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Why is deforestation a problem in Brazil?

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Deforestation is a massive problem around the world, particularly in South America’s largest nation.

The problem of deforestation in Brazil has come to a forefront both politically and environmentally, and it’s important to look at why this has happened.

The truth is that even once you separate out the politics and the rhetoric, the gravity of the problem and the challenge of deforestation in Brazil can’t be overstated.

Here’s why…

Why is deforestation a problem in Brazil?

As Deutsche Welle notes in this 2021 report, deforestation went up by about 20% in 2021, with “16,557 square kilometers of native vegetation lost during the course of 2021.”

In 2021, an average of 18 trees per second are being cut down in Brazil and 2022 has only gotten worse.

The annual toll of this is enormous, including a knock on effect on the hydrological cycle and global climate change.

The fires that are burnt to fully clear the land after the trees are cut down also have a massive contributing effect to pollution and climate change, sickening those exposed to the smoke as well.

Since 1970, more than a quarter of a million square miles have been cut down in the Amazon rainforest. That’s a hell of a lot of trees.

Here’s how deep the problem goes.

1) The scale of deforestation is massive

The first reason why deforestation is a problem in Brazil is because of the sheer scope of it, including unknown and huge quantities of illegal clearcutting.

The reason that trees are cut down at such a rate in the Brazilian Amazon is simple: because the wood is worth a lot of money, as is the grazing farmland, mineral exploration and commercial development in some cases.

The profit motive has led to a steady resurgence of clearcutting of the rainforest, which had declined slightly by 2012 but has raced forward since that time to the current rate of more than 18 trees felled per second.

This high rate of deforestation has many global bodies deeply concerned about Brazil’s negative environmental impact and the potential to turn this around despite how serious the problem has become in the past decades.

As Human Rights Watch notes:

“Since 1985 – when Brazil began monitoring deforestation in the Amazon – more than half a million square kilometers of rainforest have been razed for the purpose of settling land, extracting timber, creating grazing pastures and farmland, and clearing land for mining operations, among others.”

2) Deforestation is a major contributor to global climate change

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is also a big contributor to global climate change.

The Amazon isn’t just known as the world’s “lungs” for fun, it truly is one of the biggest areas of trees which recycle carbon dioxide and turn it into breathable oxygen.

When there are less trees, there is more greenhouse gas and CO2.

As Joanna Stancil of the US Forest Service explains:

“Through a process called photosynthesis, leaves pull in carbon dioxide and water and use the energy of the sun to convert this into chemical compounds such as sugars that feed the tree.

“But as a by-product of that chemical reaction oxygen is produced and released by the tree.”

3) The CO2 impact is significant

The C02 output from the clearcutting of so many trees is significant and clearcutting the Amazon does enormous damage to its ability to act as the world’s lungs.

Despite having signed on to regulated promises to commit to reforestation and turning around the current trend by 2030, Brazil has failed to live up to that promise.

Criticism by Brazil’s left has tended to point at the Jair Bolsonaro administration as the culprit.

There are more than three million types of diverse plants and animals in the Amazon and Bolsonaro’s opponents say he has opened the floodgates and given tacit approval to illegal mining operations and grazing clearance in the Amazon, worsening the problem. The recent deaths of British journalist Dom Phillips and his Brazilian counterpart Bruno Pereira this June raised the problem of Amazon destruction once again.

Phillips and Pereira were reportedly investigating illegal mining operations deep in the Amazon at the point they were targeted and murdered.

As Katy Watson opined for the BBC:

“Figures reveal the real Brazil – a country whose government has from the very beginning talked up the opportunities in developing the Amazon and at the same time, belittled environmental concerns.”

The Amazon takes in about 100 billion tons of carbon a year and sucks around 600 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere annually.

When you deforest and burn across the Amazon you do the opposite: releasing massive quantities of C02 into the air and reducing the carbon that the Amazon can pull from the atmosphere.

4) Greed is driving the deforestation

Another of the reasons that deforestation has become such a problem in Brazil is that it’s driven by greed and the area is quite difficult to effectively monitor and regulate.

“The vast majority is illegal, carried out by ranchers, loggers, miners, and land grabbers who seek to profit from the occupation and exploitation of public forest lands,” Herton Escobar observes for Science.

Even indigenous lands are ventured onto brazenly by developers and timber operations who seek to exploit the resources and wood on site.

Police and authorities to stop illegal mining and clearcutting are reduced and those who have taken strong steps have been disciplined under Bolsonaro and cautioned not to overstep their bounds or harm Brazil’s economy.

Bolsonaro has insisted that 90% of the Amazon is intact and that figures showing rapidly increasing deforestation are, quite simply, a “lie.”

5) Burning after logging creates massive additional pollution

In addition to the climate destruction caused by clearcutting, the cows which graze on these lands to feed world meat demand produce enormous methane.

But it gets even worse, since the remain shrubbery, grasses and small trees after clearcutting are generally burned, often illegally.

Fires burning the whole year create a massive amount of smoke, tending to get worst between July to October. This not only contributes to climate change but also creates a huge amount of pollution, increasing respiratory distress and related heart problems among the 20 million Brazilians who live in the Amazon region.

Even more worrisome, many smaller cities and communities in the Amazon don’t have nearby health facilities or, in some cases, sufficient healthcare facilities to effectively treat the people harmed by the smoky air conditions.

6) Clearcutting and Amazon destruction are linked to colonialism

Clearcutting and illegal operations throughout the Amazon often occur near or on indigenous lands, killing and displacing animals that tribes rely on.

This carryover of colonial imperial attitudes regarding the land rights of indigenous peoples is obviously concerning, as is the amount of illegal environmental destruction going on in addition to the legal environmental devastation.

An aftereffect and reinforcement of colonial attitudes and practices in regard to Brazil’s indigenous population is obviously of concern for ethical and pragmatic reasons, as it increases tensions in the nation and represents a sore point going forward.

7) Politics is blocking progress on reducing deforestation

With Brazil’s next federal election coming up next month in October, the issue of the Amazon looms larger than ever.

The main contender is former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) who will be facing off against populist nationalist right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil is quite politically polarized right now, and fights between the current US Biden Administration and Bolsonaro have also increased tensions geopolitically.

It is clear that Bolsonaro regards the Amazon as his nation’s exclusive property and does not want international agreements or criticism getting in the way of utilizing and exploring its resources.

Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 in a surprise win and has shown a lax attitude to stopping deforestation as well as chipping away at environmental protection law.

The left-right fight now going on in Brazil has many aspects, but the Amazon is now a chip in the fight instead of an independent crisis which should be an equally strong priority for all sides and stakeholders.

Coming up with real solutions

Coming up with real solutions to the crisis in the Amazon is a matter of bulking up the power of Brazil’s environmental departments and getting serious about protecting the rainforest.

This includes taking its climate commitments seriously on the international stage and whoever leads Brazil putting in higher air quality requirements that are actually enforced.

Bolsonaro has sent the Brazilian military in to the Amazon to fight forest fires, but it does not appear he has the political will to curb the deforestation or the resulting fires occurring mainly from deforestation.

Right now things are not looking good, to say the least.

Brazil promised to end all illegal deforestation practices by 2030 and reduce legal deforestation by a specific amount, namely less than 3,925 square kilometers a year.

It’s way above that now and there doesn’t look to be a political will to change that, although there is speculation about what Lula might do if he takes office in this regard.

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