The Amazon is sending us smoke signals. Will we finally respond?

In 2014 when I was in São Felix do Xingu, Pará, I remember many farmers I was working with saying: “If the government does not fulfil its promises, we will show them who owns the Amazon. And we will do it by burning it.”

São Félix do Xingu, the municipality with the largest numbers of cattle in Brazil (2.2 million head of cattle, according to 2017 IBGE data), tops the blacklist of areas with high deforestation levels. When farmers threatened to burn the forest to show their ownership, I immediately felt how vulnerable the Amazon is in the hands of humans. The ‘government promises’ they referred to were the benefits of REDD+ and the Amazon Fund. São Félix do Xingu has received much attention over the last decade when it comes to actions to reduce deforestation, such as increased monitoring, implementation of the environmental rural cadastre, and a range of projects aimed at changing behaviour on the ground. Farmers have done their bit, and the municipality has seen significant drops in deforestation. Yet the government and NGOs responsible for local projects have been unable to implement most of the expected benefits. Meanwhile, farmers cannot continue to bear the responsibility of reducing deforestation alone, and so it has crept back up the past few years.

I was recently invited to be on the BBC programme ‘the Real Story’ about who owns the Amazon, who was responsible for the Amazonian fires and why this is happening now. Alongside Daniel Nepstad and Monica De Bolle, I spoke about possible solutions, why we should worry about the forest, and the role of the international community in helping. Here I cover some of the points debated with a more critical view.

Who is causing the fires?

Unlike the Cerrado, the Amazon is a type of forest that does not burn alone. Almost all fires in humid forests like the Amazon are started by people. Historically, fires peaked in 2004 and 2005, with more than 75,000 spots per year. At that time there was no enforcement of environmental measures aimed at reducing deforestation, and many of the plans and policies to control it, such as PPCDAM (Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation in the Amazon), were not in place.

According to local news, farmers and land grabbers around BR-163, a Brazilian Amazon region subject to many conflicts, scheduled a ‘Fire Day’. News of this ‘fire day’ was first published on 5 August 2019 by newspaper Folha do Progresso, from the Pará city of Novo Progresso. According to one of the farmers’ leaders interviewed, the agribusiness sector felt “supported by the words of Jair Bolsonaro”, who encourages the opening up of protected areas of forest for farming and mining. They stated how they wanted to show the president of Brazil that “they want to work and the only way to create and clean our pastures is by cutting down the trees and using fire”, and promised to promote wildfires on the 10 August.

On 10 August, Novo Progresso recorded 124 active fires, a 300% increase over the previous day. Altamira, the neighbouring municipality, recorded 154 fires between 6 and 8 August and 431 fires over the next three days, an increase of 179%. São Félix do Xingu saw a more significant increase — between 6 and 8 August, the municipality recorded 67 fires, reaching 288 — a 329% increase over three days. In the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area (APA), about 3,000 hectares were lost to the fire in the final days. According to representatives from the government of Pará this was a collective and premeditated action to set fire to the forest. “It’s possible that hundreds of people participated in this crime across different states,” they affirmed.

Why is this happening?

The great jump in deforestation can be attributed to both the rhetoric and actual measures of the Bolsonaro administration. INPE (National Institute for Space Research) data from its DETER (Deforestation Detection in Real Time) system pointed to an 88% increase in the deforestation detected in June 2019, compared to the same month in 2018.

Fires throughout Brazil have increased by 82% since the beginning of this year, to a total of 71,497 INPE records, of which 54% occurred in the Amazon. The increase in fires is not an isolated fact. In the short period Bolsonaro has been in power, deforestation, the invasion of parks and indigenous lands, the illegal and predatory exploitation of natural resources, and the assassination of leaders of traditional, indigenous and environmentalist communities have all increased. The Bolsonaro administration has also, in just six months, effectively dismantled Brazil’s environmental agencies, deforestation control programs and environmental licensing system, given numerous statements of encouragement to the predatory occupation of the Amazon, and criminalized those who defend its conservation.

