The recent alarming fires in the Amazon rainforest have repeatedly raised concerns about how to protect something of value to the world but within the limits of a handful of countries.
This is a discussion that is now fraught with little quarrels. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro announced on Tuesday that he would reject a $ 20 million aid package from G7 countries to help fight a flood in the Amazon rainforest. He later said that we would accept the offer if French President Emmanuel Macron apologized for criticizing his handling of the fires.
Macron, in turn, demanded an apology for a comment by Bolsonaro in a Facebook post in which he mocked Macron's wife. "He said very disrespectful things about my wife," Macron said in a press conference. "I have great respect for the Brazilian people and can only hope that there will soon be a president to do the job."
Bolsonaro then said that he would accept the help if Brazil could decide how it should be spent. He has already used the military to help fight the flames.
This clash of egoists over a relatively small amount of money from some of the richest countries in the world is silly, especially given the stakes.
I promise to stop using this comparison someday, but the richest nations in the world have pledged ~ 1/6 of what Juicero has collected to fight forest fires in the Amazon. https://t.co/hp95BArAAT[19459003lightboxes-JamesTemple(@jtemple) August 26, 2019
The dispute over aid also darkens one important point: despite international concern and pressure, the fate of the Amazon is mainly based on the political and economic forces on the ground. Although farmers, ranchers, miners and loggers have attached great importance to the deforestation of the rainforest, Brazil has laws to protect the jungle. The government has already used it to stem deforestation in the Amazon. The Brazilians will again need to exert public pressure to do it again.
The exploitation of the Amazon has proved immensely profitable.
The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world and about 60 percent of its 2.1 million square miles are in Brazil. It is a huge carbon storage and hosts the largest concentration of biodiversity on the planet. It plays an important role in the climate in the region and scientists are still learning how it affects the global climate system.
But in the past year, deforestation and fires have increased and reversed the years of decline. Several scientists are now alarming that the Amazon is nearing a dying scenario in which enough forest is lost to bring down the entire ecosystem.
Despite these risks, there is enormous economic pressure behind the flames. The vast majority of fires currently burning in the Amazon were fired by people working in the mining, logging and agriculture sectors. After a forest area has been cleared, farmers' fires are ignited by means of slash-and-burn techniques to bring nutrients into the ground for harvest. Others use fire to clear low-level vegetation and more easily access trees and soil. Fires are also used by illegal loggers and miners to evict indigenous peoples from their land.
One of the biggest drivers of deforestation is livestock. Brazil is now the world's largest beef exporter. In 2018, these exports generated $ 6.7 billion for the country's economy. Brazil is also the second largest soybean producer in the world. About 80 percent of soybean grown in the Amazon is used for animal feed. With China's recent tariffs on US soybeans, China has increased its appetite for soybeans from Brazil.
In the Amazon there are also gold, aluminum and oil deposits. Illegal mining has reached unprecedented levels, according to the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), an environmental monitoring group. The demand for wood has also spurred illegal logging.
And the rate of forest destruction in the Amazon has increased since Bolsonaro took office last year. He campaigned for the use of the rainforest and won the recognition of the country's agricultural lobby. His government has drastically reduced the enforcement of environmental laws. According to the BBC, the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment has imposed nearly 30 percent fewer fines this year than in the same period last year.
Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro's Minister of the Environment, was found guilty late last year of changing maps as part of an environmental program during his tenure as Environment Commissioner for the State of São Paulo.
The Brazilian Public Prosecutor's Office is investigating a decline in environmental protection for the rainforest. During its week, hundreds of government employees signed a public letter from Bolsonaro, saying that their policies to protect the Amazon were being undermined by its policies. "More than 15% of the national territory is demarcated as indigenous land and quilombolas [remote settlements founded by escaped slaves]. In these isolated places of Brazil there are less than a million people exploited and manipulated by NGOs, "he tweeted in January. "Together we will integrate these citizens and cherish all Brazilians."
Maize de 15% do território nacional é demarcado como terra indígena e quilombolas. Menos de um milhão de pessoas vivem nestes lugares do Brasil de verdade, exploradas e manipuladas por ONGs. Vamos juntos integrar estes cidadãos e valorizar a to dos os brasileiros.
– Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) to weaken indigenous rights and block environmental programs. The aim is to facilitate construction projects such as dams, bridges and roads in the Amazon. Environmentalists fear that these developments could further affect the natural functions of the forest and that illegal deforestation and mining operations could facilitate the clearing of the forest.
Together, these changes have signaled to potential ranchers and farmers that the season is open to the rainforest.
The deforestation rate has risen 88 percent over the past year, while the number of fires has increased 84 percent since 2018, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). In the Brazilian Amazon, since January, the lost forest area has increased by 39 percent compared to the same period of the previous year. The dry season has just begun so that the fires can get much worse.
While $ 20 million in aid can help erase the current flood, this is just a rounding error in the rainforest destruction business model.
The Amazon rainforest is of tremendous value when intact, and its destruction is enormous Costs
What happens in the Amazon rainforest has global implications, which is why some countries are keen to preserve it. It absorbs carbon dioxide, but it can become an emitter if it is degraded too much. Conserving the Amazon is therefore a crucial tactic in tackling global climate change.
But there is only so much the forest can give before collapsing. About 17 percent of the Amazon has been lost, and when it rises to 20-25 percent, some scientists warn that the forest will be turning around and entering a dying scenario. There is not enough vegetation to transport moisture through the ecosystem, causing it to decay into savanna.
