A spike in forest clearance puts the Amazon on course for a severe fire season, experts warn, which could aggravate the deadly impact of Covid-19 in the region.
From January to March, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose 51% compared to the same time last year, according to preliminary satellite data from the space research agency INPE.
Combined with a low rainfall forecast for the May to October dry season, this forest clearance creates the conditions for rampant wildfires, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam).
“This year’s fire could be 50% worse than what we had last year,” Paulo Moutinho, a senior scientist at Ipam, told Climate Home News by video call from Brazil.
In tandem with an opening up of the rainforest to loggers, ranchers and miners, the coronavirus pandemic is spreading fast through Amazonas capital Manaus and indigenous communities. Smoke from forest fires could make it even deadlier, as it contains pollutants that have been linked to increased risk of dying from Covid-19.
“Covid-19 and deforestation are two crises that are entirely connected,” said Moutinho. “We have all the elements for the perfect storm.”
Land grabbing and illegal gold mining on public land without official demarcation have significantly increased since President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019.
Emboldened by Bolsonaro’s promise to open up the Amazon for business, people seeking to exploit its resources have laid a web of unofficial roads. Now, their incursions into the forest risk spreading Covid-19 to indigenous land, where health facilities are minimal or non-existent.
As of Monday, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Brazil was nearing 100,000 with more 6,750 people killed by the virus. Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin, has been one of Brazil’s worst affected.
According to the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab), at least 26 indigenous people living in the Amazon have now died from Covid-19. They believe the true toll of the disease is higher, with many cases going unrecorded.
“Native communities, some living in isolation in the Amazon Basin, could be completely eliminated, without any defense against the coronavirus,” he wrote, warning of “a real risk of genocide”.
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Harvard University’s school of public health recently established that long term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by wildfires, is linked to a higher death rate from Covid-19.
“Reducing deforestation has become an act of public health,” Moutinho told CHN. Brazil’s government and state authorities need to take strong action or “the situation will be bad,” he said.
Last week Brazil’s vice president Hamilton Mourão, appointed earlier this year to coordinate the protection and development of the Amazon among ministries, announced plans to deploy armed forces to combat deforestation and fires in the forest.
The army has a positive record of working with environmental organisations and the federal police, pooling knowledge and resources to halt illegal activities and prevent deforestation and fires.
“But having the army by itself is not going to help because it doesn’t have the intelligence to lead on this. This is just an easy announcement but there are no plans for the future,” Adriana Ramos, coordinator at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an organisation which works to protect social and environmental rights and works closely with indigenous people, told CHN.
Since his election, President Bolsonaro has weakened environmental regulations and the organisations enforcing them.
While announcing plans to deploy the army in the Amazon, the government was also removing senior inspection staff working at Ibama, Brazil’s environment protection agency, following media reports of an operation to track illegal miners in indigenous lands in the state of Pará, which has seen some of the country’s largest deforestation rates.
Ibama is also the governmental agency with the most on the ground intelligence about environmental crimes in the Amazon, Daniel Azeredo, a federal prosecutor based in the capital Brasilia, told CHN. “And it is being dismantled.”
“The presence of the military in the region may bring some immediate result, but it won’t deliver significant structural changes. It is an emergency measure and does not provide a lasting solution,” he said.
Azeredo added keeping the military active in the region would be very expensive at a time when the country’s resources are being mobilised to address the coronavirus pandemic.
In Brasilia, Congress is preoccupied with a proposed amnesty for land grabbers. Put forward by President Bolsonaro in December, the measure would regularise the ownership of public land that was illegally deforested and occupied before 2018, providing certain criteria are met. The text needs congressional approval by 19 May to be adopted.
It is a revision of an existing 2009 law that allowed people occupying public land without demarcation before 2004 to receive land titles. In 2018, Congress extended the deadline to land occupied before 2011. This would be the third extension.
Brenda Brito, an associate researcher at Imazon, an organisation dedicated to protecting the Amazon, told CHN: “Every time Congress agrees to change the date, it is sending a signal that people can continue to occupy land and lobby for new legislation. That deadline has no credibility.”
Under the proposal, squatters would be permitted to buy the land from the government at a fraction of market value – a loss Imazon estimated at $30 billion.
“The government itself is promoting the politics of invasion,” said Ramos of ISA. At the same time, it “wanted to show the international community that it is doing something” against deforestation and wildfires by deploying the army.
“I believe that the guys on the ground will try to do their best,” she added, saying the spread of Covid-19 across the Amazon gave an extra imperative to stop illegal trespassers from entering protected indigenous territories.
“We need the army. I hope they can do a good job because otherwise there will be a lot of people dying,” Moutinho, of Ipam, agreed.
Ipam has been calling for governance in the Amazon region based on long-term strategies to address deforestation and fires in the wider context of land grabbing and illegal mining and logging.
Recent deforestation patterns in the Amazon show land clearance is increasing in non-designated public forests – those public areas that are not officially protected or marked as indigenous land.
In the first quarter of this year, unmarked public forests accounted for 46% of registered deforestation – up from 30% during the same period last year.
Brazil has over 65 million hectares of un-designated public forests in the Amazon – an area the size of France never officially allocated by the government.
For Moutinho, establishing new protected areas or indigenous land and promoting the sustainable use of forest resources such as rubber and forest nuts, could save trees from the chop.
“As a Brazilian society, we know how to [reduce deforestation],” he said, but there needs to be a plan.