Amazon Wildfires Are Horrifying, But They’re Not Destroying Earth’s Oxygen Supply

wildfires burn the amazon rainforest

(Image: © iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Fires in the Amazon rainforest have captured attention worldwide in recent days. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, pledged in his campaign to reduce environmental protection and increase agricultural development in the Amazon, and he appears to have followed through on that promise.

The resurgence of forest clearing in the Amazon, which had decreased more than 80% following a peak in 2004, is alarming for many reasons. Tropical forests harbor many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. They are important refuges for indigenous people, and contain enormous stores of carbon as wood and other organic matter that would otherwise contribute to the climate crisis.

Some media accounts have suggested that fires in the Amazon also threaten the atmospheric oxygen that we breathe. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on Aug. 22 that “the Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire.”

The oft-repeated claim that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen is based on a misunderstanding. In fact nearly all of Earth’s breathable oxygen originated in the oceans, and there is enough of it to last for millions of years. There are many reasons to be appalled by this year’s Amazon fires, but depleting Earth’s oxygen supply is not one of them.

Oxygen from plants

As an atmospheric scientist, much of my work focuses on exchanges of various gases between Earth’s surface and the atmosphere. Many elements, including oxygen, constantly cycle between land-based ecosystems, the oceans and the atmosphere in ways that can be measured and quantified.

Nearly all free oxygen in the air is produced by plants through photosynthesis. About one-third of land photosynthesis occurs in tropical forests, the largest of which is located in the Amazon Basin.

But virtually all of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis each year is consumed by living organisms and fires. Trees constantly shed dead leaves, twigs, roots and other litter, which feeds a rich ecosystem of organisms, mostly insects and microbes. The microbes consume oxygen in that process.

Forest plants produce lots of oxygen, and forest microbes consume a lot of oxygen. As a result, net production of oxygen by forests — and indeed, all land plants — is very close to zero.

Oxygen production in the oceans

For oxygen to accumulate in the air, some of the organic matter that plants produce through photosynthesis must be removed from circulation before it can be consumed. Usually this happens when it is rapidly buried in places without oxygen — most commonly in deep sea mud, under waters that have already been depleted of oxygen.

This happens in areas of the ocean where high levels of nutrients fertilize large blooms of algae. Dead algae and other detritus sink into dark waters, where microbes feed on it. Like their counterparts on land, they consume oxygen to do this, depleting it from the water around them.

Below depths where microbes have stripped waters of oxygen, leftover organic matter falls to the ocean floor and is buried there. Oxygen that the algae produced at the surface as it grew remains in the air because it is not consumed by decomposers.

This buried plant matter at the bottom of the ocean is the source of oil and gas. A smaller amount of plant matter gets buried in oxygen-free conditions on land, mostly in peat bogs where the water table prevents microbial decomposition. This is the source material for coal.

Only a tiny fraction — perhaps 0.0001% — of global photosynthesis is diverted by burial in this way, and thus adds to atmospheric oxygen. But over millions of years, the residual oxygen left by this tiny imbalance between growth and decomposition has accumulated to form the reservoir of breathable oxygen on which all animal life depends. It has hovered around 21% of the volume of the atmosphere for millions of years.

Some of this oxygen returns to the planet’s surface through chemical reactions with metals, sulfur and other compounds in Earth’s crust. For example, when iron is exposed to air in the presence of water, it reacts with oxygen in the air to form iron oxide, a compound commonly known as rust. This process, which is called oxidation, helps regulate oxygen levels in the atmosphere.

Don’t hold your breath

Even though plant photosynthesis is ultimately responsible for breathable oxygen, only a vanishingly tiny fraction of that plant growth actually adds to the store of oxygen in the air. Even if all organic matter on Earth were burned at once, less than 1% of the world’s oxygen would be consumed.

In sum, Brazil’s reversal on protecting the Amazon does not meaningfully threaten atmospheric oxygen. Even a huge increase in forest fires would produce changes in oxygen that are difficult to measure. There’s enough oxygen in the air to last for millions of years, and the amount is set by geology rather than land use. The fact that this upsurge in deforestation threatens some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich landscapes on Earth is reason enough to oppose it.

