Brazil shot for the moon at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in early November. Cutting emissions by half and ending illegal deforestation by 2030. Carbon neutrality by 2050.
Observers were more than skeptical, given the penchant of President Jair Bolsonaro to dismiss, if not outright hinder, any attempts to curb deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Under his watch, Brazil has become the country with the most significant primary forest loss globally.
A number of flashpoints in the Amazon, several of them arising since COP26 ended, have only further proven that Brazil’s environmental promises, and its actions, are far apart.
Here, InSight Crime looks at four recent environmental crises in Brazil, each showcasing a different side of the disaster in the Amazon.
Dreading the Dredge
In November, photographs showing an immense gathering of floating dredges on the Madeira River, a tributary of the Amazon, drew worldwide concern.
Thousands of illegal miners flocked to the Madeira River to search the riverbed for gold, causing great environmental damage, while local and federal authorities bickered about who was to blame. One gold miner there told the Associated Press that at least 400 vessels, carrying around 3,000 people, were along the river about 120 kilometers from Manaus, the regional capital of Brazil’s northern Amazonas state.
According to the AP investigation, the miners, while working illegally, had banded together in an almost collegiate atmosphere. “Here, everybody knows each other. We’re all friends, we’re all related,” said one miner.
“We know that … we’re illegal. But we all need to provide for our families,” said another.
The AP investigation estimated that, for every 40 hours of work, one dredge could collect an average of 60 grams of gold, worth $3,500.
At first, Brazil’s environmental protection agency and its state counterpart in Amazonas were at loggerheads, both refusing to take responsibility for ending this gathering.
Finally, on November 28, security forces moved into the area. Police and army troops seized multiple dredges and set them alight, with Justice Minister Anderson Torres claiming on Twitter that 131 vessels were captured and destroyed.
“This operation shows that Brazil has the capacity to confront illegal activity and ensure the protection of our rivers, rainforests and traditional peoples,” Greenpeace said. “All it takes is political will.”
However, the crisis is far from averted. The extraordinary number of vessels gathered in one location sparked this strong outcry, but smaller groups of dredges have long been, and will continue to be, a common sight throughout Brazil’s Amazon waterways.
Delay and Deny
Arguably the most overt attempt to cover up Brazil’s failing record on the Amazon was the active suppression of deforestation data in advance of the conference.
Both President Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Joaquim Leite were aware of data proving record high levels of deforestation and willfully hid them from the public in advance of the conference, according to the AP, citing three cabinet ministers who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The final report from PRODES, a project of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais – INPE) that monitors deforestation using satellite imaging, had already revealed a dramatic surge in deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon.
Yet, Bolsonaro boasted at the conference about less-accurate data from the government’s early warning system, DETER, which had indicated a year-on-year decrease for the same period.
The AP interviewed three ministers and an official at INPE, who indicated that the final PRODES report was available on the government’s information system on October 27, three days before the conference began on October 31.
These officials also claimed that, at a meeting in the presidential palace, Bolsonaro and several of his ministers decided not to release the results of the report until after the conference.
Neither the Environmental Ministry nor the office of the President responded to the AP’s request for comment.
Falsified Climate Data
In an earlier incident, Brazil’s government allegedly fabricated a version of official PRODES data to top officials, according to a report by Folha de São Paulo.
At an August 24 meeting of the National Council for the Legal Amazon, headed by the vice president, a falsified version of PRODES data was presented, which showed a five percent reduction in deforestation from August 2020 to July 2021.
The meeting was attended by representatives from five government ministries, who each took the opportunity to laud their contribution to the fabricated reduction.
But when the official PRODES data was released in November, it instead showed a dramatic 21.9 percent increase in deforestation over the observed period.
The total quantity of forest cover lost, 13,235 square kilometers, or an area almost the size of Delaware, is the most extensive recorded loss since 2006, according to PRODES.
More Forest Cut and Burned
While the overall increase in deforestation has been well-documented in Brazil, another metric looks at how much forest is cut by each individual contributor.
A study published by the University of Queensland in April showed that the average size of individual patches of deforested land had increased by more than 60 percent since Bolsonaro took office. Based on data from Brazil’s INPE, the study noted that most patches now comprised areas of over 100 hectares, or over 90 football fields.
“The cake is being cut into much larger chunks because the criminals are hungrier, driven by current environmental policies,” said the study’s author, Ralph Trancoso, in an interview with Mongabay.
He singled out the Bolsonaro government’s abandonment of the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon for this increase, a government policy credited with significantly reducing deforestation, as being to blame.
“Deforesters knew they could be caught, but now their posture seems to have changed. They are no longer afraid of governmental monitoring or controls. On the contrary: they feel driven to take down more forest because they know they won’t be penalized,” added Trancoso.
Forest fires have also reached unprecedented proportions, contributing to October 2021 being the worst month for deforestation in Brazil’s history.
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