Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased to the highest monthly levels in more than a decade in March, according to data released this month by Brazil’s federal space agency, illustrating how environmental destruction has accelerated even after a record outbreak of fires hit the rainforest last year.
More than 200 square miles of forest were cleared in March, according to INPE, the Brazilian space agency that monitors deforestation via satellite.
That marks the highest monthly total since April 2008, according to the environmental news site Mongabay. Forest destruction has increased by more than 50% over the first three months of the year compared to the same period in 2019, when the fires drew global attention to the destructive environmental policies of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil’s Indigenous tribes have expressed fears that illegal raids on protected tribal lands have also intensified during the global COVID-19 pandemic, as miners, loggers and agricultural interests emboldened by Bolsonaro’s promises to open up the forest continue their push into the Amazon region.
Brazil’s largest indigenous organization and a Washington-based legal organization that represents tribes across the Americas accused Bolsonaro of “severe and ongoing violations of the human rights of indigenous peoples” in letters sent to the United Nations and Organization of American States last week.
The letters from the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, which represents tribes across Brazil, and the Indian Resource Law Center appealed for “immediate action from the international community” in the fight to curb deforestation and protect indigenous lands, especially during a pandemic that could “threaten the very existence of indigenous peoples.”
The coronavirus pandemic has likely contributed to both problems, experts say, in large part because the outbreak has forced Brazil’s environmental agencies to curb enforcement actions to protect their agents’ health.
“The people who are promoting deforestation of the Amazon are not in quarantine,” said Marcio Astrini, a researcher at the Climate Observatory, a Sao Paulo-based environmental nonprofit. “They are enjoying [the opportunity] to make the situation worse, and to operate even easier than they were before.”
The people who are promoting deforestation of the Amazon are not in quarantine. They are enjoying [the opportunity] to make the situation worse, and to operate even easier than they were before.
Marcio Astrini, researcher at the Climate Observatory
After nearly a decade of ambitious efforts to curb emissions and deforestation, rates of destruction in the Amazon began increasing again in the years before Bolsonaro became president. Indigenous lands have long faced threats from miners, loggers and large companies seeking to exploit the forest’s resources.
But both have worsened under the right-wing president, who has rolled back regulatory protections and gutted environmental agencies since taking office in 2019. Those cuts rendered efforts to protect the Amazon relatively toothless even before the pandemic further limited the agencies.
“The virus is not the forest’s problem,” Astrini said. “The real virus ― the real pandemic ― for the Amazon is the Bolsonaro government.”
Much like U.S. President Donald Trump, who has targeted environmental regulations during the COVID-19 outbreak, Bolsonaro’s anti-environment efforts have continued as the public health situation worsens in Brazil, which has more than 45,000 confirmed cases, according to its health department.
Bolsonaro deemed environmental enforcement an essential service in March, but he has continued to back legislation that would open some Indigenous lands to mining. And the recent departure of a top environmental regulator who has denied reports that he was fired amid a dispute over his agency’s efforts to crack down on illegal miners has raised broader concerns about the Bolsonaro government’s willingness to protect the forest.
Last year’s fires caused international outrage over Bolsonaro’s actions in the Amazon and their effects on the global effort to combat climate change. He faced intense criticism from European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, while multiple countries canceled contributions to the Amazon Fund, an international effort to protect the forest.
Protesters welcomed Bolsonaro to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last September, where he was treated as a pariah by nearly everyone other than Trump after he opened the event with a conspiratorial speech that denied that the fires and his policies were devastating the forest.
The rise in deforestation over the first three months of 2020 has Amazon experts worried that another outbreak of fires could be on the horizon, especially as Brazil’s dry season rapidly approaches.
“There is a high probability of experiencing fires as serious or more serious than those we faced in 2019,” Claudia Azevedo-Ramos, a researcher at Brazil’s Federal University of Para, told Reuters.
The most immediate effects of the destruction targeted Brazil’s already vulnerable Indigenous populations, whose land Bolsonaro vowed to stop protecting. At least seven tribal members were murdered during land raids in 2019, the deadliest year in more than two decades for the country’s Indigenous population.
Now, tribes are facing the triple threat of a worsening pandemic, increasing levels of environmental destruction, and a rising number of raids on their lands, with similarly deadly consequences. The pandemic claimed its first Indigenous victim in early April when a member of the Yanomami tribe in northern Brazil died after contracting the virus and the number of COVID-related deaths tripled over the last week.
Multiple tribal members, meanwhile, have been found dead after apparent disputes with loggers, miners or farmers since the beginning of April.
“Indigenous lands are not protected. The invasions have continued, and these illegal actions contribute to contamination,” said Joênia Wapichana, a federal lawmaker from Roraima state in northern Brazil who in 2018 became the first Indigenous woman ever elected to the country’s Congress. “It’s illegal activity, and it doesn’t stop.”
Fearful of the pandemic’s potential to devastate Indigenous tribes, Wapichana has repeatedly met with tribal leaders as the outbreak worsens and has fought for budget increases for Indigenous health programs and agencies charged with protecting tribal lands in Congress.
But so far, she said, efforts from within Congress and the Bolsonaro government have fallen far short of what’s necessary to protect tribes and their lands.
“They need help,” Wapichana told HuffPost. “They need the support of the government, but the government doesn’t understand what this means for the Indigenous. Protection is a constitutional obligation and a fundamental right for Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, there is still a lot to do to protect Indigenous peoples and their rights.”
The government doesn’t understand what this means for the Indigenous. Protection is a constitutional obligation and a fundamental right for Indigenous peoples.
Joênia Wapichana, Brazilian federal lawmaker from Roraima state
FUNAI, the Brazilian government agency charged with protecting Indigenous human rights, has said that it is providing assistance to tribes to protect them, including food and aid deliveries.
But in their letters to the UN and OAS, which were sent to the secretaries-general of both organizations on April 15, the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon and Indian Resource Law Center said that FUNAI had recently implemented new regulations that will “weaken the territorial rights of indigenous peoples.”
The Bolsonaro government, their letters said, has failed to implement policies protecting Indigenous tribes and their land from raiders or to outline a strategy to safeguard Indigenous people from the COVID-19 outbreak. The letters also accused Bolsonaro’s government of failing to protect tribes from potential encroachment by evangelical missionaries seeking to convert Indigenous Brazilians to Christianity.
“Each of these three policy decisions violate and put at risk indigenous peoples’ human rights, including their right to life, land rights, and rights of self-determination,” the letters said. “Illegal development and resource exploitation threaten their environmental rights, the Amazon ecosystem, and the global climate.”
“These actions would pose severe health risks to indigenous peoples by exposing them to threats, violence, and disease at any time,” the letters said. “For indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks from these policy choices are so severe as to threaten genocide.”
Their letter said that Bolsonaro has “taken no steps” to protect Indigenous tribes or the forest from illegal invaders, has “yet to adopt any strategy” for monitoring the outbreak among isolated Indigenous tribes that voluntarily avoid contact with outside communities, and has failed to adopt “any other effective public health measures to protect indigenous peoples during this pandemic.”
Environmental groups have similar complaints as the situation in the Amazon worsens.
Since the fires, the Bolsonaro government hasn’t “promoted any new policies to try to halt deforestation,” Astrini said. “They just took action to feed deforestation, and to make it worse.”
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