Original article published on The Conversation.

The Real Reason the Amazon Is On Fire

A Record Number of Fires Are Currently Burning Across the Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon rainforest has seen a record number of forest fires this year, according to Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, a space research center.
On the afternoon of Aug. 19, the sky over São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, went dark. A cold front combined with ash from forest fires in the Amazon rainforest and formed ominous clouds that blocked out the sun. Photos of the blackened sky began to pop on Twitter, and soon the world was paying attention to the blazes rampaging across the forest called “the lungs of the world.” Many blame President Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric as the central factor in the crisis. Less obvious are the ways the conflagration stems from years of slashing government budgets for the environment and dismantling support for indigenous and traditional subsistence communities.

For example, Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer, reorganized the government and wielded his budget scissors liberally. Temer downgraded a ministry focused on supporting sustainable family farms and chopped funds for environmental protections and science. In 2017, Temer cut the federal science budget by 44% and took nearly the same amount from the discretionary budgetof IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency. In April 2019, Bolsonaro continued the trend, cutting IBAMA’s budget by 24%. Those cuts left the agency unable to cover its fixed costs and left it without resources for patrolling and enforcement.

A spokesperson for IBAMA says that its budget has been reinstated to what it was prior to the April cuts. Nonetheless, thus far in 2019, IBAMA has issued only one third of the fines it did over the same period last year, according to Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers. The drop is likely a result of both a lack of funding and political will. Earlier this year, Bolsonaro had IBAMA fire an agent, who happened to have fined Bolsonaro years ago for illegal fishing.

In a similar vein, after the Brazilian space agency, called INPE, released new satellite data showing a 278% increase in deforestation in July compared to the same period last year, Bolsonaro fired the agency’s head, suggesting that the data were trumped up in order to tarnish the country’s image.

Brazil’s strong agriculture sector has ratcheted up pressure on forests. Agriculture has been the strongest performing sector of Brazil’s economy in recent years, and the US-China trade war has positioned Brazil well to replace the US as the global leader in soybean exports. The demand for soybeans has created pressure to rapidly clear forests and plant. Jair Bolsonaro’s oldest son, Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator, has introduced a bill that would eliminate a requirement that rural properties in the Amazon maintain 80% of their native vegetation.

Meanwhile, the president has regularly challenged criticism about his government’s environmental policies in a way some see as condoning deforestation. “The Amazon is ours,” Bolsonaro told journalists in mid-July. “We preserve more [rainforest] than anyone. No country in the world has the moral right to talk about the Amazon. You destroyed your own ecosystems.”

Fabiano Lopez da Silva, head of Fundação Vitoria Amazonica, an environmental non-governmental organization based in Manaús, says such rhetoric stimulates illegal deforestation. “[Farmers and illegal loggers] can go forward with illegal fires. There won’t be any sort of [fiscal enforcement] or monitoring or fines for this kind of activity,” says Lopez da Silva.

There are indications that these latest fires may have at least in part been the result of political acts. According to the Folha do Progresso, a publication from the southern part of the Amazonian state of Pará, farmers and ranchers in the region organized what they called “a day of fire” for Aug. 10, where they would set forests aflame to clear land for pasture and planting. Their goal, according to the outlet, was to show Bolsonaro they wanted to work, and burning down trees was the way to do that. In the following 48 hours, forest fires spread rapidly in the region. The New York Times reports that farmers set the bulk of these fires, but that they targeted land already cleared for agriculture, not old-growth forest.

Similarly, the environment secretary for the state of Amazonas, Eduardo Taveira, told TIME that in the southern part of the state, the agency has seen an unusually large number of fires in areas where man-made forest fires are an annual issue. Taveira and Lopez da Silva both noted that forest fires in the Amazon are almost never the result of natural causes.

Meanwhile, by reorganizing the government and cutting budgets, the Bolsonaro administration has undercut environmental policing power. For the last few years, during the dry season (which runs from June to December) IBAMA has maintained an enforcement base in Novo Progresso, a city in the state of Pará at the epicenter of the current forest fires. When IBAMA agents patrol the countryside looking for illegal logging and other violations, military police generally accompany them to ensure their safety, since Brazil ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists. But this year, shortly after demonstrations near Novo Progresso where farmers burned bridges and tires to protest IBAMA’s enforcement actions, the state military police were removed from this detail. Though the police respond to the state government, it’s hard not to see removing police protection as tacit permission to break the law.

