Since his election nearly one year ago, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to undermine the health and integrity of one of the country’s most valuable resources: the Amazon rainforest. Bolsonaro has pit environmentalists against farmers, claiming that efforts to protect the Amazon are hurting the country’s agricultural sector and inhibiting development.
Based on this rationale, he has attempted to undermine the ability of his government to monitor forest loss, fight forest fires, and enforce its own environmental laws. His destructive actions include firing the director of the space agency, gutting the budget of the environmental ministry, and lying about the magnitude and sources of deforestation and forest degradation.
In recent months, the international community has watched worryingly for signs that deforestation and forest degradation are growing again in a region once lauded for its leadership in fighting deforestation.
The worst fears appear to be coming true with news of a surge in forest fires. Even if such fires are in line with trends from the last 20 years, they are worrisome. They mean that recent progress toward slowing Amazonian forest loss is receding.
Despite Bolsonaro’s recent claims, forest fires are not a ploy by environmental NGOs to make his government look bad. Forest fires are started principally by farmers. Some are started in primary forests to clear and claim ownership of the land. Others are started on existing agricultural areas to manage vegetation regrowth because farmers lack access to machinery and fertilizers.
When fires “escape” from the areas where they were set, as they often do, they can destroy valuable investments on the farms of the people who set the fires and the properties of their neighbors. Such investments include perennial tree crops, livestock, and farm infrastructure.
Escaped fires also cause recurring damage to the health of native trees, making forests more susceptible to wide-scale dieback. These deforestation processes can, in turn, reduce local rainfall, which is bad for the very crops and pastures that farmers rely on for their income.
Finally, such fires cause reductions in the carbon storage of the Amazonian forest, which leads to increases in carbon emissions to the atmosphere and additional global warming. The combination of global climate change and local ecosystem degradation could result in irreversible changes to the climate in Brazil and massive losses to the agricultural sector.
Protecting the Forest
Changing the behaviors of the people who live in the Amazon is essential to any long-term effort to protect the forest. But farmers are unlikely to respond to international efforts to decrease their fire use without support from farmers’ unions and governments.
As support and capacity for conservation by public governments in forest-rich countries waxes and wanes, environmentalists have encouraged the countries and companies that import food and other products from the tropics to step up their efforts to stop deforestation. Such efforts include the exclusion of farmers that deforest from international supply chains and payments to farmers and communities for conservation.
Sadly, many farmers don’t have the financial capacity to change their behavior in response to these incentives. They don’t have enough money to buy tractors or fertilizers and invest in higher value, fire-free land uses, such as fruit or horticultural production.
Even when farmers do have the capacity to change their behavior, doing so might be “irrational.” That is, the threat of escaped fires from their neighbors makes any investment in an alternative (flammable) production system a large financial risk. These conditions result in a vicious cycle, whereby poverty traps farmers into environmentally degrading behaviors that further exacerbates their poverty.
Overcoming this situation requires cooperation and coordination among large groups of farmers, and in turn, the involvement of local governments.
The international community needs to work in partnership with multinational companies and local governments and farmers’ unions to provide financial resources for improved agricultural technologies, alongside strict conservation requirements.
— WWF UK (@wwf_uk) August 21, 2019
These efforts need to enable large groups of farmers within the same area to simultaneously eliminate fire use and adopt more sustainable practices.
Contrary to what Bolsonaro claims, this could start Amazonian farmers on the pathway to more permanent economic growth and improved wellbeing, while also preserving the forest. In such a way, farmers and environmentalists can become partners toward achieving protection of the world’s largest tropical forest.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.