Since the Amazon rainforest is the largest and most biodiverse tropical rainforest in the Americas, it makes sense that protecting it would be essential to combating climate change. Unfortunately, various factors have set back the land rights of the Amazon’s indigenous inhabitants and placed the rainforest in further peril.
The Brazilian government has been incredibly irresponsible in this regard, which presents a real problem. Since most of the Amazon rainforest is set in Brazil, the actions of that government have a particularly large impact on this vital part of our ecosystem. Instead of protecting the rainforest, far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro has chosen to set back environmental protections and support developmental projects that destroy more than they build.
How is Bolsonaro weakening environmental protections?
Bolsonaro has pushed an infamous “land-grab” bill that permits companies to occupy traditionally owned lands and public forests more easily, which leaves them at further risk of deforestation. This particular bill has already been approved by the Brazilian Congress’s lower house, so now indigenous rights groups are furiously lobbying the Senate to vote against it.
An equally dangerous law that the Bolsonaro government is pushing is Bill PL 490, which would mark 1988, the year that the Brazilian Constitution was adopted, as a cut-off date for indigenous communities’ rights to own certain pieces of land. This arbitrarily restrictive bill has been approved by the house’s technical judicial board, and it in part sparked the large-scale indigenous protests that took place in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, for the past few months.
The Brazilian government’s destructive policies are already having an effect. A report published by the Amazon Conservation’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) earlier this month revealed that the rainforest suffered more than 860,000 hectares of forest loss this year, and around 79% of the deforestation took place in the Brazilian Amazon. To put this in perspective, 860,000 hectares encompass an area around seven times the size of Los Angeles. Data from the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil showed a noticeable spike in deforestation during Bolsonaro’s term, with the forest loss reaching levels not seen since 2008.
Outside the Brazilian Amazon
Significant degrees of deforestation have also occurred in the Colombian Amazon, which was mostly the result of the 2016 peace accords that ended the 52-year-long civil war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Although the peace accords were evidently worth signing, they left behind major power vacuums that made it easier for land grabbers, illegal loggers and miners, and other groups to conduct their business at the land’s expense.
The COVID-19 pandemic also played a part in the Colombian Amazon’s increased deforestation in recent years, as the resulting decrease in the state activity and presence created more opportunities for land grabbers and other groups to take advantage of the land. Unlike Bolsonaro’s regime, the Colombian government has thankfully made efforts to curb deforestation in the region, but more still needs to be done.
Why is deforestation happening?
One major factor that leads to this widespread deforestation is road construction. Research has shown that around 95% of the Amazon’s deforestation took place within 5.5 kilometers of a road or river and that 90% of forest fires occurred within 4 kilometers of an illegally built road.
By themselves, roads do not cause much deforestation, and they can even be useful in allowing rural communities to reach health care facilities and other vital infrastructures more easily. Unfortunately, roads also make it much easier for illegal land grabbers, loggers, and miners to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the rainforest, which allows them to heavily deforest the area with their activities.
Additionally, most of the Amazon’s deforestation is motivated by cattle ranching. Various studies have demonstrated that around 80% of deforestation can be attributed to ranchers wanting to expand their pasture so they can fuel cattle production. Between 1988 and 2014, the Brazilian Amazon alone saw around 63% of its deforested land converted into cattle pasture, which makes up a surface area five times that of Portugal.
Of course, many of these ranchers do not have malicious intent, and some are actively trying to produce beef in environmentally sustainable ways. But the abundance of cattle ranches that incentivize deforestation is nonetheless an extremely unfortunate consequence of the immense global demand for beef.
How deforestation affects the environment
Regardless of the exact causes of deforestation, its effects are numerous and dangerous. The removal of forest means the removal of habitat that animal and plant species rely on to live. Forest trees offer shelter for these species and help keep the temperature regulated, and without them, temperatures swing much more wildly. Coupled with the lack of shelter, many animals and plants are put in significant danger as a result.
Additionally, deforestation contributes to more greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, being left to linger in the atmosphere and contribute to further warming of the planet. Trees help prevent this by absorbing carbon dioxide, but as scientists have recently confirmed, the Amazon is currently releasing more carbon dioxide than it can absorb because of rampant deforestation.
Trees also take water from the atmosphere and return it to the soil, so when trees get chopped down or burned, the soil becomes dryer, making it more difficult for plants to grow. All these effects that deforestation has on the Amazon impact indigenous communities, many of which rely on the rainforest’s resources for their livelihoods.
Indigenous communities are the key
Fortunately, research has shown one way to mitigate the damage, and that is to protect indigenous communities’ rights to their land. A study by MAAP revealed that of the 2 million hectares of forest that was lost between 2017 and 2020, only 9% of the damage took place in protected areas and 15% took place in indigenous lands. The remaining 76% of the damage took place entirely outside of these areas. From this data, it seems that although protected and indigenous lands are not immune to fires and other forms of deforestation, they are still remarkably effective at reducing deforestation and the damage it causes.
Hope is still alive
Of course, several challenges stand in the way of indigenous communities securing their land rights, and the Brazilian government’s weakened environmental protections are a particularly major one. But while progress seems slow, it is nonetheless being made. In 2019, the Waorani tribe, which hails from the Ecuadorian Amazon, won a major legal battle that ultimately prevented the Ecuadorian government from selling the tribe’s land for oil exploration without them granting their permission first.
More recently, in 2020, the Brazilian Amazon’s Ashaninka group was given the equivalent of $3 million USD over a lawsuit, which marked a victory against the Brazilian timber companies that encroached on and cleared the group’s land during the 1980s. Slowly but surely, the legal systems of countries across South America are recognizing indigenous people’s land rights, and if this trend continues, the Amazon will likely be in much better shape going forward.
That still leaves the issue of the Bolsonaro administration, which seems intent on chipping away at the laws that protect those land rights. At the risk of sounding like a political advertisement, it looks like voting Bolsonaro out of office is one of the best shots Brazilians have at helping indigenous communities secure their rights. Thankfully, there is hope in this regard, too, as recent polls for the 2022 Brazilian presidential election show former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva maintaining a sizable lead over Bolsonaro.
Polls have been wrong in the past, and they could change quite a bit before election day. Even so, early signs look promising, and since Lula has been president before, people know that judging by his past actions, he is more likely to pass and enforce environmental reforms than Bolsonaro is.
No one solution is going to immediately nullify the many problems that the Amazon rainforest currently faces. But as long as people keep fighting for the rainforest’s future, then the health of the forest’s wildlife and communities as well as the planet at large could improve dramatically.
What are your thoughts on the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest? Are there any potential solutions to the problem that we haven’t considered? Let us know in the comments below!