Simulations conducted by a group of researchers at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research point to a potentially devastating surge in deforestation in the Amazon if the president-elect carries out his most radical promises to undermine environmental and indigenous protections
Aerial shot of deforestation in Brazil's Aripuana National Forest, 2017.
Researchers at INPE, the government agency that monitors deforestation in the Amazon, have predicted that deforestation in the Amazon could triple between 2020 and 2030 if Jair Bolsonaro, who will be inaugurated as Brazil’s new president on 1 January, is allowed to implement his vision of economic development through the erosion of environmental protections.
The models run by INPE’s researchers simulated different scenarios of competition for land to meet demand for global commodities, including beef and soy, combined with a lack of enforcement of the Forest Code.
According to the models, deforestation in the biome could increase by 268%, reaching 25,600 square kilometres a year as early as 2020. Deforestation in 2017 reached 6,900 square kilometres.
This level of deforestation was last seen in 2004, when it reached a record 27,800 square kilometres. This situation motivated then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Environment Minister Marina Silva to adopt a series of measures to curb forest loss.
These included the creation of new protected areas and indigenous reservations, and the inclusion of protective measures in infrastructure development, as well as simply enforcing existing legislation and fining illegal deforesters.
By 2012, deforestation had dropped by 83% to around 4,600 square kilometres, the lowest rate ever recorded.
Since 2013 rates have been on the increase again, motivated by a weakening of the Forest Code the previous year and a series of amnesties granted by the current presidency of Michel Temer.
Temer allied himself to the influential agribusiness lobby in congress to stay in power despite extremely low approval ratings and a spate of corruption scandals. Temer’s administration has also been active in reducing the sizes of protected areas or declassifying them altogether, which has in turn motivated state legislatures to follow suit.
Nonetheless, current deforestation rates remain far below the historical highs seen in the early 2000s, when impunity reigned and environmental legislation was rarely enforced.
The gains of the last decade and a half could be quickly wiped out if Bolsonaro, who is also aligned to the agribusiness lobby and counted on their political support to be elected, stays true to his word and puts an end to Ibama’s – Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency – “industry of fines”, as he calls it.
Although Bolsonaro has retreated from his earlier threat to absorb the Environment Ministry into the Agriculture Ministry, he insists the new Environment Minister will be someone sympathetic to agribusiness interests.
He has pledged that the new Minister will “ease” the issuance of licenses to farmers and miners. Even before any formal legislative or regulatory changes are made, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has already emboldened illegal deforesters and land grabbers.
Bolsonaro sees current levels of environmental protection and the demarcation of new protected areas or indigenous reservations as obstacles to the country’s development. He has promised a freeze on the demarcation of new such areas.
The president-elect has repeatedly said that Brazil’s economic growth depends to a large extent on the productivity of the agribusiness sector, which should be freed from unnecessary constraints to its expansion.
His choice for Agriculture Minister, Tereza Cristina – a prominent leader of the agribusiness lobby in congress – is a strong backer of a bill that would streamline environmental impact assessments of new infrastructure projects, greatly benefiting agribusinesses and international investors.
As the models show, this vision could have a devastating impact for Brazil’s forests and its indigenous and other traditional peoples.
It remains to be seen whether a return to a past of almost untrammelled deforestation will materialise.
Bolsonaro can expect strong reactions from civil society, law enforcement authorities, courts and even the private sector if he seeks to deliver in full on the threats he made during the election.