Brazil: COVID-19 increases threat to Amazon forests

Brazil: COVID-19 increases threat to Amazon forests

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A man works in a burning tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers in Iranduba, Amazonas State, Brazil, Aug., 20, 2019. (Reuters)

Until about a month ago, social media feeds around the world were full of pictures of clear skies, clean rivers and lakes, and absolutely pristine nature. Much of the conventional, if not scientific, wisdom was that months of lockdown around the world had healed nature to a large degree and could perhaps even offset global warming, or at least a start had been made.

Thus, the news coming from Brazil’s space agency last week that the number of fires in the Amazon basin in the month of June had been the highest since 2007 set alarm bells ringing. The country registered 2,248 fires last month — a 20 percent increase from 2019 and only below the record of 2007, when the number of fires breached 3,500.

The fires are caused by people clearing land for farming and cattle grazing or companies logging the forests for their precious timber. Even though, from 2004 to 2012, the then-government had managed to curb forest clearing with strict protection laws, these have been drastically diluted by President Jair Bolsonaro since he came to power last year. His government has happily overseen a huge increase in deforestation.

The fires in the Amazon are not just Brazil’s headache; they are a global concern. Of the roughly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted around the world each year, the Amazon basin absorbs more than 2 billion tons from the atmosphere, acting as the planet’s single biggest sink and making it critical for mitigating global warming. The fires in these forests not only reduce the capacity for absorption, but also pump millions more tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Last year, the Brazilian Space Agency counted more than 75,000 fires up to August, with July and August marking the intensification of a number of fires. Thus, the increase registered in June this year could be a precursor to a sharp jump over the next three months, partially due to continued government indifference but also due to the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Brazil has the second-highest number of infections in the world, behind only the US, with 1.7 million cases and more than 68,000 deaths. The economic impact of the pandemic on Brazil, as well as the entire South American continent, is expected to be severe, with global agencies forecasting a 9.5 percent drop in gross domestic product — one of the worst ever. And this forecast was made a while ago, when the situation was not as alarming as it has now become.

Unfortunately for Brazilians, the pandemic and the Amazon fires have developed a mutual cause-effect relationship. On the one hand, the dense smoke that blankets much of the country can accentuate the respiratory problems COVID-19 patients already experience. And Brazil’s creaky health care infrastructure is already entirely overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, leaving little room for doctors to be able to treat serious cases of breathing disorders caused by the fires.

On the other hand, the economic crisis facing the country will hurt the Amazon forests in two different but extremely harmful ways. One is that, to recoup their losses, Brazilians may turn to ravaging the wealth of the Amazon basin by illegally felling trees for timber or even poaching the rich wildlife there. And they can expect impunity as most wings of government are battling the pandemic and have few resources and even little appetite for dealing with the forest fires — something that many may just ignore as an annual feature no one has any control over. 

The other, perhaps more potent, risk is that Bolsonaro, who has actually talked of “developing” the Amazon basin and utilizing its wealth for economic benefits, may egg on companies and cooperatives of farmers to go the whole hog on the forest in a bid to kick-start the Brazilian economy. He has already been encouraging global mining and oil companies to explore the forests for the riches they may hold. Deforestation rose by 12 percent in May, even though the entire nation was in the grip of the pandemic. 

Unfortunately for Brazilians, the pandemic and the Amazon fires have developed a mutual cause-effect relationship.

Ranvir S. Nayar

Ecologists say that the next two months are critical for the Amazon basin. Last year, the fires grew through July and peaked in August and September. The predictions for this year are also rather somber. For now, with his thoughtless policies and actions, Bolsonaro — who this week tested positive for the virus himself — has proven to be completely unable to handle the pandemic and has already lost two health ministers due to differences of opinion. Even while the infections keep shooting up, he has eased most of the restrictions on the movement of people. Thus, the crisis can only worsen from here on; not only in terms of health care but also economically, pushing millions of Brazilians to the verge of starvation.

And one can be certain that Bolsonaro and his capitalist entourage will use the occasion and excuse of the economic crisis to take a free hand in plundering the world’s largest biodiversity reserve. By and large, the international community can be expected to be a silent observer, as it has been since Bolsonaro came to power. And even if the wider world did raise its voice, there is little it can do, as US President Donald Trump is certain to continue to support his pal Bolsonaro. With the US aligned with him, the odds are that the Brazilian president will get away with pretty much whatever he wants, and it will be his countrymen that pay the heaviest price, both now and for a very long time to come.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.
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