Bolsanaro’s administration declined to respond to emailed questions from TIME.


On Aug. 23, Bolsonaro made a televised speech to announce “zero tolerance” for environmental crimes, and said Brazil would deploy its armed forces to cope with the forest fires. In the same speech, however, he reaffirmed the need to provide economic opportunity to the Amazon region’s population, and there’s little indication that Bolsonaro will pull back his support for expanding mining operations and large-scale farming in the region.

That’s just more bad news for the Amazon’s indigenous people, whose lands are some of the best preserved in the region. One of Bolsonaro’s first official acts as president in early 2019 was to transfer the agency charged with supporting indigenous people, FUNAI, under the Ministry of Agriculture. Analysts say this weakens the agency’s ability to protect indigenous territories. Along with suggesting that indigenous territory could be opened up for mining, Bolsonaro has also threatened to halt the certification of any new indigenous settlements.

Obviously, this is devastating for indigenous people. But it’s also potentially catastrophic for the environment. According to a recent United Nations report,strong land rights for indigenous communities help form a bulwark against climate change. In Brazil, for example, indigenous territories are constitutionally protected. This helps maintain the forest by discouraging encroachment by farmers, miners and loggers.

But, according to Joenia Wapichana, a member of the Sustainability Network (a political party established by former Minister of the Environment Marina Silva) and the first indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s senate, the Bolsonaro government has “persecuted” indigenous people by attempting to halt the processes that define the boundaries of indigenous territories. The FUNAI website lists 440 fully recognized indigenous territories in Brazil. Another 127 have crossed the first hurdle in the demarcation process while a further 115 have yet to move past the initial study required to begin applying for recognition.

Once these boundaries are established, non-indigenous Brazilians are barred from using the land, creating buffer zones against deforestation.

Wildfire in the Amazon rainforest, near Abuna, in the Brazilian state of Rondonia on Aug. 24, 2019.

Wildfire in the Amazon rainforest, near Abuna, in the Brazilian state of Rondonia on Aug. 24, 2019.
Carl de Souza—AFP/Getty Images

Brazil’s traditional subsistence communities and settlements established by the descendants of formerly enslaved people represent another shield against deforestation. Traditional communities are generally the descendants of European settlers who practice small-scale agriculture as well as producing goods from materials that can be harvested sustainably from the forest. For example, in Montanha e Mangabal, a government-certified “traditional community” with approximately 250 residents in Pará, many of the community’s residents support themselves by producing oils from native plants, fishing, and raising yucca roots to make flour. The community’s presence deters deforestation, says its president, Ageu Lobo Perreira. “[Traditional] communities are always there watching,” he says. “You can’t come here and attack the environment, take lumber.”

Unfortunately, these communities are at risk thanks, Lobo Perreira says, to federal defunding of environmental protection, public education, and public healthcare. “Families are leaving because they want their children to have a secondary-school education,” Lobo Perreira says. Community members must travel more than 140 miles to the city of Itaituba for any serious health issues.

Further, these places on the frontlines of deforestation have become flash points of violence. Indigenous and traditional subsistence communities regularly report physical violence in confrontations resulting from incursions onto their land. Last year, for example, after Lobo Perreira publicly challenged miners prospecting illegally on the community’s land, he received death threats that forced him to leave Montanha e Mangabal for a few months.

“When you enter these more remote areas,” says André Cutrim, a professor of environmental resource management at the Federal University of Pará, “these are places where the state’s power, judicial power doesn’t reach.” The result, he says, is that it’s easier to cut down trees or to start fires illegally—and harder for an already hamstrung environmental agency to operate in the face of violence and lawlessness. This enables land grabbers to deforest and farm regardless of what the law permits.

Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It’s The “Lungs Of The World,” Is Wrong

The dramatic photos shared by celebrities of the fires in Brazil weren't what they appeared to be

WIKIPEDIA

The increase in fires burning in Brazil set off a storm of international outrage last week. Celebrities, environmentalists, and political leaders blame Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, for destroying the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, which they say is the “lungs of the world.”

