Correction appended below.
With the ratification of a trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union on the horizon, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has suddenly become more concerned with the Amazon – or at least with how the international community views his lack of effort to protect it.
Deforestation in Brazil has grown steadily since Bolsonaro’s election in October, spiking by 88% in June and reaching record highs according to both official and independent reports published in July. Invasions by loggers and gold miners on indigenous lands have also become more common – with sometimes lethal consequences.
But despite the fact that satellite imagery makes plain the reality on the ground in Brazil’s rainforests, Bolsonaro has refused to face facts. He first called into question the motives of his own National Space Agency (INPE), the institute that has monitored forest coverage in Brazil since 1988. In July, one of INPE’s 11 monitoring systems issued 8,352 deforestation or forest degradation alerts calling for law enforcement action. These alerts pointed to the largest deforested area within a month since 2015: 1,864.2 square kilometers, or the equivalent of 186,000 soccer fields. Bolsonaro eventually recognized their validity, but said scientists should have followed a chain of command before publicizing “bad news.”
For all his concern, the president’s attempts to hide the truth about Brazil’s rainforests may have the opposite effect. The data behind INPE and others’ measurement of deforestation rates is readily available to the public. TerraBrasilis, the system created by INPE to monitor the forests in real time, is open to anyone who wants to use it, while data-literate citizens can freely access daily imaging of Earth at high resolution, made available by thousands of satellites now in orbit.
Bolsonaro’s sensitivity over this information being made public only draws attention to the degree to which deforestation has increased under his watch. The president and his Cabinet members argue that “the Amazon belongs to Brazil,” but it still can be monitored by anyone anywhere, including Brazil’s trade partners.
In China, concerns over deforestation appear to be gaining momentum. Chinese consumers, companies and the government have signaled that they could be in favor of stricter standards in agricultural supply chains and efforts to combat climate change. For example COFCO, a major Chinese player in agribusiness, supports curbing deforestation in commodity supply chains and could help push other large exporters to do the same.
The rise in deforestation could also jeopardize Mercosur’s trade deal with the EU, as it provides environmental parties and European farmers, who already oppose the deal, with ammunition to pressure against ratifying the accord. And even if it does get ratified, the agreement includes a clause requiring “measures to combat illegal logging and related trade,” and EU members will be able to use formal dispute procedures to file complaints against Brazil – with U.S. and Argentine producers happy to fill the void.
Deforestation rates thus have the potential both to damage Brazil’s image abroad and to hurt the country economically. Fighting deforestation should therefore be a constant mission of the government, in the same way it is committed to fighting inflation.
The good news is that fighting forest loss is neither unprecedented nor unattainable: Brazilian authorities know how to do it, based on the relative success in taming forest crimes over the past decade and a half. Brazil’s commitment to reduce deforestation by 80.5% by 2020, set out in its National Climate Change Plan and made into law in 2009, means that next year the rate of deforestation is required to be half of what it was in 2018. It is a steep challenge that calls for bold leadership.
If Bolsonaro continues to dismiss the problem, or try to sweep it under the rug, the consequences will be dire. Beyond a loss of trade markets, deforestation is linked to social problems, rising violence and a stark change in rain patterns and ecosystems. Accepting that deforestation is actually happening is only the first step.
A previous version of this article misstated the month represented by deforestation data for June 2019.
Unterstell is the director of policy think tank Talanoa Solutions. Follow her on Twitter @unatalie
Tags: Bolsonaro, Brazil, Environment