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Offensive against the Amazon: An incontrollable pandemic (commentary)

  • The acceleration of Amazonian deforestation and environmental degradation — powered by the Bolsonaro government’s successive blows to environmental protection policies — is directly related to the precarious state of public healthcare in the region, amplifying the lethality of diseases like Covid-19.
  • This commentary is being published at a time when Brazil is suffering from the worst deforestation in a decade, and is second only to the United States in the number of Covid-19 cases (515,000 in Brazil today) and fourth in the world regarding the number of Coronavirus deaths (topping 29,000).
  • The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
Soy fields occupy an area that was once rainforest in Santarém, Pará state, Brazil. Image by Erik Jennings.

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), the word pandemic is the expression used to describe a pathology that quickly spreads to various parts of the planet simultaneously. The same vocabulary could be used to define the virulent wrath that large scale agribusiness is enacting upon the various biomes of the world.

In less than a month, the world has watched with bated breath as Brazil has seen a five-fold increase in the number of deaths from Covid-19. In the same period, the country’s environmental protection policy has suffered at least five lethal blows.

All-out assault on the Amazon

On April 22nd, exactly 520 years after the outbreak of the largest genocide in the history of Brazil, the so-called “discovery,” Funai (the National Foundation for Indians), Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency and the body charged with promoting the defense of native people’s rights and guaranteeing the health and hygiene of the territories occupied by these groups, published normative instruction no. 09. This norm determines that all indigenous lands that are not in the final stage of state recognition shall be excluded from the database of the National Land Management System (SIGEF).

In practice, this normative instruction (NI) removes protection from a vast amount of indigenous territories, including those that have spent long years in claims procedures and those occupied by groups who are in voluntary isolation. In practice, this NI validates private property holdings and title deeds annulled by Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, besides encouraging non-indigenous occupation of these lands. It is crucial to remember that indigenous lands are the areas with the lowest rates of environmental degradation in the country.

Soon after, on April 30th, two of the main environmental surveillance coordinators of Ibama (the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) were summarily removed from office. Everything indicates that these sackings are a retaliation for the work they had been developing in the sensitive mission to investigate illegal deforestation and combat the grandiose, complex activities pillaging natural resources.

The dismissals occurred soon after a large-scale operation to combat illegal mining in the Amazon and after the team, coordinated by the two civil servants, had achieved zero deforestation in 2020 in the Ituna-Itatá indigenous territory — an indigenous reserve that had previously led the nation in illegal deforestation. The team had achieved this even though the Bolsonaro administration had clearly weakened Ibama’s operational capacity.

Gold mining on the banks of the Tapajós River, on the edge of the Munduruku indigenous territory. Image by Erik Jennings.

Less than a week later, the Presidency of the Republic published decree no. 10.344, through which the federal public environmental protection organs and entities were submitted to the command of the Armed Forces. Ibama, ICMBio, the Federal Police, and Funai have lost their operational powers and begun saluting to the military, who are now endowed with the power to define the places to be inspected and the modus operandi of the actions.

The same act authorized the GLO (Guarantee of Law and Order) in the Legal Amazon between May 11th and June 10th, 2020. The GLO should cost around R$60 million (US$11 million). Ibama’s environmental surveillance budget for the entire year is R$74 million (US13.6 million); in other words, more than 80% of the year’s available resources will be used.

Up to now, there has been no news that any machine used in illicit activities has been destroyed. It is important to remember that the destruction of backhoe excavators, crawler tractors, and other machines, which cost R$500 thousand (US$91.7 thousand), on average, is an indispensable legal provision for the success of surveillance actions. This work had been conducted mainly by Ibama, much to the sorrow of the detractors, many of whom are in important seats of constituted powers.

Large scale environmental exploitation and degradation by a bauxite mining company in Juruti municipality in western Pará state, Brazil. Bauxite is the primary ingredient of aluminum. Image by Erik Jennings.

On May 12th, the precarious state of the already debilitated ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity) was further aggravated. The organ is responsible for the management and surveillance of federal conservation units, which are areas of high environmental relevance. The decree made 11 regional coordination centers extinct, to be replaced with five regional administrations for the entire country, four of which are situated in cities far from the places requiring formal protection.

There were five regional coordination centers in the Amazon. Now, there is one regional administration for the entire biome, which contains around 130 conservation units. Most of those appointed to the administrations are retired from the military, with no previous experience in environmental management. The appointments further swelled the military ranks of the organ, whose presidency and four general-director positions are occupied by military policemen from São Paulo. It is no coincidence that the position of surveillance coordinator remains vacant.