Singers and actors including Madonna and Jaden Smith shared photos on social media that were seen by tens of millions of people. “The lungs of the Earth are in flames,” said actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” tweeted soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. “The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” tweeted French President Emanuel Macron.

And yet the photos weren’t actually of the fires and many weren’t even of the Amazon. The photo Ronaldo shared was taken in southern Brazil, far from the Amazon, in 2013. The photo that DiCaprio and Macron shared is over 20 years old. The photo Madonna and Smith shared is over 30. Some celebrities shared photos from Montana, India, and Sweden.

To their credit, CNN and New York Timesdebunked the photos and other misinformation about the fires. “Deforestation is neither new nor limited to one nation,” explained CNN. “These fires were not caused by climate change,” noted The Times.

But both publications repeated the claim that the Amazon is the “lungs” of the world. “The Amazon remains a net source of oxygen today,” said CNN. “The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s ‘lungs,’ because its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming,” claimed The New York Times.

I was curious to hear what one of the world’s leading Amazon forest experts, Dan Nepstad, had to say about the “lungs” claim.

“It’s bullshit,” he said. “There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.”

Plants use respiration to convert nutrients from the soil into energy. They use photosynthesis to convert light into chemical energy, which can later be used in respiration.

What about The New York Times claim that “If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity’”?

Also not true, said Nepstad, who was a lead author of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but so do soy farms and [cattle] pastures.”

Some people will no doubt wave away the “lungs” myth as nit-picking. The broader point is that there is an increase in fires in Brazil and something should be done about it.

But the “lungs” myth is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider that CNN ran a long segment with the banner, “Fires Burning at Record Rate in Amazon Forest” while a leading climate reporter claimed, “The current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.”

While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago, Nepstad said.

While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago.

INPE

One of Brazil’s leading environmental journalists agrees that media coverage of the fires has been misleading. “It was under [Workers Party President] Lula and [Environment Secretary] Marina Silva (2003-2008) that Brazil had the highest incidence of burning,” Leonardo Coutinho told me over email. “But neither Lula nor Marina was accused of putting the Amazon at risk.”

Coutinho’s perspective was shaped by reporting on the ground in the Amazon for Veja, Brazil’s leading news magazine, for nearly a decade. By contrast, many of the correspondents reporting on the fires have been doing so from the cosmopolitan cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which are 2,500 miles and four hours by jet plane away.

“What is happening in the Amazon is not exceptional,” said Coutinho. “Take a look at Google web searches search for ‘Amazon’ and ‘Amazon Forest’ over time. Global public opinion was not as interested in the ‘Amazon tragedy’ when the situation was undeniably worse. The present moment does not justify global hysteria.”

And while fires in Brazil have increased, there is no evidence that Amazon forest fires have.

“What hurts me most is the bare idea of the millions of Notre-Dames, high cathedrals of terrestrial biodiversity, burning to the ground,” a Brazilian journalist wrote in the New York Times.

But the Amazon forest’s high cathedrals aren’t doing that. “I saw the photo Macron and Di Caprio tweeted,” said Nepstad, “but you don’t see forests burning like that in the Amazon.”

Amazon forest fires are hidden by the tree canopy and only increase during drought years. “We don’t know if there are any more forest fires this year than in past years, which tells me there probably isn’t,” Nepstad said. “I’ve been working on studying those fires for 25 years and our [on-the-ground] networks are tracking this.”

What increased by 7% in 2019 are the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for cattle ranching as a strategy to gain ownership of land.

Against the picture painted of an Amazon forest on the verge of disappearing, a full 80% remains standing. Half of the Amazon is protected against deforestation under federal law.

“Few stories in the first wave of media coverage mentioned the dramatic drop in deforestation in Brazil in the 2000s,” noted former New York Timesreporter Andrew Revkin, who wrote a 1990 book, The Burning Season, about the Amazon, and is now Founding Director, Initiative on Communication & Sustainability at The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Deforestation declined a whopping 70% from 2004 to 2012. It has risen modestly since then but remains at one-quarter its 2004 peak. And just 3% of the Amazon is suitable for soy farming.

