By the end of the 2020’s, we’ll know which way we’re headed: toward environmental oblivion or an era of global restoration
What would a radical reversal of Brazil’s current environmental policies tell us? What could it do for us?
Brazil’s present administration came to power during a wave of recent elections that put “anti-environmental” parties in charge of major democracies around the world. But unlike those other countries, Brazil has a singular environmental treasure, the Amazon rainforest, that is critical to the stability of the entire biosphere.
By choosing to endanger the survival of the rainforest, as it apparently has, Brazil’s ruling party could be writing its own epitaph, and soon find itself replaced by a government dedicated to saving and restoring the forest. Such a development in Brazil, if it occurs, could serve as a bellwether for governments everywhere, telling us whether we will tip toward an irreversible global environmental catastrophe or an era of ecological restoration during the 2020s.
In October of 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil by running, in part, on a promise to “explore ways” to fuel the country’s flagging economy by utilizing the rainforest. Once in office, his administration immediately began to dismantle the regulatory and bureaucratic structures that protected the Amazon Basin.
Bolsonaro made one Richard Salles his new Minister of the Environment — a month after Salles was convicted of altering environmental maps to benefit mining companies. Between them, Bolsonaro and Salles gutted the Ministry of Environment, cutting a critical $23 million from its legal enforcement budget, and closing or restructuring departments responsible for conservation. For example, the Brazilian Forest Service, which is responsible for guarding the rainforest, is now under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Agriculture is key to Brazil’s export economy (powerful agri-business consortiums supported Bolsonaro’s candidacy), and slash-and-burn agriculture — clearing rainforests to make room for planting — is the fastest, cheapest way to make more farmland available. While such deforestation had slowed considerably in the decade prior to Bolsonaro’s election, his deregulation of slash-and-burn controls quickly led to an alarming increase in the practice.
During the summer of 2019, there was an 84 percent rise in deforestation compared to previous years. Land was cleared with impunity; one group of farmers even organized a coordinated “fire day” to demonstrate their solidarity with Bolsonaro. By August, Brazil’s National Space and Research Institute (INPE) reported satellite imagery showing at least 74,000 active fires, their thick smoke reaching Sao Paulo, 1,700 miles away.
International alarm, outrage and pleas to take action followed, and Bolsonaro reacted by lashing out. He fired the head of his own INPE, accusing him of lying about the satellite data, and, without any evidence, went so far as to accuse actor/environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio of hiring environmental NGOs to set the fires to make his government look bad. Eventually international pressure, including a threat from the European Union to back out of a lucrative trade deal with Brazil, forced Bolsonaro to command Brazil’s army to extinguish the fires.
Why all the international pressure? The Amazon rainforest, often called “the lungs of the earth,” produces 20% of the world’s oxygen. It is also the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink — which would become a carbon source if it burned — and home to 10% of global biodiversity. Alarmingly, scientists have shown that the rainforest is close to a tipping point where a small amount of additional deforestation, along with drying due to global heating, could push the entire ecosystem into an unstoppable death spiral.
Brazil holds its next parliamentary election in 2022. Then Brazilians must decide whether to elect a government in thrall to short-term profits or one dedicated to preserving its priceless rainforest while developing sustainable agriculture — and possibly setting a new trend for the rest of our ecological house.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.