The Amazon contains 53% of the Earth’s remaining tropical rainforest, it contains one-fifth of all fresh water in the world, it also contributes 20% of the world’s oxygen and has a decisive role in regulating world temperatures. Its degradation presents a global risk. Its preservation should be afforded great consideration by not only its guardian, Brazil, but by every nation state.
However, deforestation in the Amazon has meant that the Pantanal, the tropical wetland, has soared in area by nearly 50% since 2018, the highest level recorded since 2008. In tandem with which, the seizure of land in the indigenous territories increased by 135% in 2019.
The Brazilian government’s policies under President Jair Balsanaro, who took power in 2019, have resulted in a rise in illegal land raids in the indigenous territories, territories recognised under Brazilian law. One of his first policy moves was to relocate the authority to accredit indigenous reserves as protected territories from FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation) to the Ministry of Agriculture. Rights groups and indigenous leaders objected and the measures were blocked by Brazil’s supreme court.
These policies come directly from a decree by Jair Bolsonaro. Through his policy, lawbreakers who would normally be fined for illegal deforestation and other environmental infringements in the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil by federal enforcement agents, have their fines reviewed by a commission in the Environmental Ministry at “conciliation” hearings. The commission reviewing the fine can offer discounts or eliminate the fine altogether. These policies have seen fines for environmental crimes dropping by 42% in the Amazon basin between January and August 2019, the lowest since 2010, and the inspection operations of illegal mining and deforestation dropping by 70%, at the time the federal government has cut the budget for enforcement by 27.4% this year. Fines issued from January through mid-April could be worth 412 million reais (US$82 million). Under Brazilian law, all unpaid fines lapse in five years and, in some circumstances, in three years, after which violators no longer need to pay them .
Fines for illegal behaviour should act as a deterrent, however the effectual suspension of payment of such fines acts as a green light for criminal networks destroying the Amazon rainforest. Policies that flout environmental laws in Brazil are compounded by the removal of environmental officials from their positions because of their successful operations against large-scale illegal mining and deforestation in the Amazon. Bills that further infringe the environmental agency’s capacity to fulfil its duty include a bill that would grant amnesty to people who illegally occupy forests to raise cattle or crops and another bill to open up Indigenous Territories to commercial exploitation.
In a response to the international condemnation of fires in the Amazon, Bolsonaro appeased his international counterparts by banning setting fires in the rainforest for four months in July 2020, only three months before putting the Armed forces in charge of overseeing and coordinating environmental agencies in military operations to combat deforestation, without however detailing the resources available to them to carry out their duties.
President Bolsonaro’s bill to allow commercial mining on indigenous lands in February 2020 further threatens the lives and homes of the approximately 305 indigenous tribes in Brazil. This not only contravenes Article 5 of the Human Rights Act, that maintains indigenous peoples’ distinct cultural and social institutions, but contravenes Brazil’s 1988 constitution that protects the indigenous population under Chapters IV, VII and VIII – under which the removal of indigenous groups from their lands is prohibited except by referendum of the National Congress or catastrophe/epidemic, with guaranteed immediate return as soon as the risk ceases. Furthermore the social organization, customs, languages, creeds and traditions of the Amazonian Indians are recognized, as well as their original rights to the lands they traditionally occupy. The Union has the responsibility to delineate these lands and to protect and ensure respect for all their property. Lands traditionally occupied by Amazonian Indians are those on which they live on a permanent basis, those used for their productive activities, those indispensable for the preservation of environmental resources necessary for their well-being and those necessary for their physical and cultural reproduction, according to their uses, customs and traditions.
The actions against the indigenous peoples also counter the inter-American human rights system that Brazil is signatory to.
The drivers of deforestation extend beyond Brazil’s land boundaries, and are in large part the high consumption for soya, timber, beef and paper, a demand that stems from across the world. The EU imports 20% of its soy and 17% of beef from land deforested in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado region. Many argue that putting trade restrictions on Brazil would only damage the situation for hardworking families, however governments in talks with Brazil on trade deals need to encourage the Brazilian government to include conditions that would end and reverse deforestation, a necessary condition before signing agreements with Bolsonaro’s administration. One such deal is the EU-Mercosur Trade agreement which would create the largest free-trade zone in the world, cut tariffs and simplify customs procedures. However the agreement between Brazil and the EU needs to be ratified by its 27 member states and the European Parliament. Brazil’s flouting of international law and infringement of the human rights of indigenous population may derail the deal without Bolsonaro.
There should also be transparency in the business supply chain to ensure raw materials such as soy, oil, beef, timber and paper, which are the second largest drivers of deforestation, are certified as responsibly sourced and not associated with deforestation nor cause environmental or human rights issues, in the same way that modern day slavery laws ensure supply chains are free from slavery, and similar to the laws introduced in France in 2017.
Finally, consumers themselves need to boycott soya-based products that do not meet standards such as those certified by ProTerra or the Roundtable on Responsible Soy that guarantee soya as being deforestation free, Consumers could also reduce their meat consumption.
The Brazilian people are custodians of the Amazon rainforest, a critical natural resource, whose deterioration directly affects global climate change, and is vital lifeline and ancestral home to 900,000 indigenous people. Brazil’s government should reverse those policies that have damaged the Amazon rainforest in the past ten years, policies that not only endanger the rain forest but persecute the indigenous population who have been its inhabitants for centuries.
Without such measures continued disregard for this fragile and precious lifeline, could turn swathes of the tropical forest into savannah, making climate change harder to control.