Both Nepstad and Coutinho say the real threat is from accidental forest fires in drought years, which climate change could worsen. “The most serious threat to the Amazon forest is the severe events that make the forests vulnerable to fire. That’s where we can get a downward spiral between fire and drought and more fire.”

Today, 18 – 20% of the Amazon forest remains at risk of being deforested.

“I don’t like the international narrative right now because it’s polarizing and divisive,” said Nepstad. “Bolsonaro has said some ridiculous things and none of them are excusable but there’s also a big consensus against accidental fire and we have to tap into that.”

“Imagine you are told [under the federal Forest Code] that you can only use half of your land and then being told you can only use 20%,” Nepstad said. “There was a bait and switch and the farmers are really frustrated. These are people who love to hunt and fish and be on land and should be allies but we lost them.”

Nepstad said that the restrictions cost farmers $10 billion in foregone profits and forest restoration. “There was an Amazon Fund set up in 2010 with $1 billion from Norwegian and German governments but none of it ever made its way to the large and medium-sized farmers,” says Nepstad.

Both the international pressure and the government’s over-reaction is increasing resentment among the very people in Brazil environmentalists need to win over in order to save the Amazon: forests and ranchers.

“Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base deplorable,” said Nepstad. “There’s outrage at Macron in Brazil. The Brazilians want to know why California gets all this sympathy for its forest fires and while Brazil gets all this finger-pointing.”

“I don’t mind the media frenzy as long as it leaves something positive,” said Nepstad, but it has instead forced the Brazilian government to over-react. “Sending in the army is not the way to go because it’s not all illegal actors. People forget that there are legitimate reasons for small farmers to use controlled burns to knock back insects and pests.”

The reaction from foreign media, global celebrities, and NGOs in Brazil stems from a romantic anti-capitalism common among urban elites, say Nepstad and Coutinho. “There’s a lot of hatred of agribusiness,” said Nepstad. “I’ve had colleagues say, ‘Soy beans aren’t food.’ I said, ‘What does your kid eat? Milk, chicken, eggs? That’s all soy protein fed to poultry.’”

Others may have political motives. “Brazilian farmers want to extend [the free trade agreement] EU-Mercosur but Macron is inclined to shut it down because the French farm sector doesn’t want more Brazilian food products coming into the country,” Nepstad explained.

Despite climate change, deforestation, and widespread and misleading coverage of the situation, Nepstad hasn’t given up hope. The Amazon emergency should lead the conservation community to repair its relationship with farmers and seek more pragmatic solutions, he said.

“Agribusiness is 25% of Brazil’s GDP and it’s what got the country through the recession,” said Nepstad. “When soy farming comes into a landscape, the number of fires goes down. Little towns get money for schools, GDP rises, and inequality declines. This is not a sector to beat up on, it’s one to find common ground with.”

Nepstad argued that it would be a no-brainer for governments around the world to support Earth Alliance (Aliança da Terra), a fire detection and prevention network he co-founded which is comprised of 600 volunteers, mostly indigenous people, and farmers.

“For $2 million a year we could control the fires and stop the Amazon die-back,” said Nepstad. “We have 600 people who have received top-notch training by US fire jumpers but now need trucks with the right gear so they can clear fire breaks through the forest and start a backfire to burn up the fuel in the pathway of the fire.”

For such pragmatism to take hold among divergent interests, the news media will need to improve its future coverage of the issue.

“One of the grand challenges facing newsrooms covering complicated emergent, enduring issues like tropical deforestation,” said journalist Revkin, “is finding ways to engage readers without histrionics. The alternative is ever more whiplash journalism — which is the recipe for reader disengagement.”

The Amazon Is Dying and Bolsonaro Is Fanning the Flames

The Amazon rainforest is the largest rainforest on planet Earth. Generating half its own rainfall and holding 20 percent of all the world’s rivers within its borders, it covers an area two-thirds the size of the contiguous 48 United States, and produces 20 percent of the oxygen in the world’s atmosphere.

