The fires that started August 16 are still raging in the Amazonian jungle. Although they no longer make international headlines, they have destroyed more than 12 million hectares.
Indigenous peoples are paying the highest price. The Tenharim tribe lost part of its territory and the Manoki, the Huni Kuin have lost their animals and trees. The Guarani-Kaiowá saw their sacred hut burnt to ashes. The entire region is losing invaluable fauna and flora.
Brazilian Senator Fabiano Contarato, president of the Senate Environmental Commission, told the Americas Program that one important factor in the out-of-control fires has been the cutbacks in environmental protection under the Bolsonaro government. Official records reveal that the Bolsonaro administration slashed the budget for the Environmental Ministry’s National Policy for Climate Change by 95%.
The Brazilian Institute of the Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources (Instituto Brasileiro de Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis, IBAMA), charged with inspection and environmental control actions had its budget cut by 24% – US$6 million, and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade, ICMBio) suffered a reduction of $1.3 million, or 20% of its budget. The ICMBio also lost US$ 10 million earmarked for a program supporting the creation, management and implementation of federal conservation units– a 26% reduction.
The budget cuts for Amazon conservation cited by the Senator are not the only indication of Bolsonaro’s disdain for environmental protection. Controversy escalated before the blazes broke out in the rainforest when several countries suspended contributions to the Amazon Fund, an international body set up to prevent deforestation, in protest of rising deforestation under Bolsonaro. The Brazilian president then announced he was terminating the Amazon Fund’s steering committee, responsible for selecting the environmental conservation projects backed by the initiative. He did not consult the other countries.
Germany withdrew its contributions (US$ 39 MI) to the Amazon fund. “We have serious concerns with increasing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon”, the German embassy in Brazil told Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. Norway also opted to suspend donations, US$ 1.2 billion, for projects to curb deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Norway’s Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen told newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv that Brazil had broken its agreement with Germany and Norway when it closed down the Amazon’s Fund board and technical committee.
Bolsonaro’s response to the criticisms were typically crude: “Isn’t Norway that country that kills whales up there in the North Pole?”, he shot back to reporters, adding “Take that money and help Angela Merkel reforest Germany”. The president also posted a fake video to support his positions, but instead of being a whale hunt on May 29 in Norway, the images, accompanied by a lugubrious soundtrack, turned out to be from traditional hunting festivities called “grindadráp” in the Faroe Islands, a dependent territory of the Kingdom of Denmark.
Brazilian political scientist and researcher at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) Rafaela Rodrigues agrees with the nations that withdrew their support from the Fund. “The Brazilian government is diverting the fund’s main objective with controversial plans that will probably speed up deforestation, which is completely illogical. There will be serious consequences, since Brazil does not have an alternative to the loss of these resources and Bolsonaro’s decision to discontinue a series of environmental protection initiatives imposes arduous barriers to these vital partnership programs,” she said in an interview.
Senator Contarato, representative from the southeastern state of Espírito Santo, stated, “[Bolsonaro] aims to centralize power in the hands of the Brazilian Executive and reduce civil society and NGOs participation”. He warned that these moves will deeply affect the forest by eroding its governmental protection on all levels since the Amazon Fund supports both federal and state government measures. Since 2012 it has donated US$15 million to the states of Pará, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, Acre and Rondônia to prevent and combat fires.
“This whole situation is deplorable. The loss of those resources will affect significantly the federal and state governments ability to fight deforestation and forest fires in the coming years”, Senator Contarato concluded.
Bolsonaro not only has defunded protection and conservation efforts just as the forest faces critical loss to fires, he consistently shuts down any criticism of his actions. On Aug. 2, the president fired Ricardo Galvão, director of Brazil’s National Space and Research Institute (INPE), after he defended satellite data that showed deforestation was 88% higher than the previous year.
When French President Emmanuel Macron accused Bolsonaro of lying about environmental issues, the Brazilian President insulted Macron’s wife, a diplomatic and ethical outrage that was later repeated by his Economy Minister Paulo Guedes who answered criticisms by offending Brigitte Macron on Sep. 4.
The high-school level offenses occurred just as Brazil seeks to close the European Union–Mercosur trade agreement, along with other nations of the region. The agreement would reduce imports tariffs-some immediately, some gradually–in some cases lowering them to zero. The EU countries and Mercosur have a combined GDP of US$ 20 trillions–25% of the global economy.
Ireland threatened to vote against the European Union–Mercosur deal if Brazil doesn’t protect the Amazon, and Finland, a rotating member at the European Union, proposed banning Brazilian beef due to the devastation caused by the fires. Austria also opposed the deal based on the Amazon fires.
According to the EU’s Director-General for Trade, Sabine Weyand, the European Union – Mercosur deal will probably be reached, but the behavior of the Brazilian government could undermine its chances. “It is an extremely delicate situation”, Senator Contarato affirmed.
