The rampant deforestation of the Amazon began in the 1970s when the government of Brazil determined they needed to build over 9,000 miles of roads help integrate the rainforest with the populated bordering areas. As the deeper parts of the rainforest became accessible, development of these lands became possible, and once begun, continued at an alarming rate. Farmers, loggers and cattle ranchers cleared forest to create grazing land as well as to grow highly profitable crops like soy.
In the beginning, no one was aware of the disastrous environmental consequences of destroying the forest often described as “the lungs of the Earth.” Once scientists delved into the causes of global climate change, a wide number of other side effects of the clearing of the rainforest quickly became evident. Widespread contamination of Brazil’s soil and water, the marked decrease of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and the extinction of countless plants and animals made scientists extremely concerned about the planet’s future. Once word got out that saving this vital forest was necessary for long-term human survival, people from around the world took up the cause to save the rainforest.
For a while, the work of many environmental groups, agencies and celebrities had been able to slow the unchecked destruction of forest land. At its worst, Brazilian deforestation claimed over 11,000 square miles a year. With education, advocacy, and widespread support of the Brazilian government, the destruction of the vital forests dropped 84% to 1,700 square miles in 2012.
At that time, it certainly seemed like the rainforests had been saved. With the end of deforestation and the planting of millions of trees in the decimated areas, it looked like everyone’s work was done and now the protestors could all move on to saving a different cause. These highly publicized improvements were celebrated worldwide as the environmentally conscious members of the world of breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, they celebrated a little too soon.
When National Politics and Environmentalism Collide
In 2012, the Brazilian Congress passed a widespread weakening to what is known as the Forest Code. The forest Code was first adopted in 1965 as a way to allow farmers to purchase and farm land in the Amazon with the caveat that they may only farm a small percentage of the land. However, with the limited governmental ability to oversee the development of an enormous dense forest just slightly smaller than the continent of Australia, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when eager farmers and cattlemen started to illegally clear additional land. When this has happened in the past, huge fines have been levied against the offending parties as well as the requirement to return the cleared lands back to forest, making the risk not worth the potential consequences.
The 2012 changes to the Forest Code changed all of that. This reform eliminated penalties for land illegally cleared prior to 2008 and has set a dangerous precedent for future pardons of illegal deforestation. In the past, landowners who illegally deforested lands faced high fines and many exporters would refuse to purchase crops grown on their lands for fear of retribution to their businesses. Whenever the government found illegally deforested lands, landowners were fined and required to plant trees and shrubbery to return the land back to forest. The 2012 changes to the Forest Code also no longer required the reforestation of these illegally cleared lands. This one policy change alone is responsible for permanently removing an estimated 112,000 miles of land (roughly the size of Arizona) from the rainforest.
Since these changes were passed, Brazil has seen a distinct rise in new deforestation, as soy and cattle farmers have little respect for laws without consequences. When soy prices spiked in 2012, profit-hungry farmers illegally cleared more land unafraid of the consequences for their deeds. According to Brazil’s space agency that tracks deforestation through satellite imaging, over 1,000 square miles (more than twice the size of Los Angeles) was cleared in the period of August 2012 to July 2013.
With soy being the hot cash crop being grown seemingly everywhere, new roads were needed to transport the crops to local ports. From there, most of the soy is transported to China who is the number one importer and consumer of Brazilian grown soy. Huge sections of deforestation have also been seen around new hydroelectric dams in the region as well as along new highways being built to handle the large amount of crops on their way to shipping ports on the Amazon River.
Earlier this year, the Brazilian Supreme Court held up the 2012 changes to the Forest Code stating they were both constitutional and necessary to the economic stability and growth of the country. Many scientists, sociologists and environmentalists see this as the beginning of the end of the rainforest.
The biggest factor in Brazil’s change of attitude on rainforest protection comes from the political melee in the past few years. Recent upheaval in Brazil’s government has heavily contributed the detrimental changes to the Forest Code. A few years ago, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office after it was found she was hiding the full extent of the financial difficulties of the country. Rousseff’s presidency was highly involved in rainforest preservation and creating numerous safeguards promised to the world at the Paris Climate Accord. However, when she was ousted the new administration led by Michel Temer rolled back environmental reforms and instead promoted the agenda of the large landowners and giant agribusinesses- a large and wealthy group known as the Ruralists. Currently, the Ruralists have the majority of both houses of their government as well as key positions within the government that helps to facilitate reforms beneficial to their lobbying group. The current President is also well-known to be sympathetic to their lobby.