There are more than 1,100 tributaries of the Amazon River alone, with seventeen of them longer than one thousand miles. The rainforest also creates “flying rivers,” — massive streams of airborne moisture that develop above the canopy and move with the clouds and rainfall patterns across the entire continent of South America.

Many scientists believe the Amazon is the most important source of biodiversity on the planet, and statistics back that up. It contains thousands of species of birds and trees, an estimated 2.5 million species of insects, and at least 3,000 species of fish in the Rio Negro alone, with new species being discovered all the time. A new species is discovered, on average, every other day.

Smoke from the burning rainforest has blotted out the sky over Sao Paulo, a city more than 1,700 miles from the fires, while satellite imagery showssmoke from the fires having spread all the way to the Atlantic coast, covering half of Brazil, and even covering parts of Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru.

Crossing Thresholds

Thomas Lovejoy has worked in Brazil’s Amazon since 1965, but he is the first to say that “we’ve barely scratched the surface” in terms of our understanding of that rainforest, as he told Truthout during an interview in 2017. He was director of the World Wildlife Fund in the U.S. for 14 years, and has been given the nickname “the godfather of biodiversity,” having coined the term “biodiversity” himself. One of his reports, alone, led to more than half of the Amazon rainforest being put under protection.

During our interview, Lovejoy gave dire warnings of things to come, including the heartbreaking wildfires we are seeing now.

He noted that emissions limits that have been agreed to internationally will not prevent catastrophe. In a 2013 op-ed for The New York Times entitled “The Climate Change Endgame,” he wrote, “It is abundantly clear that the target of a 2-degree Celsius limit to climate change was mostly derived from what seemed convenient and doable without any reference to what it really means environmentally. Two degrees is actually too much for ecosystems.”

That is exactly what the current Amazon wildfires indicate, as the planet has warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius (1.2°C) since the industrial revolution began, and will clearly continue warming.

“Think about what it means overall,” Lovejoy said of what the planet will look and feel like when it reaches 2°C (a benchmark it is now guaranteed to far exceed). “It means a world that will have sea levels four to six meters higher. It means a world without tropical coral reefs — as we can already see those impacts now — and probably a whole bunch of thresholds will be crossed that we can’t predict.”

When a tropical rainforest is healthy, it sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere, but when rainforests are degraded by drought, wildfires, human-caused fires, clear-cutting and human development, they release most or all of their stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The 2010 Amazon drought released as much carbon dioxide as the annual emissions of Russia and China combined, Oxford University scientists observed.

Given increasing drought and wildfire patterns, we can most likely expect to see the demise of the Amazon, possibly even before 2100.

Bolsonaro: The Tropical Trump

According to INPE, deforestation across the Amazon had already accelerated by 60 percent in June, compared to the same time period last year, as radical right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s horrific environmental policies began to take effect.

Last month, Greenpeace labeled Bolsonaro and his right-wing government a “threat to climate equilibrium,” while the World Wildlife Fund, like many scientists, has warned that if the Amazon reaches a tipping point, it could become a dry savannah and will no longer be capable of supporting much of the wildlife that exists there today.

Instead of sequestering carbon and generating water and rainfall, the Amazon will instead become a net emitter of carbon, and the planet will lose most of its oxygen-producing function. Meanwhile, the loss of the Amazon’s biodiversity will be beyond devastating for the planet.

Bolsonaro, like Trump in the U.S., has worked at breakneck speed to eliminate environmental regulations. He has opened up the Amazon for logging, agribusiness and mining since he took power this January.

In a particularly Trumpian moment, Bolsonaro recently made the baseless claim that environmental NGOs were responsible for the wildfires. Speaking to a steel industry congress in the capital city of Brasilia, The Guardian reported that Bolsonaro said, “On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention? To bring problems to Brazil.”

Bolsonaro was likely using this speech as a deflection and diversion from his real plans for the Amazon. Recently leaked documents show that Bolsonaro intends to use hate speech to further isolate and marginalize minority groups living in the Amazon, in order to move forward with predatory projects like dams that would have devastating environmental impacts.