Economic and Diplomatic Costs
Rodrigues argues that Bolsonaro’s foreign and environmental policies are having a negative effect on the economy, as Brazil faces sanctions in its trade agreements and exports, especially with Europe. Rodrigues noted, “Several multinational companies consider environmental protection and good governance policies criteria for allocating investments. Some of these companies have recently issued warnings to Brazil’s government. As a matter of course, political instability has always affected economic growth (regional or bilateral), and it is already happening in the EU-Mercosur deal
Private business has begun to punish the Brazilian government for its irresponsibility in protecting the Amazon. Powerful brands, from clothing sector including Belgian Kipling, American VF Corporation that owns Timberland, Vans and The North Face, and Swedish H&M quit buying Brazilian leather in early September due to Amazon wildfires considering the controversy of burning the forest and the possibility of international sanctions.
The Center for Brazilian Tanning Industry, the main leather trade group in the country, revealed in 2018 that the South-American nation exported US$1.44 billion of bovine leather, and its largest markets are the US, China and Italy. Danish Nordea bank decided to put Brazilian bonds in “quarantine” over the fires.
During the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France President Macron called to discuss the fires as an “international crisis”. Bolsonaro told the media that “the French president’s suggestion that Amazonian matters be discussed at the G7 without the involvement of countries of the region recalls the colonialist mindset that is unacceptable in the 21st century”.
In another chapter of Bolsonaro’s ongoing feud with Macron, Brazil decided to reject the G7’s offer of a $22-million-dollar aid package to fight the fires. Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles publicly advocated for receiving the aid, but Bolsonaro stubbornly refused and instead accepted an offer from rightwing UK Minister Boris Johnson of US$12.3 million.
Sixty percent of the Amazon lies within Brazilian territory. “Brazil is naturally responsible for its preservation,” Rodrigues stated. “Brazil is supposed to be a global leader on climate change, but it has been acting like an explicit threat. The massive fire in the Amazon forest is shocking the world. It is not only a matter of urgency for Brazil and the other affected countries, but for the global agenda.”
“Bolsonaro has threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement even though the very recent deal between the European Union and Mercosur obliges us to stay in the UN climate pact. All these tensions are seriously damaging Brazil’s relation with several European countries”. Controlling the Fires
Investigations by the Globo Rural, part of the Globo Conglomerate media group, revealed that the fires started in the cities of Novo Progresso and Altamira in Pará state in northern Brazil. They cited premeditated arson, masterminded by the WhatsApp group “Jornal A Voz da Verdade” (Voice of Truth Journal), composed of rural producers, land grabbers, syndicated unionists and merchants from Novo Progresso who hired bikers with chainsaws to do the job. To assure that the fire spread rapidly, they cut down vegetation. According to an investigative report published Aug. 26, at least four members of the group had been previously arrested, accused of environmental crimes. The journalist who reported on the shady origins of the devastating fires has received multiple death threats from the group.
In addition to arson to force changes in land use, Amazon fires typically are caused when: 1) farmers and land grabbers use them to clear land of natural vegetation to introduce cattle or to take over lands illegally; 2) farmers light fires to renew fields during the dry season for replanting and they get out of control; 3) roads are opened in vulnerable areas by loggers to obtain prime timber, increasing the possibility of igniting forest fires accidentally or on purpose; and 4) low humidity, high temperatures and strong winds combine as natural causes.
“As it becomes more deforested, the Amazonian forest will be more prone to spontaneous fires, which can be worsened by dismantling the teams that work to control the fire. It’s a very dangerous equation”, Senator Contarato affirmed.
The National Institute of Amazonian Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, INPA) reports that the majority of the fires this year are correlated to deforestation and investigations have found that they are mostly criminally caused.
“Having laws is not enough”, Contarato argued. Brazilian environmental laws forbid the appropriation of illegally deforested areas for agribusiness and stipulate that they should be recovered, but “it depends on the governmental will to enforce the law”. The lack of will under the Bolsonaro govern not only weakens the laws, but gives a green light to law-breakers. The legislator also cited a need to improve environmental education to boost respect for the laws. Some progressive agriculturalists are already working on the concept of a Brazilian “green economy”, to produce while preserving the environment.
“The world now has a clear idea of the impact of recent actions to dismantle environmental policies. If the Brazilian government continues to give a free pass to illegal farming, mining and logging, it will certainly lead the region to collapse in terms of biodiversity, forests and indigenous people”, exclaimed Rodrigues. Contarato is on a crusade to impeach Minister Salles after the many cuts in the ministerial budget. He has the support of Indigenous Senator Joênia Wapichania and progressive Senator Randolfe Rodrigues.
The specter of vast tracts of rainforest burning out of control not only destroy biodiversity and habitat, it is destroying the nation’s image. “Brazilian soft power is going to pieces,” Rodrigues stated. “Climate change denial is not just a matter of opinion, it now represents a strong political identity. The country has always encountered resistance to Amazon rainforest preservation, but we have never had a president clearly acting against it. This is the message we are sending to the world in a moment that climate challenges are one of the greatest concerns of the global community.”