Apart from the fact that it is a global ecological catastrophe, the collapse would have enormous economic consequences. The rain generated by the forest also helps fill reservoirs for major cities and irrigate crops. It slows down soil erosion and alleviates floods. Products such as Brazil nuts are mostly harvested from wild trees. The Amazon Rainforest is also an important driver of tourism. And if it releases its carbon, it would exacerbate climate change, which has its own economic impact, from rising sea levels to less nutritious plants.
In a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences scientists in Brazil have tabulated the cost of a dying scenario. The social and economic damage caused by a fall in the Amazon would cost between $ 957 billion and $ 3.59 trillion in 30 years.
The researchers also evaluated the mitigation and adjustment tactics to avert such a bad scenario. Mitigation efforts, such as halting deforestation and restoring degraded areas, totaled $ 64 billion. Forest conservation activities such as the use of more drought-tolerant crops, non-incineration techniques and organized water management would cost $ 122 billion.
Other countries have spent money to protect the rainforest and put pressure on the Brazilian government.
Some countries and companies are now threatening to boycott Brazilian goods in the face of recent government fires. Finland called on the European Union last week to ban the import of Brazilian beef. VF Corp., the company behind footwear brands such as Timberland and Vans, said it would no longer buy Brazilian leather.
There are also more direct levers. Countries such as Germany and Norway are contributing to the Amazon Fund, a $ 880 million pool to fight deforestation, especially in Brazil, but also in neighboring countries that are home to parts of the Amazon rainforest. The fund has so far paid out $ 469 million.
However, Germany has recently threatened to provide US $ 39 million to a number of other rainforest conservation projects in Brazil that will help restore and support indigenous communities. "The policy of the Brazilian government in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction of deforestation rates is still sought," said Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze to Der Tagesspiegel.
Bolsonaro replied that Brazil did not need the money. He has long scoffed at concerns about the Amazon rainforest from other countries. He claims that they only want to exploit it for themselves, saying that in July Brazil is "a virgin that every outsider wants."
However, many people around the world are watching the fires in the Amazon with horror and are eager to help fight the fires and stop deforestation.
"One way international pressure can work is to bypass the government and talk directly to the people who produce goods in Brazil," said Maria Luisa Jorge, an Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. It is crucial to show producers that customers value and pay for sustainability.
International reporting standards verifying the origin of meat, wood, and minerals may help countries outside the Amazon to limit the consumption of products that are deforestation products. The shrinking of the market for environmental destructive practices also creates an incentive to apply more sustainable but more costly practices, such as switching to less land-intensive crops.
The ultimate solution to protecting the Amazon is political.
Economic and political pressure from other countries can certainly help to protect the rainforest, but the most meaningful measures to protect the Brazilian Amazon must come from the leaders of Brazil.
Brazil has made great progress in reducing deforestation and forest fires in recent years. Between 2005 and 2014, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined by 70 per cent, due to improved environmental protection, international financing mechanisms, pressure from activists and more efficient agriculture and livestock. These measures cost the Brazilian government between $ 308 and $ 923 per hectare of avoided deforestation. At the same time, the Brazilian economy grew, 29 million people were freed from poverty and income inequality decreased.
"I think the main thing is that the [Brazilian] government classifies this as a profit-loss situation – if we can not use the forest, we can not grow economically. That just is not true, "said Jorge. "There is a way to achieve economic growth without cutting a single tree."
Frances Seymour, a respected member of the World Resources Institute, who is concerned with sustainable development, pointed out that the protection of the rainforest in many cases is a negative cost, ie it generates more value than that Resources that are used to get the whole thing. The value of the rainforest is the regulation of temperature, the provision of regular rainfall, the control of floods and the purification of water used to supply the communities. These functions can help Brazil to protect itself against the effects of climate change.
"Unfortunately, the science that links certain deforestation events to impacts in specific regions – and estimates the associated economic costs – is at the very edge of analysis," Seymour wrote in an e-mail. "But most of all, when you think about the role of forests in mitigating extreme temperatures and extreme weather events, which are becoming more common and serious with climate change, conserving forests is a good insurance policy for local and global economic development.
However, legal protection for the Amazon Rainforest was gradually weakened after former President Dilma Rousseff, who gave the environment a lower profile than her predecessor, took office in 2011. Economic growth slowed and international demand for beef and soybeans rose and deforestation increased.
And for the remaining environmental laws, the problem is enforcement. Even in the best circumstances of a government that makes protecting the Amazon a priority, it is difficult and expensive to monitor vast, remote, sparsely populated areas in difficult, densely forested terrain. For this reason, the Amazon has become a smuggling route for illegal drugs. With a government seeking to use the rainforest and resources for economic purposes, it is not surprising that deforestation has increased.
On the other hand, we have seen that domestic changes have a significant positive impact on rainforests in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, rainforest has doubled since 1996, when a rural payment system was introduced to combat poverty and deforestation. The country has been able to increase its economic growth and is now moving faster than any other country towards CO2 neutrality.
Brazilians, who are now facing the effects of the Amazon fires, have begun to protest the exploitation of the rainforest over the land. This week, demonstrations took place in major cities across the country. The opposition legislator has requested investigations into the causes of the fire.
Public pressure for more measures to protect the rainforest is increasing. But Bolsonaro still has at least three years in office.