“Development projects must be implemented on the Amazon basin to integrate it into the rest of the national territory in order to fight off international pressure for the implementation of the so-called ‘Triple A’ project,” read one of the slides from the leaked Powerpoint. “To do this, it is necessary to build the Trombetas River hydroelectric plant, the Óbidos bridge over the Amazon River, and the implementation of the BR-163 highway to the border with Suriname.”

Hence, Bolsonaro’s attacks directed at NGOs are likely part of the extreme right-wing leader’s development plans for the Amazon.

Blame humans for starting the Amazon fires, environmentalists say

(CNN)The Amazon is burning — and humans are likely to blame.

Environmental organizations and researchers say the wildfires blazing in the Brazilian rainforest were set by cattle ranchers and loggers who want to clear and utilize the land, emboldened by the country’s pro-business president.
“The vast majority of these fires are human-lit,” said Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch. He added that even during dry seasons, the Amazon — a humid rainforest — doesn’t catch on fire easily, unlike the dry bushland in California or Australia.
Farmers and ranchers have long used fire to clear land, said Poirier, and are likely behind the unusually large number fires burning in the Amazon today.
A satellite image from NASA shows the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil in August 2019.

The country’s space research center (INPE) said this week that the number of fires in Brazil are 80% higher than last year. More than half are in the Amazon region, spelling disaster for the local environment and ecology.
And 99% percent of the fires result from human actions “either on purpose or by accident,” Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist at INPE, said. The burning can range from a small-scale agricultural practice, to new deforestation for a mechanized and modern agribusiness project, Setzer told CNN by email.
The Amazon forest produces about 20% of the world’s oxygen, and is often called “the planet’s lungs.” According to the World Wildlife Fund, if it is irrevocably damaged, it could start emitting carbon instead — the major driver of climate change.
The environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, tweeted on Wednesday that the fires were caused by dry weather, wind, and heat. But CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said the fires are “definitely human-induced,” and can’t be attributed to natural causes like lightning strikes.
This year’s fires fit into an established seasonal agricultural pattern, Brink said. “It’s the best time to burn because the vegetation is dry. [Farmers] wait for the dry season and they start burning and clearing the areas so that their cattle can graze. And that’s what we’re suspecting is going on down there.”
The peak of the dry season is still to come in September, she added.
Compared to previous years, the destruction this year is “unprecedented,” Poirier said.
In this Aug. 20, 2019 drone photo released by the Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso, brush fires burn in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state, Brazil.

It’s also very difficult to halt human-induced blazes, Lincoln Muniz Alves, a researcher at INPE’s Earth System Science Centre, told CNN.
“Because the use of fire is a traditional part of tropical agriculture to clean agricultural land, grazing land, it is very difficult to stop it,” Alves said in an email.

Environmentalists are blaming Bolsonaro

Organizations, activists, and social media users worldwide have reacted to the news with alarm. #PrayForTheAmazon and other variations of the hashtag are trending globally on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of tweets. As images and news of the fire spread, many are demanding accountability from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
When Bolsonaro was running for president, he made campaign promises to restore the economy by exploring the Amazon’s economic potential. Now, environmental organizations say he has encouraged ranchers, farmers, and loggers to exploit and burn the rainforest like never before with a sense of impunity.
In this Aug. 20, 2019 drone photo released by the Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso, brush fires burn in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state, Brazil.

In a statement, Amazon Watch pointed to widespread local media reports that just last week, farmers had organized a coordinated “fire day” to burn land for agriculture, inspired by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric.
Fires are “just the most visible symptom” of Bolsonaro’s policies, and “reflect the irresponsibility of the president,” said Observatorio do Clima (Climate Observatory) in a statement on Wednesday.
The pro-business Bolsonaro has hamstrung Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency with budget cuts amounting to $23 million — official data sent to CNN by Observatorio do Clima shows the enforcement agency’s operations have gone down since Bolsonaro was sworn in.
And just weeks ago, the director of INPE was fired after a spat with the president. The director had defended satellite data that showed deforestation was 88% higher in June than a year earlier, which Bolsonaro characterized as “lies.”
Bolsonaro, who has previously said he is not “Captain Chainsaw” in reference to Amazon deforestation, has dismissed accusations of responsibility for the fires. On Wednesday, he speculated that the Amazon fires could have been caused by nonprofit organizations who are suffering from lack of funding, to “generate negative attention against me and against the Brazilian government.”
Poirier warns that shrugging off the fires could embolden farmers to burn more and “land grabbers” to illegally occupy, parcel out, and resell plots of land to ranchers. There have previously been attempts to rein in these rainforest “mafia” — but these attempted crackdowns are rare and often met with strong public opposition.
All the while, the Amazon veers toward potential disaster.
“The Amazon is incredibly important for our future, for our ability to stave off the worst of climate change,” said Poirier. “This isn’t hyperbole. We’re looking at untold destruction — not just of the Amazon but for our entire planet.”

