November 26, 2018 by Christina Larson And Mauricio Savarese
This May 8, 2018 photo released by the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (Ibama) shows an illegally deforested area on Pirititi indigenous lands as Ibama agents inspect Roraima state in Brazil’s Amazon basin. Scientists warn that Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro could push the Amazon rainforest past its tipping point by loosening environmental protections, with severe consequences for global climate and rainfall. (Felipe Werneck/Ibama via AP)
Scientists warn that Brazil’s president-elect could push the Amazon rainforest past its tipping point—with severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.
Jair Bolsonaro, who takes office Jan. 1, claims a mandate to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, calling Brazil’s rainforest protections an economic obstacle.
Brazil contains about 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, and scientists are worried.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Amazon rainforest to the planet’s living systems, said Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo.
Each tree stores carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. The Amazon takes in as much as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year and releases 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen, earning it the nickname “the lungs of the planet.”
It’s also a global weather-maker.
Stretching 10 times the size of Texas, the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Billions of trees suck up water through deep roots and bring it up to their leaves, which release water vapor that forms a thick mist over the rainforest canopy.
This mist ascends into clouds and eventually becomes rainfall—a cycle that shapes seasons in South America and far beyond.
By one estimate, the Amazon creates 30 to 50 percent of its own rainfall.
Now the integrity of all of three functions—as a carbon sink, the Earth’s lungs, and a rainmaker—hangs in the balance.
On Oct. 28, Brazilians elected Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate who channeled outrage at the corruption scandals of the former government and support from agribusiness groups. His election came weeks before an international summit in December where leaders will discuss how to curb climate change.
On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro promised to loosen protections for areas of the Brazilian Amazon designated as indigenous lands and nature reserves, calling them impediments to economic growth. “All these reserves cause problems to development,” he told supporters.
He has also repeatedly talked about gutting the power of the environmental ministry to enforce existing green laws.
In this May 4, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, members of a specialized inspection group of Ibama walk with their weapons up through an area affected by illegal mining, after landing in helicopters in Munduruku indigenous lands in Para state in Brazil’s Amazon basin. On the campaign trail, President-elect Jair Bolsonaro promised to loosen protections for areas of the Brazilian Amazon designated as indigenous lands and nature reserves, calling them impediments to economic growth. (Vinicius Mendonca/Ibama via AP)
“If Bolsonaro keeps his campaign promises, deforestation of the Amazon will probably increase quickly—and the effects will be felt everywhere on the planet,” said Paulo Artaxo, a professor of environmental physics at the University of Sao Paulo.
Bolsonaro’s transition team did not respond to an interview request from the Associated Press.
Brazil was once seen as a global environmental success story. Between 2004 and 2014, stricter enforcement of laws to safeguard the rainforest—aided by regular satellite monitoring and protections for lands designated reserves for indigenous peoples—sharply curbed the rate of deforestation, which peaked in the early 2000s at about 9,650 square miles a year (25,000 square kilometers).
After a political crisis engulfed Brazil, leading to the 2016 impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, enforcement faltered. Ranchers and farmers began to convert more rainforest to pastureland and cropland. Between 2014 and 2017, annual deforestation doubled to about 3,090 square miles (8,000 square kilometers). Most often, the trees and underbrush cut down are simply burned, directly releasing carbon dioxide, said Artaxo.
“In the Brazilian Amazon, far and away the largest source of deforestation is industrial agriculture and cattle ranching,” said Emilio Bruna, an ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.Now observers are parsing Bolsonaro’s campaign statements and positions as a congressman to anticipate what’s next for the Amazon.
Bolsonaro—who some call “tropical Trump” because of some similarities to U.S. President Donald Trump—is a former army captain with a knack for channeling outrage and generating headlines. As a federal congressman for 27 years, he led legislative campaigns to unravel land protections for indigenous people and to promote agribusiness. He also made derogatory comments about minorities, women, and LGBT people.
Much of his support comes from business and farming interests.
“These farmers are not invaders, they are producers,” said congressman and senator-elect Luiz Carlos Heinze, a farmer and close ally of Bolsonaro. He blamed past “leftist administrations” for promoting indigenous rights at the expense of farmers and ranchers.
“Brazil will be the biggest farming nation on Earth during Bolsonaro’s years,” said Heinze. Indigenous-rights advocates are worried about the new direction signaled. “Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that indigenous territories in the Amazon should be opened up for mining and agribusiness, which goes completely in the opposite direction of our Constitution,” said Adriana Ramos, public policy coordinator at Social Environmental Institute in Brasilia, a non-governmental group.
In a Nov. 1 post-election interview with Catholic TV, Bolsonaro said, “We intend to protect the environment, but without creating difficulties for our progress.”
Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that Brazil should withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, a treaty his predecessor signed in 2016 committing to reduce carbon emissions 37 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. After the election, he has publicly wavered.