We’ve all seen the media coverage of “nature healing” while the world has essentially been put on pause during the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve had wildlife return to human-dominated landscapes that they once abandoned. We’ve witnessed, for the first time in decades, the disappearance of smog in big cities. Generally speaking, the sudden lack of human activity has been expected to cause a precipitous drop in the greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change. There is reason to believe this drop in emissions would be most advantageous to endangered environments, such as the Amazon Rainforest.
It turns out, however, that a supposed halt on global capitalism has not at all reaped the expected benefits to the environment. As a matter of fact, we have yet to experience interruption of globocaptialism, at least not in the manner predicted at the beginning of the pandemic. This is because our systems of consumption and production are supplementary in nature. What is reduced in one industry is increased in another. For instance, air travel has nearly diminished with travel bans and fear of infection from circulated air on airplanes. Instead, there has been an uptick of freight and shipping demands while humans continue consumption patterns from home. So, global emissions are not dropping in the drastic way we thought1 and ecosystems like the Amazon are not being relieved, even minutely, in their fight for survival.
Not only that, but the pandemic may even be more detrimental to the planet. Some nations, such as the United States of America, are using the chaos of COVID-19 to slip environmental protection rollbacks under the door; the Trump Administration is working to rollback 34 regulations as of May 2020.2 By far, the most critical concern is that the Amazon is lacking in protection while the world is on lock-down.
The Amazon Rainforest, located in South America, has long been considered the “lungs of the Earth” as it consumes the world’s greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide, and releases oxygen back into the atmosphere. Spanning across nine countries, the rainforest is also home to over half of the world’s living species3 and is a mecca of biodiversity. Though the Amazon spans about 2,100,00 square miles, 64% of the forest is claimed by Brazil.4
This means that, in light of anthropogenic climate change, it is necessary to investigate Brazil’s environmental regulations and politics as they directly impact the fate of thousands of species of plants, animals, and waters and indirectly play a role in the survival of our planet. In brief, deforestation first began in Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s, due in part to a weak enforcement of the Forest Code, which required forest properties to be in forest cover, and general corruption. At the start of the revolutionary President Lula’s term in 2003, enforcement was tightened and in 2006, the Public Forest Management Law was passed to further regulate and protect the Amazon.5 Lula’s successor, President Rousseff, was elected in 2011 with intentions of forest conservancy, however, as evidenced with support for agricultural growth and projects like the building of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon, the country’s economic viability was prioritized over environmental efforts.6
Global emissions are not dropping in the drastic way we thought and ecosystems like the Amazon are not being relieved, even minutely, in their fight for survival.
This objective gained primacy with the extreme right-wing President Temer and his successor, the current President Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is a vocal advocate for the devotion of labor and land to the development of infrastructure in the rainforest. His most recent projects include the building of a hydroelectric, mile-long bridge over the Amazon river, and expansion of the BR-163 highway.7 According to the president, “Where there is Indigenous land, there is wealth under it.”8
Bolsonaro continues to encourage development of the Amazon by whatever means necessary and his administration aims to remove the rainforest’s distinction as protected land. Lack of regulation, along with the vacating of field agents in response to coronavirus, has given illegal lodgers, ranchers, and miners the incentive to stake their claims on land in the Amazon.9 Deforestation to the degree Bolsonaro’s administration desires means we can expect fires increasingly worse than the 2019 Amazon fires, which resulted directly from deforestation for commercial use of the land and led to shock and outrage around the world.10
Threats to the Amazon affect, not only the landscape, but its Indigenous inhabitants as well. The Amazon Rainforest is home to around 400 Indigenous tribes.11 These tribes are constantly at war with illegal land-grabbers who care little for the people they are unjustly displacing as a consequence of their exploitative behaviors.
Part of the reason for vacating field agents during the global lockdown is to spare Indigenous people who would be exposed to COVID-19 from contact with the outside world. To the contrary, the same land-grabbers, who have shown their willful negligence for decades, are making contact with Indigenous people who cannot quarantine, are incredibly vulnerable to infectious diseases, and only have access to severely underdeveloped healthcare systems.12 What’s more, Indigenous people living in the Amazon have already suffered severe lung damage from the fires in 2019, and if the pandemic coincides with the forest fires this year, Brazilian hospitals will collapse trying to support victims of, not one, but two massively deadly events.13
We are looking at a problem that is evolving as we move further into the year, and as Brazil becomes the next COVID-19 hotspot. The land-grabbing and lack of protection in the Amazon is disastrous for the Indigenous populations and will have unimaginable consequences for the planet. Unfortunately, the global climate’s fate is in the hands of one administration, one who cares little for science and fact. With international pressure, especially from progressive and powerful countries like Germany, Canada, and Uruguay, the Brazilian government must re-evaluate its agenda and implement policies to protect the Amazon rainforest from foreseeable disaster.
E N D N O T E S:
1. Benjamin Storrow. “Why CO2 Isn’t Falling More during a Global Lockdown.” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-co2-isnt-falling-more-during-a-global-lockdown/
2. Popovich, Nadja, Livia Albeck-ripka, and Kendra Pierre-louis. “The Trump Administration Is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks.html.
3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Amazon Rainforest.” Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Amazon-Rainforest.
4. Sawe, Benjamin Elisha. “Countries Sharing The Amazon Rainforest.” WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-sharing-the-amazon-rainforest.html.
5. The Editors of Yale Global Forest Atlas. “Forest Governance – Brazil.” Yale Global Forest Atlas. https://globalforestatlas.yale.edu/amazon/forest-governance/brazil
6. Romero, Simon. “Clashing Visions of Conservation Shake Brazil’s Presidential Vote.” The New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/04/world/americas/brazil-rainforest-amazon-conservation-election-rousseff-silva.html.
7. Libardi, Manuella. “Leaked Documents Show Brazil’s Bolsonaro Has Grave Plans for Amazon Rainforest.” openDemocracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/leaked-documents-show-brazil-bolsonaro-has-grave-plans-for-amazon-rainforest/.
8. Dolzan, Marcio. “’Não Podemos Abrir as Portas Para Todo Mundo’, Diz Bolsonaro Em Palestra Na Hebraica – Política.” Estadão. https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,nao-podemos-abrir-as-portas-para-todo-mundo-diz-bolsonaro-em-palestra-na-hebraica,70001725522.
9. Watts, Jonathan. “Brazil: Coronavirus Fears Weaken Amazon Protection Ahead of Fire Season.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/03/brazil-amazon-protection-coronavirus-fire-season.
10. Symonds, Alexandria. “Amazon Rainforest Fires: Here’s What’s Really Happening.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/world/americas/amazon-fire-brazil-bolsonaro.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
11. The Editors of Survival International “Amazon Tribes.” Survival International. https://www.survivalinternational.org/about/amazontribes.
12. Collyns, Dan, Sam Cowie, Joe Parkin Daniels, and Tom Phillips. “’Coronavirus Could Wipe Us out’: Indigenous South Americans Blockade Villages.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/south-america-indigenous-groups-coronavirus-brazil-colombia.
13. Watson, Katy. “Coronavirus: Disease Meets Deforestation at Heart of Brazil’s Amazon.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-52502369.