- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro claims to be a champion of farmers and ranchers, but his policies in the Amazon could be ruinous for them in the long-run, argues Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
- While large-scale deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest may offer short-term opportunities for ranchers and farmers to expand their holdings, scientists say the approach is a risky proposition in the long-term given the role the Amazon plays in sustaining Brazilian agribusiness through the rainfall it affords.
- Note: this commentary was originally written August 27, 2019. Minor modifications have been made to reflect the discrepancy between time of writing and publishing.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro claims to be a champion of farmers and ranchers, but his policies in the Amazon could be ruinous for them in the long-run.
Last month wind patterns and the arrival of a cold front in coastal Brazil conspired to blacken the skies above Sao Paulo with smoke from fires burning in the Amazon, drawing worldwide attention to an issue that’s usually far from people’s minds. The outcry put a spotlight on a sharp increase in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon that has been underway since the early months of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Bolsonaro responded to these concerns by blaming NGOs for setting the fires (a claim later retracted), asserting that the fires were normal and nothing to worry about (before he mobilized 44,000 troops to battle the fires), and grasping at a favorite, but decades-old, conspiracy theory that conservationists want to wrest control of the Amazon from Brazil. He returned repeatedly to a common refrain that the Amazon is a sovereignty issue and foreigners have no business in telling Brazilians what to do there.
One of Bolsonaro’s key constituencies is a political block of farmers and ranchers known as the ruralistas. The ruralists chafe under the environmental regulations that govern land use in places like the Amazon, so they cheered Bolsonaro’s election promises to open up the Amazon to unfettered forest conversion, absolve those found guilty of illegal deforestation of their fines, weaken environmental law enforcement, and strip protected areas and indigenous territories of their status. And since taking office, Bolsonaro has worked to follow through on those promises.
But while large-scale deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest may offer short-term opportunities for ranchers and farmers to expand their holdings, scientists say the approach is a risky proposition in the long-term given the role the Amazon plays in sustaining Brazilian agribusiness through the rainfall it affords.
By acting as a giant water pump that draws moisture from the tropical Atlantic and moves it great distances before delivering it as rainfall, the Amazon is responsible for supplying South America’s agricultural heartland—as well as its cities and hydroelectric dams—with precipitation. Farmers, ranchers, grid operators, and politicians largely take that service for granted, but they shouldn’t, according to scientists who’ve modeled the interacting effects of vegetation loss and rising temperatures in the Amazon.
According to this research, the Amazon could be approaching a tipping point where the water-generating rainforest shifts to a drier savanna-like ecosystem. That could shift the precipitation belt further northward, depriving southern South America of the rainfall on which it depends. The scenario has already been foreshadowed via the catastrophic droughts of 2005, 2010, and 2014-2017, which affected water supplies and power generation across large swathes of South America. Now just imagine those conditions amplified and extended due to the loss of ecosystem function. Politicians forced to choose between supplying farmers with water or city dwellers with power and drinking water will face a tough decision.
The problem is we don’t know exactly where the tipping point lies. Some put the threshold at 20-25 percent forest loss in the Southern Amazon, others have it anywhere between 25-50 percent of the Amazon as a whole. Brazil has already lost about 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest within its borders, so the margin of error is decreasing by the year.
Given the danger of jeopardizing Brazil’s water, food, and energy security, Bolsonaro’s talk about conservation being a threat to national sovereignty rings hollow. In fact, a healthy and productive Amazon is the foundation for a healthy and productive Brazilian economy.
That said, farmers and ranchers who are already operating in the Amazon need real incentives to maintain forest cover beyond what’s mandated in the forest code. Those incentives could take the form of market access, payments for maintaining or restoring forest cover, or assistance in getting more production from already cleared lands. In the long run, these interventions will help farmers more than politicians’ rhetoric and policies that undermine the ecosystem services that make farming and ranching possible.
Bolsonaro’s critics too would be well-served by adjusting their narrative: talk about how the Amazon sustains Brazil’s sovereignty, instead of “internationalizing” the Amazon. In so doing, they can look for opportunities to find common ground with farmers and ranchers. The economic security of Brazil seems like a good place to start.
Header image: Recently cleared transition forest in the western Amazon near the Brazil/Bolivia border. Photographed in 2019 by Rhett A. Butler.