Given the magnitude of these fires, in a less dry year with the dry season yet to come, everything points to illegal activities. The process of setting fire to the land came soon after a wave of deforestation. Likewise one week before the fire day, INPE’s director Ricardo Galvão, resigned following government criticism of deforestation data, alleging that INPE’s data contained flaws that supposedly rendered the numbers “untrue”. Yet the main reason behind this increase in deforestation/fires is Bolsonaro’s position on the following issues:

  • His refusal to demarcate indigenous lands, opening them up to mining, hydroelectric and agribusiness exploitation, in violation of the Federal Constitution;
  • The systematic and deliberate dismantling of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources’ (IBAMA) operational capacity and of other federal agencies responsible for monitoring illegal acts like land grabbing on public lands, deforestation and fires, as well as logging and mining;
  • Public statements that he will loosen oversight and put an end to a supposed “penalty industry”, giving a clear signal of impunity for the commission of environmental crimes;
  • Budget cuts, harassment of staff and dismantling of the structure of the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio), responsible for the management of protected areas;
  • Setbacks in the legal framework for environmental licensing of mining, agribusiness and large infrastructure projects with very high risk of environmental impacts;
  • Abandonment of PPCDAm, launched in 2004 and largely responsible for the fall in deforestation rates between 2005 and 2012;
  • Rigging of public agencies responsible for socio-environmental management, with the indication of persons linked to the immediate interests of ruralists and other regulated sectors;
  • Attempts to discredit the government’s technical institutions responsible for generating environmental data, such as INPE.

Where is it happening?

Between 20 July and 20 August, the INPE logged 33,062 fire spots in the Brazilian Amazon. Most fires occurred outside protected areas. Of these fire spots, 22,141 (67%) were outside conservation units and indigenous lands and 10,921 (33%) within such areas. Private areas, which cover 18% of the biome, were the location of 33% of the fire spots. The data points to Pará being the state most affected by the fires, with 8,622 spots, followed by Amazonas (6,654), Mato Grosso (6,147) and Rondônia (5,044). Proportionally, Rondônia had the most fire spots, with three times the fire spots per square kilometre than Pará. Acre, the second smallest state in the Legal Amazon, was another badly affected state: with 2,307 fire spots over the period. In total, there were 3,553 fire spots across 148 Indigenous Lands in the Brazilian Amazon. The situation is similarly serious in protected areas, with 7,368 fire spots in 118 Conservation Units.

Why worry?

Firstly, the forest hosts more than 300 different indigenous peoples with precious knowledge about their lands. Historically, indigenous peoples and indigenous traditional knowledge have made significant contributions to global land use: as 5% of the global population, indigenous peoples protect 22% of the global land base, 80% of remaining biodiversity and 20% of the world’s forest carbon stocks. Secure access to land is a central concern of indigenous peoples. Many of Brazil’s indigenous cultures are completely oriented around their forests. Indigenous peoples have shown remarkable strength and resilience against over 500 years of colonialist attack. But they remain vulnerable to an insatiable global economy which profits from the destruction of their forests. These fires are just a recent chapter in a much longer story. Brazil’s indigenous peoples, initially incentivised to help harvest timber in exchange for European goods, were eventually enslaved and made to destroy the forests which had provided wood for their homes and game and plants for their diet. By the middle of the 20th century, the size of the indigenous population first encountered by the Portuguese had shrunk by 80-90%. Meanwhile, global demand for beef accelerated the destruction of South American forests in a bid to free up new grazing land.

Secondly, and perhaps of greatest importance, these fires and consequential deforestation have major impacts for the region’s climate, rich biodiversity, air quality and human health, not to mention for global carbon emissions.

How can other countries help?

Brazil relies heavily on soy, beef and sugar exports. The government has historically responded to economic sanctions and product embargoes – effective as they include both the producers and consumers of commodities driving deforestation. If major consumer countries impose embargoes on those Brazilian products that are considered environmentally damaging, the government may adapt. The main challenge, however, lies beyond the influence of external forces; the tracking of commodities remains difficult to implement, sometimes only existing ‘on paper’.

The Brazilian government is negotiating a long-awaited agreement between the European Union and Mercosur. Europe must decide: if it continues to buy beef from deforesters and pesticide-ridden products, predatory agribusiness will continue to feel comfortable extending its ‘fire days’.

