August 26th, 2019
Leaked documents reveal plans from Jair Bolsonaro’s government to push for the economic development of the Amazon in order to block a multi-country conservation project to protect the rainforest.
In leaked PowerPoint slides, the controversial president’s administration outlines plans to scupper the Andes-Amazon-Atlantic Corridor (Triple-A) project to develop a protected biodiversity strip across Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil.
The projected area would be the biggest in the world at 135 million hectares – over twice the size of France – with over 60 per cent of it running through Brazil.
The leaked slides, published by the independent media platform Open Democracy, emerged as fires rage across the Amazon on the heels of deforestation to make way for the likes of cattle ranches and soy plantation.
Since taking office in January this year, the right-wing Bolsonaro government has expressed interest in pursuing economic activities in the rainforest-covered region.
Mr Bolsonaro has frequently said that environmental regulations are hindering economic development and his government has cut funding and staff at state environmental agencies.
The leaked slides show that his administration wants to see the development of infrastructure projects in the Amazon basin to integrate it into the rest of the national territory and “fight off international pressure for the implementation of the so-called ‘Triple A’ project”.
In order to do this, the slides show, the Government wants to go ahead with a hydroelectric plant at the Trombetas River, a bridge over the Amazon River in the city of Óbidos, and the building of a highway stretching to the border with Suriname to the north of Brazil.
The leaked slides also point to concern over a so-called globalist campaign to mobilise environmental and indigenous rights groups and the media to put pressure on Brazilian institutions and restrict “the government’s freedom of action” in the Amazon region.
Unprecedented rate of fires
According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), over 80,000 fires have started across Brazil since the beginning of this year, a 78 per cent increase from the same period in 2018. Over half of the fires have occurred in the Amazon region.
The states containing the majority of Amazon have seen a much higher increase in the rate of fires, including a 184 per cent jump in Rondônia, 161 per cent in Pará, and a 130 per cent increase in Acre, Amazonas, and Roraima.
Preliminary figures indicate that 9,250km2 of forest—an area larger than county Cork – was lost between January and August. Eight out of the 10 municipalities most affected by the still-raging fires have also accumulated the highest number of deforestation alerts, according to INPE.
While international attention has squared almost exclusively on Brazil, large fires have also been burning in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Bolivia, for example, has seen a large spike in numbers to nearly 19,000 fires this year – up 107 per cent from 2018.
Following weeks of refusal of international help to tackle fires across tropical forest and savannah near its borders with Paraguay and Brazil, Bolivian president Evo Morales is now welcoming international aid.
Yesterday, he announced that he was suspending his re-election campaign to focus on the fires and called for a meeting with other regional leaders to discuss a joint strategy to tackle the flames.
According to research published by George Mason University in 2018, a 20 to 25 per cent deforestation rate could see the Amazon flip to a non-forest ecosystem in eastern, southern and central Amazonia.
A critical decline in tree cover, the study finds, would lead to a steep drop in rainfall and more pronounced and extended dry seasons. This could turn over half of the Amazon into a tropical savannah, the researchers said.
The impact on the hydrological cycle would devastate agricultural life by causing winter drought in Brazil and several neighbouring countries, including Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The authors said that the “sensible course” is not only to strictly curb further deforestation, but to also to reduce the deforested area to less than 20 per cent and “build back a margin of safety” against the Amazon tipping point.
“There is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it,” they warned. One of the scientists behind the study and leading conservation biologist, Professor Thomas Lovejoy, told The Independent that we may already be approaching this tipping point.
Brazilians embassies across the world have been targeted by protestors in recent days. Last Friday, Extinction Rebellion Ireland (XRI) and teenage climate activists from Fridays For Future gathered outside the Embassy in Dublin and consul office in Cork city to urge the Brazilian government to protect the rainforest, indigenous peoples and environmental activists.
The embassy in Dublin also came under fire for its social media response to the fires. In a Facebook post last Wednesday that appears to be in response to criticism of policy under Mr Bolsonaro, the Embassy claimed that “facts and figures and not rhetoric” prove that “Brazil is a true environmental conservation champion”.
A thread of comments on the Embassy’s page quickly appeared criticizing the post, including claims that such statements were “adhering to the propaganda machine created by the [Brazilian] government”. Another comment stressed that the post was “fake news”.
People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith has called on the Brazilain Ambassador, Eliana Zugaib, to appear in front of the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action to answer questions about the fires.
“I have asked the Dáil Climate Action committee to call on the Brazilian ambassador to appear before the committee to answer questions about the policies and public statements of Jair Bolsonaro who wants to tear down the rainforest, the lungs of the earth, for agricultural use,” Ms Smith said last week.
Mercosur under pressure
Late last week, the Taoiseach joined the French President Emmanuel Macron in warning that the EU-Mercosur free trade deal will be put in danger if Brazil’s poor record on the conservation of the Amazon rainforest continues.
“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments,” Mr Varadkar said.
The leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan, who joined protesters at the embassy last week, called for Ireland to “pull the Mercosur trade deal now, not in two or three years’ time”. Speaking on RTE Radio One last week, Mr Ryan also called for economic sanctions against Brazil over the Amazon issue.
In a tweet sent on Friday, the Finnish finance minister, Mika Lintila, condemned the fires and said that the EU and Finland – currently in charge of the EU presidency – are “urgently exploring the possibility of banning imports of Brazilian beef”. The issue is due to be discussed by EU foreign ministers at an informal meeting later this week.