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The Future of the Amazon Under Bolsonaro

Monday, January 7, 2019

Avital Li

Research Associate

On the campaign trail, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promised to eliminate existing protections of the Amazon. Despite some restrictions on his power to fulfill those promises, his administration will have a huge role to play in determining the delicate future of the earth’s largest rainforest, 65% of which is located within Brazil’s borders. Indeed, limiting the ability of agencies to enforce existing laws is more than sufficient to enable the proliferation of illegal logging, farming, and mining in the rainforest.

Bolsonaro’s presidency comes at a critical moment for the Amazon. Last year, an editorial in Science Advances alerted that the Amazon is rapidly approaching an ecological tipping point, a moment at which long-term changes in an ecosystem can result in an irreversible shift of the ecosystem to a different equilibrium state. The combined effects of deforestation, fire, and climate change have brought the Amazon’s deforestation threshold much closer than the originally estimated 40% tipping point. Twenty percent of the Amazon has already been deforested. Considering the significant role the Amazon rainforest plays in buffering carbon-driven climate change, it is quite possible that the ecological tipping point in the Amazon will also result in a tipping point for our climate system as a whole. 


Courtesy of Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil

In his only mention of the environment in his political platform, Bolsonaro introduced his plan to abolish the environment ministry and absorb its functions into the agricultural ministry.   He vowed to disperse the environmental licensing capabilities of IBAMA, the enforcement arm of Brazil’s Environmental Agency, and to impede its ability to fine violators. He also promised that during his presidency, “not a single centimeter will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombos" (hinterland settlements generally founded by the descendants of runaway Afro-Brazilian slaves). Likewise, he promised that recognized indigenous lands would be open to economic exploitation through agribusiness, mining, and hydroelectric development. He has also threatened to bar activist organizations from operating in the country. But he has since retracted his pledge to take Brazil out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Beyond weakening environmental enforcement, Bolsonaro’s close relationship with the Bancada Ruralista, the powerful agribusiness caucus that controls Brazil’s congress, bodes poorly for the Amazon and indigenous peoples rights. Cattle ranching and, to a lesser extent, soy, sugar, and palm oil production, are the primary drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, with cattle ranching accounting for 65-70% of deforestation in the Amazon in 2017. On top of his suggested budget cuts, his concessions to the agribusiness lobby, the Bancada, will pave the way for the expansion of agriculture-driven forest depletion and degradation in the Amazon. Indeed, one of Bolsonaro’s first actions after being sworn into office on January 1 was to issue an executive order transferring regulation and certification of indigenous territories to the agriculture ministry, which is controlled by the Bancada.

Bolsonaro’s predecessors have a mixed track record in advocating environmental protection, and their actions provide insight into the extent to which Bolsonaro’s deregulation agenda could impact the Amazon. In the early 2000s, Brazil made significant progress in reducing deforestation rates. The administration of then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva worked to strengthen coordination between environmental agencies. In addition, IBAMA’s stricter enforcement of environmental laws forced farmers to think twice before clearing their land, while the Low-Carbon Agricultural Plan offered incentives for farms that adopted low-carbon and sustainable farming methods. Contrary to common myths, Brazil demonstrated how increased regulations stimulated growth in agricultural output.

The largest rollback of environmental protections in decades occurred under Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer. Temer’s administration significantly cut the budgets of environmental and land use agencies, and he made substantial strides in opening protected areas in the Amazon to commercial development. In 2015, deforestation rates, which had been on the decline, started to rise. In 2015, they rose by 24%, and by 2016, they had grown by another 29%. In 2017, Brazil was deforesting at a rate 78% higher than their target for the Paris Accord. That same year, Brazil experienced the second highest rate of forest fires in the country since 1999, causing 31% of the Amazon region’s tree cover loss (unlike deforestation, “tree cover loss” refers to the loss of tree canopy in plantations and natural forests due to human or natural causes, including fire). A group of scientists estimated that Bolsonaro’s removal of environmental protections could rapidly bring the country back to the deforestation rates of the early 2000s.

Amazon Rainforest

Despite this gloomy outlook, supporting indigenous land management in Brazil is increasingly recognized as one of the most effective strategies to mitigate climate change and preserve biodiversity. While only 8% of emissions are attributable to tree cover loss in tropical forests and less than 3% of mitigation funding is directed at forests, investing in tropical forest health could represent 23% of the total climate mitigation needed every year between now and 2030 to keep warming under 2°C. Indigenous lands currently contain around one-third of the carbon stored aboveground in the Amazon, much of which is not legally recognized or protected by the Brazilian government. Only 14% of total deforestation in the Amazon between 2000 and 2015 occurred in indigenous territories and Protected Natural Areas, even though these areas contained 55% of total forest cover in 2000.

By undercutting environmental enforcement and indigenous land use rights, Bolsonaro could degrade our biggest rainforest beyond a point of no return. Brazil’s Supreme Court has been a powerful actor in land use cases and protecting the Amazon; thus, it is important to funnel efforts to strengthen the judiciary by increasing the lower courts’ knowledge of environmental laws. We are nowhere close to understanding all of the benefits that our planets’ most biodiverse forest confers on us, but we do know that it plays a key role in mitigating climate change, fueling the global water cycle, and providing the ingredients for Western medicine. Though it may feel far away, Bolsonaro’s attack on the Amazon will have repercussions that will be felt globally.