The US and Brazil on Sept. 13 announced an agreement to promote private-sector development in the Amazon rainforest. US officials said a $100 million fund will be established to “protect biodiversity” by supporting businesses in hard-to-reach areas of the forest. At the meeting in Washington where the pact was struck, Brazil’s foreign minister Ernesto Araujo said: “We want to be together in the endeavour to create development for the Amazon region which we are convinced is the only way to protect the forest. So we need new initiatives, new productive initiatives, that create jobs, that create revenue for people in the Amazon and that’s where our partnership with the United States will be very important for us.” (BBC News, Sept. 14; AFP, Sept. 13)
Almost as if to drive home how cynical all this is, just 10 days later Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in his address to the UN General Assembly in New York basically asserted his right to go on destroying the Amazon, saying it is a “fallacy” to describe the Amazon as the heritage of humanity and a “misconception” that its forests are the lungs of the world. (BBC News, Sept. 24)
Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) last month showed a 84% increase in fires in the Amazon when compared to 2018. But Bolsonaro calls the satellite data “lies,” and fired INPE’s lead scientist, Ricardo Galvão, for defending the data. (Veganista, BBC News, Aug. 21)
Another government worker involved in defending the forest was actually killed. Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was shot twice in the head in front of his family while riding a motorbike down a main street of Tabatinga, in the Tres Fronteras area of Amazonas state, near the borders with Colombia and Peru. Santos had spent more than 12 years working for FUNAI, the indigenous affairs agency, to uphold the land rights of the Amazon’s peoples. (The Telegraph, Sept. 9)
Brazil is named by human rights groups as the deadliest country in the world for land defenders, with at least 57 murdered last year Some legal scholars maintain that the current fires, and the general development thrust into the rainforest, constitute a form of genocideagainst the Amazon’s indigenous peoples
The hamburger connection to genocide
Private-sector penetration of the Amazon is, of course, the main driver of its destruction. Brazil is the planet’s leading exporter of beef, with a record 1.64 million tons sent to its top markets China, Egypt and the European Union in 2018, according to the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association. Brazilian beef production has surged over the past two decades, with exports measured in both weight and value increasing by 10 times between 1997 and 2016—at the direct expense of the Amazon. Over 65% of deforested land in the Amazon is now being grazed. (PhysOrg, Aug. 25)
Since 1978 over 750,000 square kilometers (289,000 square miles) of the Amazon have been deforested across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. Brazil, with the biggest share of the Amazon at some 60%, has also seen the most destruction. Over the last four decades, more than 18% of the Brazilian Amazon has been lost—an area roughly the size of California.
This period also saw a shift from the clearing of land by subsistence farmers to industrial activities and large-scale agriculture as the main driver of deforestation. Vast areas of forest were cleared for cattle pasture and soy farms, drowned for dams, dug up for minerals. The proliferation of roads opened previously inaccessible regions to settlement by poor farmers, illegal logging, and land speculators.
Most clearing in the Amazon takes place along the “arc of deforestation” from Pará state in the north to Mato Grosso in the south and the Brazil-Peru-Bolivia area in the southwest, Deforestation in Brazil declined sharply in the first years of the new century due to both government interventions and efforts by civil society. However in recent years, this progress has stalled, with deforestation beginning to rise again.
Peru, with the second largest share of the Amazon, has also seen its rate of deforestation surge over the past decade—due to oil exploitation, completion of an inter-oceanic highway, and a surge in gold mining in the Madre de Dios region. (Mongabay, April 1; Oregon State University, Aug. 14, 2018; Global Forest Atlas)
How green is soy?
Soy cultivation also accounts for a growing share of deforestation in Brazil. Traditionally grown in the more temperate climes of southern Brazil, soy in the 1970’s began to penetrate the tropical zones of the country, thanks to development of new varieties resistant to warm climates, combined with intensive fertilizer use. At the same time, demand for soy as an animal feed exploded due both to increasing demand for meat in China and the crash of Peru’s anchovy fishery. (Global Forest Atlas)
Most expansion of soy cultivation occurred in the Cerrado, a wooded savanna that lies to the south of the Amazon, especially in Mato Grosso state. Direct conversion of Amazon rainforest lands for soy has been relatively limited. However, the explosion of soy cultivation has indirectly impacted the Amazon. Soy expansion has driven up land prices, displacing cattle ranchers to Amazon frontier areas, spurring deforestation. (Mongabay, July 28. 2012)
The US-China trade war could further fuel expansion of soy cultivation in Brazil. According to researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, Brazil is poised to become an even more important source of soy for China following the erection trade barriers with the US. Last year, the US introduced tariffs of up to 25% on Chinese imports goods worth $250 billion. China retaliated by imposing 25% tariffs on $110-billion worth of US goods—including soy beans. US exports of soy beans to China dropped by 50% in 2018—even though the trade war began only midway through the year. The KIT scholars estimate that, if Brazil alone were to meet this demand, the amount of land dedicated to soy production in the nation could increase by up to 39%, with the loss of up to 50,139 square miles of forest, an area the size of Greece. (Pacific Standard, April 18; Nature, March 27)