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(Photo: Time Magazine)
By Max Bedford & Megan Edwards – Contributors and Members of Green New Deal York
Since 2014 there has been a steady rise in deforestation throughout Brazil. In 2020, over 10,000 square kilometres of forest was cleared, the greatest amount since 2008. This increase in deforestation has continued into 2021, despite the Covid pandemic. Deforestation rates increased 43% April 2021 compared to April 2020, with the peak expected to be between May and October during the annual dry season. This has resulted in the Amazon rainforest becoming a net-producer of carbon dioxide in 2020, with the WWF predicting that by 2030, 27% of the Amazon Rainforest will be without trees.
The effects of the Amazon Rainforest are seen far beyond Brazil. The rainforest stretches 6.7 million kilometres squared and houses over 30 million people, making it pivotal in combating the growing amount of carbon dioxide we are producing. Furthermore, due to its annual rainfall of between 1,500 – 3,000 mm and the process of evapotranspiration, the Amazon impacts not just the world climate but also ocean currents. Usually acting as a feedback mechanism, it sustains the environment it relies upon. However, due to human interference this loop is under threat, endangering both the ability of the rainforest to sustain itself and our current global geological conditions. Some scientists believe that a tipping point exists between 20-25% of the rainforest being cutdown, where it will no longer be able to sustain itself even if climate change is tamed, with a 4°C rise in global temperatures seeing large regions of Central, Eastern and Southern Amazon becoming barren scrubland.
Scientists have also expressed concern for the medical knowledge that is being lost through deforestation. Cox and Balick highlight that under 0.5% of flowering plant species in the Amazon have been studied for their medical potential. Tribes in the rainforest are known to use their local wildlife to create medicines, knowledge often held by a tribe ‘Shaman’ that is under threat as their homes are being destroyed. Consequently, as the rainforest is being destroyed the potential for new cures and scientific advancements is also being destroyed. We are tragically losing the opportunity to further explore and understand this part of our planet.
Why Deforestation Happens
Over five decades ago the people of Brazil were pushed to colonise the rainforest, depicting it as a resource that they should use to chase prosperity and economic growth such as the nations of Europe. This is not uncommon for developing nations; deforestation in the UK is characteristic of the 16th and 17th Century and allowed for the expansion of domestic civilisation. This resulted in a conversion to coal power at the turn of the 18th Century which went on to power the Industrial Revolution. Brazilians hoped for the same, cutting down the rainforests to make towns, logging farms, cattle’s enclosures, and soy farms. Fuelled by an increasing demand for beef by the global market and cheap wood as furniture is commodified and demanded at cheaper prices, these practices have begun infringing on national parks and indigenous land despite regulations preventing it.
It is important to note that cattle farms present a unique threat to the climate. Deforestation destroys trees that take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen by photosynthesis, therefore releasing carbon dioxide that was stored within the tree back into the atmosphere. The cattle farms that replace the trees produce copious amounts of methane and carbon dioxide as well as destroying any hope of reforestation as the cattle graze on the remaining vegetation, leaving the areas barren and incapable of growth.
In the early stages of deforestation of a region, Human Development Index (HDI) parameters increase, as more jobs emerge, and the number and quality of services increase as people gather in the region. However, HDI falls to below the national average once an area has been deforested, as the jobs that came from the rainforest are gone, there’s no more trees to cut down and the majority of speciality practices have moved to the next site of deforestation. While the improved infrastructure remains, its destinations often become abandoned as the population is forced to leave to find work elsewhere. Not only does deforestation destroy the local habitat but the communities that relied on it. Evidently deforestation offers short term economic benefits to a population at the cost of their long term prosperity, increasing migration across Brazil and hindering the development of settlements as pre-established cities such as Rio De Janeiro absorb more economic migrants each year.
Polls by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE) in 2019 showed that 93% of Brazilians found deforestation of the Amazon rainforest “worrying” and 96% believe that ‘President Jair Bolsonaro and the Federal Government should increase control measures to prevent illegal deforestation in the Amazon’. However, since the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2019, the nation refuses to do so without financial incentive. In 2019 the Environment Minister stated, “We want to attract investment… it is necessary to maintain the rainforest,”, going on to suggest that $120 per hectare might be enough to prevent deforestation, roughly $12 billion per annum. This was criticised as it failed to highlight that 90% of deforestation in Brazil is illegal, so a bribe of $120 to farmers would do little to prevent the illegal logging and cattle farming groups from continuing their practice. The same year Germany and Norway halted their payments to the Brazilian Government Amazons Fund believing their funding was ineffective, while European Investment funds housing $16 trillion in assets threatened to divest from Brazilian Bonds if greater action wasn’t taken to protect the Amazon. Further attempts to force the Brazilian Government to act were made in 2020, as several European nations threatened to pull out of the $19 trillion European Union – Mercosur Trade Deal if Brazil continued to allow illegal deforestation. This was followed by a letter signed by 29 organisations, totalling $3.7 trillion in assets and the Church of England, warning Brazil of the consequences of ‘dismantling’ the rainforest.
The reaction of the Bolsonaro Government has been to promise Europe what it has asked for, at the 2021 US climate summit promising to double spending on environmental protection, end illegal deforestation by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050 (net-zero greenhouse gas emissions). In addition to this he also asked President Biden for an additional $1 billion to fund the protection of the rainforest. However within a month of this, the new Brazilian budget saw cuts to the Environment Ministry, from 3bn reais in 2020, to 2.1bn reais for 2021. It appears that Bolsanaro is content with misrepresenting his intentions to the Global stage, unwilling to spend the money necessary to stop illegal deforestation yet willing to take the funding to do so.
Brazil has been undergoing democratic backsliding, with the 2014 corruption probe ‘Lava Jato’ finding myriad cases of bribery and cronyism seen as general practice. Bolsonaro himself is undergoing investigation by the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for his handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic while further accusations have been against his fiscal and environmental policy. This has resulted in suggestions that Bolsanaro is more concerned with maintaining power and winning the 2022 Presidential election than he is with any particular area of Government, apathetic to concerns such as the environment as long as they cannot further his grasp on power.
It appears that deforestation impacts the global population as the Amazon acts as a keystone for our climate wellbeing and the various mechanisms that sustain our geographical environment. However it is disappearing, with a ‘tipping point’ that appears to be coming closer to our current position. While increased efforts are being made to save the rainforest outside of Brazil, domestic efforts are decreasing and unlikely to increase without great international pressure or a change in government; which is unlikely to happen prior to the 2022 Elections. With this in mind the deforestation of the Amazon within Brazil is expected to increase, fundamentally altering our climate and quality of life if significant action isn’t taken within the decade.
Brazil’s Amazon: Deforestation rises ahead of dry season – BBC News
Why Is the Amazon Rain Forest Disappearing? | Time
Why is the Amazon rainforest important? | WWF (panda.org)
About the Amazon | WWF (panda.org)
When Britain Ran out of Wood: Challenge: Vol 22, No 5 (tandfonline.com)
Planting trees doesn’t always help with climate change – BBC Future
Brazil tells rich countries to pay up to protect Amazon | Financial Times (ft.com)
Deforestation in Brazil Continues to Surge, Up 10.7 Percent in June – Yale E360Trillion-dollar investors warn Brazil over ‘dismantling’ of environmental policies | Brazil | The Guardian
The 2021 Climate Leaders Summit and Brazil’s position on the international environmental agenda
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