Politics of the Amazon

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The deforestation battle

One major indicator of the health of the Amazon is the amount of rainforest that is lost every year. Deforestation has multiple causes. Trees are cut down for logging or to make way for commercial farming and cattle mining. In the dry season farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to open up new land for planting. Typically, the construction of highways provides transport routes for incomers to push back the forest, developing an associated network of dirt roads and small settlements. It is estimated that in the last 50 years the Brazilian Amazon has lost around one-fifth (20%) of its forest cover, a total of 480,000 sq kms. As discussed below, some believe this puts it close to a dangerous tipping point which could lead to a complete collapse of the rainforest eco-system.

Since the beginning of this century rates of deforestation in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon have surged, fallen back, and then begun to climb again. Between 2005 and 2012 the Brazilian deforestation rate fell by an encouraging 80%. This has been attributed to better monitoring of the forest, improved law enforcement, more efficient farming practices, and initiatives to halt the sale of goods on illegally deforested land. Some of the improvements were attributed to the policies of left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), and his funding and support for indigenous reserves, government agencies such as IBAMA (the environmental regulator), and FUNAI (the national indigenous peoples’ foundation).

However, in subsequent years this level of support was reduced, particularly during the far-right presidency of Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2023). Bolsonaro allied himself with farming, logging, cattle ranching, and mining lobbies that favoured rapid and unregulated development of the rainforest. The new president also slashed the budgets of the relevant agencies creating a situation where there were no effective restrictions on illegal activity, such as the mass incursion of small-scale gold miners into the Yanomani indigenous reserve. The spread of forest fires, used as we have seen by farmers to clear land during the dry season, triggered widespread criticism of Bolsonaro’s policies and contributed to the country’s international diplomatic isolation.

After a narrow win over Bolsonaro in presidential elections in October/November 2022, Lula took office again in January 2023, at the start of his third four-year term. He rapidly announced plans to restore previous protections of indigenous people, sending in army and police to evict illegal miners from the main Yanomani reserve. A wider package of measures was also announced in June, including the registration of more indigenous reserves and protected territories, alongside measures to strengthen the security response to criminal activity.

Initial results were mixed, but there were some signs that the new approach was having a positive effect. According to satellite monitoring by space agency INPE, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by 31% in the first five months of 2023, to 1,986 sq kms, down from 2,867 sq kms in the same period in 2022. However, environmental experts said the real test would come at the start of the dry season in July, which usually sees a peak in both deforestation and forest fires.

Other countries in the Amazon basin have also been struggling to control deforestation. In a first estimate made in May 2023, the Colombian ministry of the environment calculated that total deforestation fell by between 15% and 25% in 2022, relative to the year before. A more precise number was promised when more satellite images had been processed. Deforestation in Colombia peaked in 2016, the year in which the government signed a peace agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) rebels which included environmental protection clauses. Current environment minister Susana Muhamad said that under the government’s national development plan it is committed to tackling 28 deforestation hot spots, of which 22 are located in Amazonia, Colombia’s Amazon region. This is part of the Colombian ‘Amazon arc’ which sweeps across the departments of Meta, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo. Muhamad said that the previous conservative government had turned to the courts in an attempt to evict settlers from the hot spots in national parks. In contrast she claimed her centre-left government was getting better results through a process of dialogue as part of its ‘total peace’ campaign.

One attempt to get an overview of deforestation across the nine Amazon basin countries has been made by a network of scientists in MAAP, Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project. By its calculations, in 2021 nearly 2m hectares (ha) of primary rainforest were destroyed, a slight decrease on the 2.3m ha lost the preceding year. Another research coalition, Global Forest Watch, said that relatively speaking Bolivia had experienced the most intense process of forest destruction, with the loss of over 6m ha between 2001 and 2021, equivalent to 10% of its total forested area. This ranked it as number three in the world by intensity of deforestation. Losses had been concentrated in the Chiquitanía region of the Bolivian Amazon in the south-eastern department of Santa Cruz.

In the same 2001-2021 period Global Forest Watch calculated that Venezuela lost 2.29m ha of primary rainforest, concentrated along the Orinoco River at the very north of the Amazon region. Over the same two decades, Ecuador lost nearly 1m ha in the eastern Amazon, taking its total cumulative loss to around 15%. Guyana by contrast has experienced much lower levels of forest loss (around 0.1% of the total), which may reflect the relative lack of economic development in the interior of the country (something which may also change over time as a result of the current coast-based oil-led economic boom).

The factors driving deforestation vary from country to country. In Bolivia the top cause is the spread of forest fires, ignited to clear land for general farming. Slash-and-burn is also important in Ecuador, but there the prime aim is to make way for palm oil cultivation. In both those countries, the forest is also being destroyed to create open pastures for cattle ranching. In Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana deforestation is largely caused by illegal gold mining. However, across the Amazon basin as a whole, cattle ranching and general agriculture are responsible for 84% of total deforestation. In the two decades since the turn of the century, the area of land dedicated to farming and livestock rose by 81.5% to 1.45m sq kms, reflecting surging global demand for soya, other cereals, beef, and palm oil. According to Marcelo Coppola, a journalist with environmental publication Mongabay, “Where there is cattle ranching and soybean farming, there is fire”. Around 169,000 sq kms of Amazon rainforest are burnt every year.

Future deforestation trends are hard to predict. Tougher government policies may help reduce the annual cycle of slashing and burning, but powerful commercial pressures are working in the opposite direction. Research group Rede Amazónica de Informação Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG), has extrapolated from existing trends in 2001-20 to come up with three possible scenarios for 2021-2025. In an optimistic scenario the rainforest will lose just over a further 94,000 sq kms, while in the pessimist scenario the loss could be two and a half times greater at nearly 240,000 sq kms. The third scenario is a midway point between the first two. A range of environmental analysts say the outcome is more likely to be closer to the pessimistic end of the spectrum.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Source: RAISG

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