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The Amazon Rainforest in Danger

Image Source: Felipe Werneck/AP/Shutterstock

In August of 2019, the Amazon Rainforest fires burned on the pages of almost every news source around the world. 

The world watched in panic as the world’s last mega-forest was consumed by flames set by humans- farmers clearing land for cattle ranching, soybean plantations, lumbering and gold. 

But not only is the Amazon a carbon dioxide sink and a habitat for millions of species, it’s also home to indiginous communities in Brazil, who have been there for hundreds of years. 

And though the fires are not putting their lives in immediate danger, environmental experts are worried that with the scale at which the fires are burning, the Amazon may be approaching a tipping point that would lead to irreversible salinization. This would not only render the land untenable for commercial farmers, but for native people who rely on this land’s productivity for their food supply. 

Parts of the Amazon are intentionally burned every year for agriculture, however, the regulations meant to limit the amount of forest burned and prevent fires during drier months have not been properly enforced. 

Both the previous government and the new administration under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have manipulated the federal budget to allow the Amazon to become more economically productive. Environmental agencies have faced underfunding, effectively allowing the President to reduce environmental regulations without passing legislation through Congress. 

According to a New York Times article in August, Bolsonaro’s predecessor Michel Temer cut the federal science budget and the discretionary budget of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), by more than 40 percent. Then in April 2019, Bolsonaro cut IBAMA’s budget by another 24 percent. Unable to cover its fixed costs, the agency was left without resources for patrolling and enforcement of sustainable agriculture. 

According to Temple Professor of Environmental Studies Victor Gutierrez, the increase in farming practices may have a link to the trade war President Trump has waged on China.

“I understand that there’s retaliation to some increases in tariffs on products in China that are causing the Chinese government to ban exports on soybeans from the United States,” Gutierrez said. “But they will not change their consumption, so they are going to other providers.”

As Asian tastes for animal protein have increased, the need for soybeans to feed cattle have followed suit. In 2018, the US was the top producer in soybeans, followed by Brazil. But as rates for American soybeans have spiked, Chinese markets may have shifted their purchases to Brazil, encouraging farmers and agricultural corporations to cultivate more land to meet consumption demands. 

As farming of Amazonian lands increases, the land meant to be demarcated to indiginous populations has faced reductions.

Land rights in Brazil are complicated when it comes to natives. Though the native communities have no title to their land, meaning they essentially have no legal right to inhabit or farm it, the government has long maintained that some land be reserved so that they may have the means to sustain themselves.

Stated in article 231 of the Brazilian Constitution, “It is recognized that the indigenous peoples have the right to their social organization, customs, languages, beliefs and traditions, and their original rights over the lands that they have traditionally occupied, it being the duty of the federal government to demarcate these lands, protect them and ensure that all their properties and assets are respected.”

Bolsonaro, however, sees their illegal presence as a roadblock to economic growth, and has vowed to not demarcate a centimeter more for the indiginous population.

“Where there is indiginous land,” Bolsonaro said during his campaign in 2017, “there is wealth underneath it.”

This threatens vulnerable land with the possibility of farmers and loggers targeting these remote areas. Already, fires broke out in 131 indigenous reserves from August 15-20, according to a report from The Guardian. 

The Amazon has always faced exploitation for agricultural industries, and has even experienced this level of burning before in the 1970s and 80s. These fires typically align with exceptionally dry years, though, and 2019 was not one of them, leading to fears that deregulation is having disastrous environmental effects. 

Deforestation has increased over the past few years, however, Gutierrez said that after international pressure, Bolsonaro implemented policies that substantially reduced the fires, even though he has yet to commit to a reason for why the Amazon is burning. 

“The question is whether those bans in fires, first of all are temporary, and to what extent those bans in fires will translate to a reduction in deforestation,” said Gutierrez.

These policies have included a 60 day ban on fires in the Amazon, and a “zero tolerance” approach to environmental crimes. 

“I think that it might be complicated in the next couple of years,” Gutierrez said about the future of the Amazon. “I am also sure that there is much international awareness about the importance of protecting the Amazon, and I think environmental consciousness is increasing in the world and in Brazil as well.” 

With increased international pressure to improve environmental standards, particularly from European consumers, many companies have gone through voluntary sustainability certification processes to prove that their production does not come at the expense of the rainforest.

“We want to make sure that the global community can articulate actions that can help us not only preserve amazon but the environment, take control of climate change, and some of the most crucial environmental crisis we have right now,” said Gutierrez. “All these activities require international coordination, I think national policies can be a barrier to achieve those goals, and unfortunately that is not the world where we are now.”

According to data from the National Institute for Space Research, the number of fires in September decreased by 55 percent. Experts, however, are still concerned about what the incurred damage will mean for climate change and deforestation rates, as the continuous burning has made the surrounding areas drier, and more flammable. 

As for the indiginous populations, Temple Professor of Human Rights and Public Security in Brazil Phillip Evanson said native people have widespread support of Brazilian communities, who feel emotionally connected and sympathetic to indiginous people because they recognize their shared ancestry. 

Their right to inhabit land is still maintained, despite Bolsonaro’s strong statements. 

“No one would be bold enough, or wicked enough, to suggest that this right should be taken away from them,” Evanson said. 

Indiginous communities have increased protests for their constitutional rights to be protected and the government’s responsibilities be met so that they will be protected from land invasions. Non-native Brazilians have lent their support, as well as Survival International, an organization founded in Brazil in 1969 that helps tribal groups advocate for human rights. 

“If you want to save the Amazon Rainforest, preserve it absolutely,” said Evanson. “You’d give it back to the native Brazillians, the indigenous people, because they’re the ones who know how to take care of it.”