attention to the Amazon and scrutiny on Bolsonaro’s environmental policies. On August 26th, the world’s seven largest economies offered Brazil more than $22 million in aid to help it get the fires under control. Bolsonaro turned down the money, seeing international aid as an attack on Brazil’s sovereignty and its right to decide how to manage the land within its borders. On the 27th however, Bolsonaro accepted $12.2 million in aid from the UK. Additionally, after weeks of international and internal pressure, Bolsonaro deployed the military to help battle the fires on August 24, sending 44,000 troops to six states, using warplanes to douse the flames, with more than 10,400 firefighters spread thinly across 5.5 million square kms in the Amazon.

However, this is a complex operation with many challenges; more firefighters are needed as more fires break out in locations not covered, more equipment and infrastructure are needed to adequately battle the flames. Paulo Barroso, the chairman of the national forest fire management committee, stated that these are all problems that require more money; and more importantly, it is more effective to look ahead in order to prevent fires like we’re seeing now. For the longer term, this is done by controlling deforestation and managing agricultural activities.

Fortunately, the number of blazes decreased in December, after Bolsonaro submitted to international pressure to address the flames and issued a 60-day ban on setting fires to clear land. However, this process towards a sustainable Amazon is only the beginning. Looking back, the number of forest-fire alerts in Brazil this year is roughly the same as in 2018; and this season isn’t even the worst on record. The year 2007 was significantly worse, emphasizing that this issue of forest fires must be addressed at its roots. The real danger is the worrisome trend that is being created here, where a rise in deforestation for economic exploits brings about a peak in forest fires.

Ryan Lee (Environment)


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