Such an anomaly can be characterized by the necropolitics prevailing in Brazil. It wraps up a clear rigging of the public apparatus, accentuating the authoritarian construction of support and subservience to the point of view guiding the Executive against constitutional devices — one of the motives that led the V-Dem Institute of Gothenburg University to relegate the classification of Brazilian democracy to electoral democracy. Necropolitics translates as the use of social and political power to determine how institutions act, how some people can live, and how some people should die.

Logging on the Arapiuns River in Pará state, Brazil. The indigenous population of the Maró region says that much of this timber is extracted from their land. Image by Erik Jennings.

The fox now guards the henhouse

The administration, however, is not satisfied with eliminating the surveillance of illicit activities. Its most recent deregulatory aggression fell on “authorizable” deforestation. We are talking about decree no. 10.347, published on May 14th, which, contrary to the expressed provision of the law that regulates the administration of public forests, excluded the technical body of the Ministry for the Environment from the process defining the quantifiable areas to be subject to exploration of forest products. The decree’s legality is being questioned in court, through an actio popularis in Belém.

Based on this decree, the definition and approval of the Annual Forestry Grant Plan (PAOF) becomes an exclusive attribution of the Ministry for Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply (Mapa), whose overriding function is the expansion of the agricultural frontier. To provide a view as to the catastrophic dimension of this measure, PAOF 2020 foresees 7,750 million hectares (29,922 square miles) of federal public forest as subject to concession. This represents an area 50 times the size of the city of São Paulo. This represents an area eight times larger than the clearcut deforestation detected and consolidated by satellite between August 2018 and July 2019, which was the highest in a decade.

To tell the truth, the forestry concessions authorize selective cutting of trees for wood, which, in principle, will theoretically reduce the impact of the above comparisons. However, those who have a little knowledge of the dynamic of the management plans know that the reality is more worrying. Extraction almost always reaches and impacts all the forestry species with some market value and does not obey the cutting cycles. Almost always, these plans are fictitious, serving to cover the looting of wood from indigenous lands and areas of special protection.

If all this were not enough, it is fitting to ask why a ministry with the purpose of promoting rural activities that usually demand extensive areas of open ground, such as agriculture and livestock, would want to monopolize the future of public forests, given that, in theory, they will come to be explored through selective cut? In 2020 almost 8 million hectares (30,888 square miles) disappeared. From 2021 onwards, nothing guarantees that this number won’t rise significantly.

The scenario is frightening. The sum total of illicit deforestation breaking successive records, and deforestation authorized by those whose very position demands the opening of new areas is a recipe for catastrophic results.

The Tapajós Environmental Protection Area on fire in Alter do Chão, Pará. Most of the fires in this region are believed to be being set by land speculators. Image by Erik Jennings.

Deforestation degrades and impacts human health

It is crucial to recall that the suppression of the forest retains a direct relationship with the appearance and escalation of pathologies. As Carlos Nobre emphasizes: “The Amazon has the highest quantity of microorganisms in the world. And, we are disturbing the system all the time, with urban populations getting closer, deforestation, and the trade of wild animals.” In this dystopian scenario, the Amazonian man, is, today, in greater danger than the forest itself, given the situation of vulnerabilities, losses and biological disorder.

A valuable system protecting human health will also be lost, not only for those that live close to the forest, but for the entire nation. The forest provides a health service of inestimable value when it is the source of quality water, food safety, and equilibrium of the climate. Deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation constitute a direct cause in the appearance of various diseases of large-scale social impact, both locally and globally.

The reduction in coverage of the Amazon transforms the undegradated acid pH of the forest into a pH close to neutral, creating favorable conditions for the proliferation of the Anopheles mosquito, a vetor of malaria. The accelerated deforestation that began in the Amazon at the end of the 1970s brought with it a proportional increase in cases of malaria, reaching a peak in 1999, when 632,000 cases of the disease were recorded.

After 2005, malaria cases were reduced through a series of diagnosis and treatment measures, falling to 130,000 cases in 2016. Unfortunately, in the last two years, the number of malaria cases has increased by more than 50%, just as deforestation has intensified in the same period.

Soy fields in Mojui dos Campos, Pará state, Brazil. The small river crossing the image used to mark the edge of the forest. Image by Erik Jennings.