Minister of Agriculture, Blairo Maggi, is not only a government official and also a well known Ruralist, but he is also Brazil’s largest soybean producer and the largest soybean grower in the world. Maggi has, not surprisingly, been pushing for continued deforestation to allow for more soy farming, a stance that will prove to exponentially increase his net worth.
With the Ruralists also heading both current houses of the government, more changes are expected to protect the economic interests of the people behind them and not the people or the land they are supposed to protect. There has even been talk of the Ruralists allowing for mining and other agricultural activities within lands scheduled for conservation.
Paulo Artaxo, a climatologist at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with New Scientist that there have been extensive cuts in Brazil’s Ministry of Environment budget and in science research budgets. Recently, both budgets had been slashed by over 40% making any chance of battling deforestation slim.
Even more frighteningly, Artaxo said with so little money in their budget, it’s unlikely they would even have enough money in their budget to put out forest fires. Climate change has created a dryer than usual environment and lower than average amounts of rainfall creating a perfect storm for massive wildfires to engulf the region. Needless to say, a major fire resulting from these conditions would be catastrophic for the rainforest. Lacking a budget and the equipment to fight an ever increasingly likelihood of forest fires is almost as bad as if the Government was intentionally setting the fires, themselves.
Additionally, as part of the Paris Climate Accord, former President Rousseff promised a policy of zero deforestation as a way to stop global warming. Also a part of the Accord, land was supposed to be put in permanent conservation zones. Judging by their past performance, this appears to be yet another promise the new president and the Ruralists have apparently no intention to honor.
According to Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA), until Brazilian government gets their priorities straight, there is little hope for saving the rainforests. With more and more demands for additional infrastructure in order to continue uncovering new land, slowing or stopping the growth of these infrastructure projects is probably the best, although unlikely, way to stop the continued destruction of the rainforests. In theory, the harder it is to get to a piece of land, the less likely it will be to get razed for pasture or crops. When there are millions of dollars worth of profits on the line, it’s the land and its native inhabitants that end up getting hurt the most.
Will Improving the Brazilian Economy Kill the Rainforest?
Fearnside states that Brazil’s explosive growth and exportation of soy to China is helping the Brazilian economy dig itself out of a financial hole but with dire consequences. According an article published by the Guardian, soy exports to China have increased 10,685% since 1995. In 2017, China purchased 50.93 million tons of soybeans from Brazil that is mainly uses to crush into cooking oil and to use as a feed additive for animals. So far, it appears that in 2018 Brazil will have a similarly abundant crop.
The second largest supplier of soy to China is the U.S., with a mere 32.9 million tons, a number that has been declining year after year. Brazil has been producing soybeans with higher protein content as well as offering their product for a lower price making their export a more attractive option to U.S. crops. As China’s population climbs increasing their demand for soy products, Brazil continues to cash in on their captive market and continues to clear more land. As long as China is willing to pay for the soybeans, Brazil has no interest in slowing the growth of their greatest cash crop.
In addition, in early 2018, Chinese officials set higher standards of quality for soy imports which will eliminate many of the U.S. farmers’ crops for exportation. With increasing concern of weed seeds being imported into the country, the Chinese government is now only allowing imports of soybeans with less than 1% foreign matter, a condition which many U.S. farmers cannot meet. It came as no surprise to anyone when Brazil sold 2.07 million tons of beans to China in January 2018, up 720% from just one year ago. Many economists believe the stricter standards are just an excuse to retaliate against the U.S. for recent tariffs on solar panels and washing machine imports. However the higher protein content of the Brazilian soy as well as lower prices played a part in this decision, as well.
The real irony of the Brazilian soy boom is it was initially looked at as an environmentally better option than cattle farming, where large pastures and hayfields were cleared out of the rainforest. However, large fields of soy production are proving to be even worse. They soy industry is responsible for the decline in biodiversity and destroying soil fertility through overplanting and replanting the same crop. Chemical fertilizer and pesticide runoffs are responsible for polluting freshwater sources wiping out sensitive species of fish only found in the Amazon.
