Market News

 June 01, 2020
The Amazon will soon burn again

 When the dry season returns, the Amazon forest will burn again, as it does every year. But this time promises to be different. Last year's international headlines caught Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his allies by surprise. We can expect their response to the next fire season to contain more smoke and mirrors. It is crucial to focus on their actions.

Deforestation is increasing at an alarming pace. It has grown by 94 percent since August 2019, compared with the previous year's rate, which had been the highest in a decade. Unlike drier areas in Australia or California, the rainforest can't catch on fire unless humans cut trees down. The Amazon is being devastated on an industrial scale, and for what? Criminal groups are targeting public lands for low-productivity cattle ranching and mining. Illegal land-grabbing schemes destroy biodiversity and the potentials of bioeconomies, enriching well-connected individuals. Mr. Bolsonaro and his administration encourage it.

Many in Brazil's elites accepted a Faustian bargain: So long as the government's economic agenda remains friendly, they look the other way. Now, with all eyes on the pandemic crises, the Amazon and its Indigenous groups face existential threats, while criminals act as if they have permission to plunder.

Oversight and fines for infractions have declined substantially. Last month, Ricardo Salles, the environment minister, fired a director in an enforcement role after he carried out an operation to dismantle illegal mining. The federal government has kept key positions vacant and proposed huge budget cuts to environmental agencies, undermining fire prevention, monitoring and control. The president and his allies support a bill that provides further incentives to deforestation, allowing land grabbers to gain ownership of public lands, including Indigenous territories.

Earlier this year Mr. Bolsonaro announced an Amazon Council headed by the vice president, composed of military and cabinet members. One of its luminaries, Paulo Guedes, the University of Chicago-trained economy minister, prefers populist tropes to an evidence-based approach. At Davos he claimed that poor people destroy the forest because they have to eat. Deforestation relies on the labor of the poor, but it requires large sums of money and leaves behind desolation and social conflict. There is no evidence that it remedies poverty. Mr. Salles has a history of cozying up to infractors, shunning specialists and trolling environmentalists. In public, he often speaks in platitudes and increasingly pays lip service to environmental concerns. In a recently released video of a cabinet meeting, he encouraged weakening environmental protections while the press is distracted by the pandemic.

The vice president, Gen. Hamilton Mourão, has been particularly sensitive to the perception of foreign investors. Recently, in an online event hosted by a major bank, he promised that troops would be mobilized to combat fires and deforestation in the Amazon. On May 6, a federal decree gave the armed forces jurisdiction over those efforts, a measure with potential to sideline independent experts.

We cannot settle for photo opportunities. Mr. Mourão's Amazon Council does not include representatives from Brazil's world-class scientific community, nor from the Indigenous and civil society organizations engaged in safeguarding the forest. The vice president toes the party line in his support of the legislative proposal known as "the land-grabbers' bill," against the recommendations of specialists, including prosecutors.

Scientists agree that we are nearing a tipping point in deforestation that will lead to the Amazon's "savannization." This would have dire consequences not only for the forest, but also for Brazil's agriculture, urban water and energy supplies, and global temperatures. The ecological and socio-economic impacts are unfathomable, and they include the threat of zoonotic diseases. There is already evidence connecting the destruction of wetlands and rainforest to drought in the São Paulo metropolitan region, halfway across the continent.

If we lose the Amazon, it won't be for a lack of alternatives. Brazil has the know-how to turn this around. Marina Silva, the minister of the environment between 2003 and 2008, worked to drastically reduce the rate deforestation, which at the time was even higher.

International organizations and investors need to use their leverage and pressure counterparts in Brazil. The bill allowing land grabbers to gain legal title, a boon to deforestation, could come up for a vote anytime. Brazil's congressional leaders have been responsive to threats of sanctions, boycotts and divestment. If our current crises do not instill a sense of responsibility and calls to action, then we can expect what feels like a slow-burn apocalypse to get much worse.

The future of the forest's biodiversity depends on its human diversity. Demarcated Indigenous lands and extractive reserves, where local communities engage in sustainable and often traditional economic activities, have proved to be effective against the illegal destruction of the forest. That is one reason Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies are working so hard to erode Indigenous rights.

And contrary to what many might think, the forest has sustained complex societies without being destroyed. Millions of people inhabited the Amazonian basin before Europeans arrived. Some archaeologists and ethnobotanists now think of the forest as an engineered landscape, a great garden, resulting from tens of thousands of years of human interactions with fauna and flora. Talking about a return to the "virgin" forest never made much sense. Instead, we need to recognize that shamans can be more grounded than C.E.O.s. There is nothing practical-minded about enabling the degradation of ecosystems on which the stability of the planet depends.

The prescription is straightforward: Allow research institutions and environmental agencies to do their jobs, instead of dismantling them. Only then can discussions about bioeconomies move forward. A number of initiatives already integrate local peoples and knowledge with responsible partners. Cosmetics, ecotourism and agroforestry (from açai to incipient cocoa production), for example, all tend to be more lucrative than cattle ranching.

The present moment should serve as an alert to the fragility of so much of what we take for granted. No matter what, the Amazon will burn again. But we should avoid at all costs having to find out what it would be like to live in a planet without it. If we maintain course, it is a matter of time. Working to avoid the destruction of the world's greatest rainforest by criminals and the ideologues that empower them should be low-hanging fruit. While we still can.