President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory over Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil represents a historic chance to begin undoing some of the great harm that was inflicted on Brazil’s Amazon rainforest over the last four years. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has ravaged the earth for short-sighted gains, turning back environmental regulations that any thinking human being would wish to preserve in the face of such unprecedented global degradation. Bolsonaro systematically dismantled environmental protections so that those who could not care less about the environment would be free to clear the land and turn it into pastures without any accountability. The unfolding crisis of the Amazon is a catastrophe for climate change, biodiversity, Indigenous people of the region, and the untold wonders that human science has yet to understand.
A 2020 study published in the journal Nature has shown that if the systematic destruction of the Brazilian Amazon continues unabated, much of it could become an arid savannah, or even “dry scrubland,” within decades given the rate of deforestation, largely due to deliberate and illegal fires that are meant to permanently convert forest into pastureland. With the devastation of the rainforests has also come the devastation of those Indigenous people whose homelands and livelihood are being destroyed by deforestation.
Just imagine, between August 2020 and July 2021 over 5,000 square miles of rainforest were lost in the Brazilian Amazon – that is an area larger than the land area of Connecticut. In fact, under Bolsonaro the rate of destruction reached a ten-year high, as his administration turned a blind eye to illegal logging, the deforestation of Indigenous land, and, as Amnesty International notes, the “violence against those living on and seeking to defend their territories.”
Under Bolsonaro’s reckless and corrupt rule, his government deliberately “weakened environmental law enforcement agencies, undermining their ability to effectively sanction environmental crime or detect exports of illegal timber,” as Human Rights Watch describes. Fines for illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon were suspended by presidential decree at the beginning of October 2019. Illegal seizures of land on Reserves and Indigenous territories in Brazil’s Amazon became routine, as Bolsonaro slashed the budget of agencies that protected the jungle from unauthorized clearing. Criminal organizations, aptly called “rainforest mafias,” allow cattle ranchers to operate with impunity, and according to the US State Department possess the “logistical capacity to coordinate large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber, while deploying armed men to protect their interests.”
It is hard to fathom the sheer scale of destruction that was wreaked by Bolsonaro upon the Amazon. Such rampant deforestation is tragic on many levels — it is destroying habitats and countless species being pushed to the brink of extinction when we are already in the midst of a mass extinction of this planet’s animals, insects, and plants. It is hastening the onslaught of climate change when we are already facing the dire effects of a warming planet. And it is obliterating the lands of Indigenous people who have already suffered and been persecuted and murdered for decades.
To be sure, the extent of devastation of the rainforest under Bolsonaro was so enormous that we can barely begin to comprehend the loss to humanity, to science, and to our knowledge of undiscovered plants and animals that hold the answers to questions of which we have not even dreamt. This is a shameful loss to the entire world and to generations hence.
Bolsonaro’s well-deserved defeat could help save the Amazon rainforest, which has been ravaged under his criminal rule, and the process of reversing the looming climate change catastrophe can begin.
The Bolsonaro government failed miserably to act as a responsible custodian of the Amazon and Pantanal (the world’s largest tropical wetland located mostly within Brazil, which along with the Amazon has some of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems) — instead it helped in every way it can to hasten this unimaginable devastation. Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest, observed that “When a forest is lost, it is gone forever. Recovery may occur but never 100% recovery.”
We must bring this travesty to a halt. By this wanton and dismally short-sighted decimation of the rainforests we are depriving humanity of knowledge which could alter medicine, improve our lives and transform the world, from the way we build our cities to the ways we make our homes.
Plant and animal species inspire new technologies, new forms of architecture, new kinds of design and materiality. Yet probably less than 1 percent of rainforest trees and plants have been studied by science — though not less than 25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients. By allowing rampant deforestation to continue, we are doing ourselves and future generations untold and unconscionable harm.
Let us remember that the Amazon does not simply belong to the countries in which it happens to be found – it is not the exclusive resource of those companies that are able to exploit it, appropriate its resources, and destroy it with impunity. The Amazon is part of our collective patrimony, a heritage beyond price which we are duty-bound to pass on to future generations, regardless of the profits that we may yield from its systematic rape.
And let us make no mistake, or mince words—the Amazon is being raped hour by hour, month by month, year by year, and the world is watching in silence as this violation is repeated daily. The time is running out for us to act in a meaningful way to stop this mindless decimation of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
With the election of Lula as President of Brazil, we now have a historic opportunity to support and encourage him to immediately start working on a plan to reverse Bolsonaro’s disastrous policies in three main areas: the environment, public security, and scientific discoveries.
First, President Lula should start by prohibiting deforestation, illegal logging, and land grabbing. To that end, he must stop short of nothing to pass a new law to be enshrined in the Brazilian constitution that puts an end to the systematic destruction of the rainforest. The law should include mandatory prison sentences as well as heavy fines to prevent cattle ranchers and illegal loggers from committing such crimes ever again with impunity.
Second, he must develop a comprehensive plan to protect the human rights of Indigenous communities from the criminal networks that use violence, intimidation, and terror to cow the locals into silence. He should make such a plan the center of his domestic policy while improving security and providing the necessary funding for environmental agencies to perform their tasks with zeal.
Third, President Lula should invite the global scientific community to further study the wonders of the Amazon and in partnership with them initiate scores of scientific projects from which the whole world would benefit, while preserving the glory of the Amazon as one of the central pillars in the fight against climate change.
Finally, President Biden, who understands full well the danger that climate change poses, should provide political support and financial assistance to President Lula to help him reverse some of the damage that was inflicted on the Amazon by his predecessor.
President Lula must view his rise to power and the responsibility placed on his shoulders as nothing less than a holy mission that will help save the planet from the man-made looming catastrophes of climate change.