Soybean farming is not the only reason the rainforests are in decline as large cattle farms were there well before the first soybean seed was planted. It is estimated that the Brazilian Amazon is home to over 200 million head of cattle and supplies about 25% of the world’s demand for beef. As more Eastern cultures adopt a Western diet, the need for beef products has increased exponentially. In 2016, meat exports from Brazil amounted to just short of €12 billion, making them the second largest exporter of beef behind the U.S.
Since the 1960s, the Brazilian government has been actively growing their cattle industry by selling land in the Amazon for low prices and offering low interest loans to farmers. Cattle have proven to be an excellent source of income as they are easy to raise, are less prone to disease and pests than plant crops and have a steady market demand and pricing. Additionally, the demand for beef products grows each year as specifically Russia and China are eating more beef. According to a 2017 report in Ageconomists, since 2000, China’s beef importation has increased 28% annually. To make this even clearer, beef imports skyrocketed from 86,000 MT CWE in 2012 to 825,000 MT CWE in 2016.
Aside from clearing large swaths of land by burning old forest to create pasture, the cattle themselves are doing their own damage to the environment. Many cattle farmers also burn their pasture lands every few years in order to fertilize and reseed the lands damaged by overgrazing. Some cattle ranchers have leased overgrazed pastures to soy farmers who treat the soil with lime and then grow a few years worth of soy before burning the land again to reseed for pasture. Every time the land is burned, there is less chance of it ever returning to forestland. Each burn releases additional carbon into the air to the detriment of the environment. It’s partly because of these practices that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that large-scale beef production gives rise to more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry.
Recent scandal in the Brazilian beef industry has hit the country hard. In June 2017, the U.S. banned the import of Brazilian beef after numerous safety concerns came to light. Meat products containing bone, blood clots, lymph nodes, and harmful bacteria were reasons cited why the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service rejected 1.9 million pounds of fresh Brazilian beef from March to June 2017. There was also word that abscesses consistent with the presence of vaccines for hoof and mouth disease were also evident.
Much of this disturbing information came to light when the Chinese government banned chicken and beef imports from Brazil after finding that Brazilian producers were bribing officials to accept spoiled meat. Brazilian officials have taken some steps to rectify these issues and it doesn’t appear that this scandal will be much more than a brief blip on the radar of their beef industry. China resumed imports after a six-day period when they investigated and deemed the scandal over. Brazilian officials made 17 arrests of employees from 21 different meat processing facilities, and considered the problem dealt with. The brief ban was only to make sure the parties of the bribery were found and punished. Apparently no one had any health concerns about rendering plants producing spoiled and contaminated meat products for consumption.
Big Agriculture and the Destruction of a Culture
As the soybeans take over the landscape, the remaining cattle farmers are being pushed deeper into the rainforests to clear new lands for their cows to graze. This in turn is displacing entire civilizations of native residents who now have nowhere else to go to escape the development but deeper and deeper into the previously untouched forest. Left unchecked, this development will continue until there is no forest left.
Tragically, the indigenous people are also victims of the spread of soy. There are 900,000 indigenous people in Brazil and 12.2% of the country has been declared Indigenous Territory. Over 98% of their designated land is in the Amazon, and they want to keep it. So this vital forest is being fought over by big agri-business, loggers and cattle ranchers and a population of poor natives that don’t stand a chance of keeping their ancestral lands. Some of their land is already irrevocably lost in government funded numerous infrastructure improvements like highways and the construction of hydroelectric dams.
Past land disputes have rarely ended favorably for the ancestral inhabitants. Many times, these disputes end in violence, property destruction and even murder. In past attempts to forcibly retake their land, many indigenous people have been killed by local militia consisting of farmers and cattlemen refusing to give up their lands. For decades, the government has been trying to put off making decisions, which has allowed for resentments to fester and tempers to rise.
The Indigenous people have nearly no voice in the government, and extremely limited resources to help protect their dying culture. Ruralist members of the government have little interest in the plight of the Brazilian native population and have even voiced their intent to continue to develop indigenous lands.
Former Minister of Justice, Osmar Serraglio, whose job it was supposed to be to create protected areas of land for the many local indigenous tribes, had instead been the booming voice of ceasing efforts to carve out protected lands. Another well known Ruralist, Serraglio had always shown more interest in towing the party line than to protect the environment or the indigenous people. Current MOJ Torquato Jardim has taken an even harsher stance, stating the indigenous people need to be “assimilated with civil society” and that there is a “need to make the land useful.”