In 2016, Amazonas was the state with the highest incidence of tuberculosis in the country, recording 67.2 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants. This is double the national average of 32.4 cases. The tragic irony is that the state still remains in first place on the national ranking for Koch’s bacillus.

The poverty, the inequality, and the precarious sanitation conditions of most Amazonian cities, resulting from the government’s model of predatory development, provides excellent conditions for the proliferation of diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and zika, which were more frequent in other regions of Brazil. Currently, the Amazon is responsible for 95% of the cases of Chagas disease in the nation.

When this fragile equilibrium between the environment and society is broken, it causes the appearance of new diseases and the reappearance of forgotten evils. It is no accident that the five cities with the highest rates of lethality from Covid-19 are located in the Amazon region (Tabatinga, Manacapuru, Autazes, Coari, and Iranduba) — and they are precisely those with the highest inequalities caused by practices of imbalance between humans and the environment. What we are stating is not a relationship of cause and effect, but the finding of socioeconomic and structural fragility of healthcare services influencing the high lethality found in these communities.

Mining within the Munduruku indigenous land. Image by Erik Jennings.

The same speed in the galloping increase of cases of tuberculosis and Covid-19 infection is registered where the backhoes of illegal mining operations coincide with the mercury poisoning of thousands of people in the Amazon (mercury is used to separate gold from ore). Analogously, these machines today dig shallow communal graves for the victims of Covid-19 in Manaus.

Brazil’s illegal deforestation and mining operations did not go into quarantine. They did not obey the order to take time off. Contrary to all environmental prescriptions, this destructive pathology has intensified at a time when indigenous communities are being invaded by the pandemic and closing themselves inside their territories, afraid, and with no way of resisting the invaders.

In the surroundings, and even within indigenous areas, illegal mining proliferates with the virulence and strength of men risking their lives for dreams of wealth. It is not a virus that will intimidate them. The lowly miners (men who are victims of the absence of public policy and public health care) are also a fragile link in the parasitic chain that exposes them to death while supplying protective wealth to their masters.

Despite Covid-19 reaching people of all races and social classes without distinction, not all are equally harmed. We are living, according to Achille Mbembe, in times characterized by an “unequal redistribution of vulnerability.” Indigenous people present greater vulnerability to the disease for both biological and sociocultural reasons.

Juxtaposed to this is the precarious situation of the Amazon’s healthcare system, which has the worst indicators in the country. The worst ratios of ICU beds and doctors to inhabitants are in the Amazon states, where the people and the forest are being stripped away. For example, medication and other medical equipment in a city in the interior of the Amazon takes an average of 15 days to be delivered. If it is actually delivered. The Amazon has become the end of the world in providing healthcare to its inhabitants, but the beginning of the world in searching for, and plundering the forest treasure house for its riches and easy profits.

Covid-19 came to further expose the fetid bleeding wounds of certain Amazonian populations, amid a weary forest that now receives hard, and possibly lethal blows in the form of the Bolsonaro government’s normative instructions, decrees, plans, and a GLO.

The legacy of these actions remains unknown. What can be stated is that this succession of events feeds back on itself chronically — the environmental devastation leads to the appearance of diseases, large populational reductions, and the environment becomes susceptible to an incurable pandemic of destruction.

As the old Amazonian proverb says, “God is great, but the forest is bigger” — it just remains to be seen if anything will be left of it. Covid-19 seems to have found in Brazil the most favorable comorbidity to its lethal fury, the Brazilian State.

Marcos Colón received his PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and leads the Portuguese program at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University. He is the director of the documentary “Beyond Fordlândia.”

Luís de Camões Lima Boaventura is prosecutor for the Republic and studying for a Master’s in Law at the University of Brasília.

Erik Jennings is the coordinator of the medical residency in neurology at the Lower Amazonas Regional Hospital (Hospital Regional de Baixo Amazonas) State University of Pará, in Santarém, a doctor for Sesai (Special Secretary for Indigenous Health), and the author of “Paradô: Histórias de um Neurocirurgião do Interior da Amazônia” (Paradô: Histories of a Neurosurgeon in the Amazonian Interior) and “Olhando o Rio” (Looking at the River).

Banner image: Amazon rainforest set afire in 2017 for the purpose of real estate investment on the banks of the Tapajós River. Under President Jair Bolsonaro, fires are increasingly being set and used as a deforestation tool by land grabbers. Image by Erik Jennings.

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