All of these measures punch holes in the Amazon’s protective framework and run contrary to scientific advice and the problems on the ground. Brazil is in the midst of a widening drought that has seen water inflows at some hydroelectric plants fall to 91-year lows. This is a cause and an effect of forest clearance.
Since Bolsonaro took power in 2019, deforestation and fire in the Amazon have risen to their highest levels in more than a decade. The past three months have continued that trend, though slightly behind last year’s peaks. Given the tinder-dry conditions in many parts of the Amazon, there are fears that the usual peak of the fire season in July and August could be worse than usual.
Scientists suspect the rainforest may be slipping into a series of vicious cycles. At a local level, land clearance and burning led to extended droughts and higher temperatures, which in turn weakens the resilience of the ecosystem and leads to more fire.
At a regional level, this can intensify drought because the respiration of the rainforest normally acts as a pump to drive humid weather systems across a wide area of Brazil, South America and the Atlantic. When the forest weakens, that pump is less effective.
There are also global repercussions because land clearance is turning the Amazon region from climate friend to climate foe. A study published in Nature reveals forest burning now produces about three times more CO2 than the remaining vegetation is able to absorb. This accelerates global heating.
Global market forces are partly responsible. Deforestation tends to rise when the prices of soy, beef and gold are high. No government of any stripe has completely managed to stop forest clearance in the past four decades. But government policies make a difference.
Amazon deforestation reduced 80% between 2004 and 2012 under the Workers party administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro has steadily dismantled or discredited the mechanisms that achieved that – satellite monitoring, personnel on the ground and legislation to punish offenders and demarcate indigenous land and conservation areas.
“The main thing this government has done is to undermine the capacity of the state to tackle illegal deforestation,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a network of 50 civil society organisations.
In Congress, meanwhile Bolsonaro and the “ruralista” agribusiness lobby have put more supporters in key positions: Arthur Lira as leader of Congress, Carla Zambelli as chair of the lower house Environmental Commission and Bia Kicis as chair of the Justice Commission. These politicians have enabled the ruralistas’ agenda to go forward more aggressively.
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