JBS and Marfrig are global leaders in animal protein production. In addition to dozens of slaughterhouses in Brazil, they have factories in North America, Europe and Oceania. The internationalization of companies gained momentum during the labour party (PT) governments, through the National Development Bank (BNDES) millionaire loans. With the Brazilian government being one of the main shareholders of both companies, the private sector at both national and international levels also has a key role to play in pressurizing the government.

Finally, Brazilian environmental policy has always depended on international cooperation, which has contributed in particular to reducing deforestation. Today, after contingencies, budget cuts and the dismantling of environmental agencies, this international support is even more important. Yet Germany and Norway’s decision to suspend transfers to Brazil is understandable, given the Brazilian government’s lack of concrete plans for environmental protection.

What about money?

The BBC programme included a discussion on the creation of a global fund to save the Amazon. Most of this money talk is déjà vu in my eyes; we have been talking about these same solutions, paying people or countries to reduce deforestation, for decades. Deforestation has clear causes that we know now better than ever how to deal with. We also know that farmers on the ground are not the ones to blame. They are responding to a sharp increase in demand for forest commodities due to population growth. And they cannot change their behaviour without the enabling measures to do so, such as technology transfer and technical assistance.

When Johan Eliasch suggests that money and valuing environmental services are a large part of the solution, he is repeating an old discourse; one that has been repeated for decades and may actually be the cause of fires, as expressed by farmers in São Félix do Xingu 5 years ago. It is not all about money and if we continue with such a mentality, we will probably just repeat the same mistakes. Bill Adams characterises dominant efforts to manage vital landscapes as ‘conservation from above’. This contemporary neoliberal approach to conservation sees ‘nature’ consolidated as ‘natural capital’, and the functions of natural systems consolidated as ecosystem services; common goods – inalienable by nature – are thus transformed into privatized goods, which can be bought and sold. The very materiality of nature, however, presents obstacles to its successful neoliberalization. The dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of natural relations and processes, in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value, are demonstrated powerfully by James Scott in his depiction of scientific forestry in early modern Europe. He shows how denying the diversity of ecosystems, for the purpose of minimizing process uncertainties and ensuring efficient production of marketable goods, results in the breakdown of those systems.

Thinking beyond: time to reforest our minds and hearts!

Reducing deforestation must be a commitment of everyone in the world, not just of countries, not just of governments, not just of farmers. We are ALL responsible for what is happening in the Amazon and we must all share the responsibility of solving it. Almost everything we use can be tracked back to the forest. Unless we change our relationship with nature, the forest will continue to burn.

We must start reforesting our minds and hearts by planting different seeds. One such seed is recovering traditional values and knowledge, on how to better use what’s left of our forests and landscapes, for example. This is vital if we are to find better solutions to the contemporary challenges of land use and natural resource exploitation. Such solutions should transcend the capacities of science, technology and existing political institutions, to encompass a wide spectrum of knowledge(s) and practices that include not only natural and social sciences, but also culture, philosophy, and spirituality in a broad sense. We need, as Escobar highlights, a type of social change that occurs not only within the dimension of economics, but one that is “envisaged as a whole life project, in which the goals and means of individual and collective endeavors are re-imagined”.

We need to start to be concerned with a world constructed of the more-than-human, and acknowledge that humanity is a less than exceptional or necessary species, as argued by Donna Haraway. This is not to deny the social world, but to argue that it is embedded in, and dependent on, non-human systems. What it will take to ensure a future liveable earth must take into account the vital processes upon which all life depends. We are the ones who produce our culture, economy and political systems – we can change them. Such a change could steer the broadening of political and legal systems beyond their axiomatic confines now and in future, and act as a point of departure from which to contemplate a fundamental reordering of social norms and values, the construction of new subjectivities, the relationship between human and other than human beings and, ultimately, the possible extension of rights to living and non-living, human and other than human natures in an effort to dissolve hierarchies between species. What remains certain in all this is that indigenous peoples are of great importance in this process, and that is why they themselves are the reason we should worry about what is happening in the Amazon forest today.


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