Conservation news

Before burning comes felling: Brazil’s half-measure fire ban (commentary)

Planet image of Altamira (-5.79, -53.69) in the State of Pará, Brazil taken on August 8, 2020. Courtesy of Planet.

Planet image of Altamira (-5.79, -53.69) in the State of Pará, Brazil taken on August 8, 2020. Courtesy of Planet.

  • Satellite data shows that fires are again burning in the Brazilian Amazon. The Bolsonaro Administration responded by issuing a temporary ban on burning on July 15, but Angie Bolzan of the Amazon Conservation Team argues that this decree doesn’t address the underlying driver of fires: deforestation.
  • “The 2019 fires that overwhelmed the Amazon did not spontaneously generate: they happened largely in areas that had already been deforested and then were set ablaze to finish the conversion process to pasture for livestock and agriculture,” Bolzan writes. “The extensive fires were a culmination of the destruction that preceded it, a process that takes place insidiously and relentlessly, driven by both landowners and landgrabbers, and recently emboldened by the current administration’s outspoken criticism of environmental protection laws and policies.”
  • To address fires, the Brazilian government needs to restore efforts to control deforestation and take effective policy action, says Bolzan.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

On July 15, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro decreed a ban on fires in the Amazon for 120 days. While this is ostensibly positive—a message to the world that Brazil’s government prioritizes protecting the rainforest—it is a remedy that at best addresses a symptom rather than the underlying disease. The decree does nothing to stop a root cause of the fires—deforestation.

The 2019 fires that overwhelmed the Amazon did not spontaneously generate: they happened largely in areas that had already been deforested and then were set ablaze to finish the conversion process to pasture for livestock and agriculture. The extensive fires were a culmination of the destruction that preceded it, a process that takes place insidiously and relentlessly, driven by both landowners and landgrabbers, and recently emboldened by the current administration’s outspoken criticism of environmental protection laws and policies.

IPAM estimates that 450,000 hectares deforested between January 2019 and April 2020 are now primed for burning; the other 550,000 hectares felled during that period have already been burned. Burned or not, over 1 million hectares of Brazilian rainforest were degraded over 16 months —175 Manhattans cleared to the ground.

If Bolsonaro’s government is genuinely committed to enforcing this recently announced ban, the fires should be significantly less than those of 2019. Nevertheless, the systematic destruction of the rainforest continues. Former effective policies to safeguard the environment have been weakened or abolished; protection agencies are starved of funding; and indigenous and other traditional communities are abandoned.  Overall, an ethos of the individual’s dominion over natural resources is being promoted in Brazil, in direct opposition to its constitutional principles that define the environment as “of collective interest”.

International pressure

A letter from 38 business executives, many of whom lead multi-national corporations, was sent in early July to vice president Mourão insisting on the “need to make the right choices now and start redirecting investments to address and recover the Brazilian economy in a circular, low-carbon, and inclusive economic model, in which there is no controversy between producing and preserving.”

Some signatories of the letter such as soy traders Cargill and Amaggi and slaughterhouse Marfrig in the Cerrado risk deforestation in their supply chains, as suggested by thousands of fire alerts in the vicinity of their silos and potential buying zones in 2019. Another signatory, mining giant Vale operates the largest iron ore mine in the world in Carajás in the Amazon, where mineworkers were “deemed essential workers by the government” and required to continue working during the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in an outbreak. Vale has refused to disclose the number of employees infected, but Parauapebas, a small city of 200,000 driven by the mining economy, has had 16,972 confirmed cases as of July 29—an incidence rate nearly six times higher than the national average at the time. Notably, 90% of Vale’s 236 registered applications for exploration in the Amazon are on indigenous lands.

Planet image of Altamira (-5.79, -53.69) in the State of Pará, Brazil taken on August 8, 2020. Courtesy of Planet.

However, this letter was the first time in the Bolsonaro administration that heavyweight corporates, which also include Natura (the Brazilian cosmetics company that owns The Body Shop and Avon), have positioned themselves against the relaxation of environmental regulations, calling for effective social and environmental measures.

It comes after another letter was sent to the government in June by a group of 29 institutional investors from nine countries that manage over $3.7 trillion “urg[ing] the government of Brazil to demonstrate clear commitment to eliminating deforestation and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.” Vice president Mourão and other officials met with some of this group on July 9 to discuss deforestation in Brazil. Few commitments arose from the talks other than the demand of investors “to see results…[indicating] a reduction in deforestation” before investing in projects in the Amazon. Mourão told the press that the government’s “vision is to present a positive result in relation to the fires in the second half of the year” and thereby signal “we are doing our part, now you can fulfill yours” to investors.

Hotspot in Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso state n July 2020. © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

A superficial gesture or meaningful change?

Controlling Amazon fires is critical, and it would be devastating to witness a repeat of the fires of August 2019. But burning forests is just the last stage of the forest conversion process, a shockingly visual manifestation of the relentless rainforest degradation process, which renders the impact of this recent ban meaningless.

The Brazilian government must deploy sustained, effective action in its policy formulation and fully restore its enforcement capacity to control deforestation and the underlying drivers that fuel it. Achieving this requires, among many other actions, securing the rights and sustainable livelihoods of indigenous and other traditional communities in the Amazon region who are—as demonstrated by multiple studies—some of the most effective guardians of the rainforest.

Angie Bolzan is the Development and Grants Manager for the Amazon Conservation Team, an Arlington, VA-based nonprofit that partners with indigenous and other local communities to protect tropical forests and strengthen traditional culture.