Another disturbing rise is the astronomical number of indigenous people who are taking their own lives. Currently, the suicide rate of native Brazilians is 22 times higher than that of non-indigenous residents, and people researching this recent rise believe it to be much higher. Most native Brazilian deaths are not reported to the coroner and autopsies are almost never done.
Extreme poverty, lack of educational and work opportunities, the loss of their native lands and rituals, and disease have destroyed any hope for the future of many of the youth. Many tribes have been relocated to areas that are cramped and miserable. They have lost the sacred sites of their rituals for marriage, hunting and treating the ill. Shamans won’t do the rituals their people believe are necessary to protect them because they are not on sacred land. If the land isn’t pure, the ritual cannot be performed. A people that believe that living on their sacred ancestral lands is essential for their mental and physical well being are understandably devastated by having their land stolen from them and given to cows to graze. It’s an understatement to say the government is more concerned with the well being of their cash crops than the lives of their native inhabitants.
With the rainforests now coming into close contact with the modern world, the children and teenagers are exposed to cell phones and TV. They see a world of fast cars, fancy clothes and opportunities, all items that they are well aware are unavailable to them. With little entertainment available other than alcohol and drugs, these children fall into the despair that is fueling the skyrocketing suicide rates. With the traditional cures of visits to shamans no longer a possibility for help and an almost complete lack of western psychiatric services, it’s no wonder these children are seeking what they believe will be the only way out of their despair.
Deforestation and the Spread of Disease
Disease is also wiping out a culture with limited medical resources. Thick virgin forestland acts as a sort of barrier between the people, primates, and disease carrying insects that can prevent the spread of epidemics. With the barriers down, diseases like leptospirosis, malaria, and dengue fever are being transmitted by primates to humans at an alarming rate. Peter Daszak, the president of Ecohealth Alliance, has been studying the effects of deforestation on the increasing rates of disease and is concerned our next global health epidemic could come from this area. Not only do primates and mosquitos transmit disease, but also bats, mice and even snails.
In areas where every species evolves together, the transmission of a disease may have minimal side effects. However, with the removal of the rainforests, it’s evident that humans will be subject to bacteria and viruses that we have never seen. This could cause another frightening outbreak like those seen with both Ebola and the Zika viruses. Deforestation also is a major factor in the increase of mosquito populations, often cited as the main transmitters of disease. Leaves from the trees used that fell in streams or standing water made these areas inhospitable for mosquito breeding. Now that the trees are gone and there is growth of only low lying vegetation, the mosquitoes have nearly unlimited areas to breed. With more mosquitoes coming in contact with more people and animals, any new disease transmission could become pandemic in a very short period of time.
Deforestation is already known to be responsible for climate change which also helps spread disease. According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, warmer weather is responsible for earlier mosquito breeding seasons and larger summertime mosquito populations. This is partly why Echohealth Alliance is rapidly studying viruses endemic in the wildlife to hopefully create vaccines before the diseases spread to human hosts.
As it appears nothing is going to stop the rapid deforestation of the area, medical researchers have no other option than to try to stop an epidemic before it starts. The Brazilian government has little involvement in the medical research and most of it is being funded and carried out by world health organizations and private groups. It is yet to be seen if their research will provide results in time to stop the next widespread outbreak of disease.
The current state of affairs in Brazil paints a bleak picture for the future of the rainforests and the health of their local, as well as the world, environment. Without serious intervention, the rainforests may reach the point of no return in as little as 10 years. Large scale farming, logging, infrastructure expansion, wildfires, and climate change could permanently claim up to 60% of the Amazon rainforest by 2030.
What does the future hold if the Amazon rainforest falls? The indigenous people of Brazil could be the next group of people to face extinction through violence, disease and suicide. Widespread disease through exportation and consumption of contaminated meat as well as vector-borne viral disease could cause global health epidemics. Failure to address these issues will enable these problems to continue to crisis levels when there are few, if any, options to reverse the damage. Without intervention, at the current rate of deforestation, the Amazon forest will be nothing but a memory in less than 100 years. At that point, it’s anyone’s guess what happens to the rest of the planet when the Lungs of the World take their final breath. – Maria Dampman