Smoke from Amazon wildfires plunges Sao Paulo into darkness in middle of day

The largest city in Brazil was plunged into darkness in the middle of the day on Monday after billowing smoke from ongoing wildfires in the Amazon region combined with a weather pattern, creating an ominous, dark blanket over the metropolis.

The thick, black clouds moved over Sao Paulo around 3 p.m. and stayed over the area for more than an hour.

Officials from Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology, known as Inment, said the phenomenon was due to the combination of several factors: a cold front, humid air, heavy clouds, and winds bringing particulate matter from ongoing wildfires in Paraguay and Bolivia.

BRAZILIAN PRESIDENT SUGGESTS LESS POOPING TO HELP SAVE ENVIRONMENT

“The darkening of the sky was quite intense,” Inmet meteorologist Franco Nadal Villela told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

The World Meteorological Organization said Tuesday on Twitter that atmospheric monitoring data shows smoke from fires across the Amazonian region has caused smoke to reach the Atlantic coast, including Sao Paulo.

AMAZON WILDFIRES CAN BE SEEN FROM SPACE, NASA IMAGES SHOW

Many took to Twitter on Monday to post photos and videos of the darkened skies over the city.

TROVE OF ‘SUPER-DEEP’ DIAMONDS FROM EARTH’S INTERIOR DISCOVERED

The incident on Monday highlighted concerns about the sharp increase in fires in the country this year. Brazil has had the highest number of forest fires since records began in 2013, with over 72,843 fires detected so far by Brazil’s space research center INPE.

INPE researcher Alberto Setzer said that the dry season wasn’t the main cause for the wildfires across the Amazon.

“The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” Setzer told the news agency.

A recent satellite photos shows smoke from wildfires across the Amazon.

A recent satellite photos shows smoke from wildfires across the Amazon. (NOAA)

The number marks an 83 percent increase since last year and is fueling concerns over Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.

Bolsonaro has come under fire in recent weeks after data from Brazil’s space research institute indicates a surge in deforestation in the Amazon in the last quarter, higher than during the same period in the previous three years. Bolsonaro’s criticism of the data and the federal agency monitoring the Amazon region for deforestation led to the firing of the institute’s director.

On Wednesday, he suggested non-governmental organizations could be to blame for the unusually high number of wildfires, “to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil”.

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The Amazon rainforest is typically fire-resistant due to its natural moisture and humidity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Wildfires there today are caused by a combination of droughts and human activity; the intensity and frequency of droughts in turn, have been linked with increases in regional deforestation and anthropogenic climate change,” the agency notes.

A record number of wildfires are burning in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest

President Jair Bolsonaro blames NGOs, saying they set fires to make his environmental record look bad

A man works in a burning tract of Amazon jungle as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil, on Aug. 20. (Bruno Kelly/Reuters)

Wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest have hit a record number this year, with 72,843 fires detected so far by Brazil’s space research centre (INPE), as concerns grow over right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policy.

The surge marks an 83 per cent increase over the same period of 2018, the agency said on Tuesday, and is the highest since records began in 2013.

Since Thursday, INPE said satellite images spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the country, mostly in the Amazon basin, home to the world’s largest tropical forest seen as vital to countering global warming.

Images show the northernmost state of Roraima covered in dark smoke. Amazonas declared an emergency in the south of the state and in its capital Manaus on Aug. 9. Acre, on the border with Peru, has been on environmental alert since Friday due to the fires.

Wildfires have increased in Mato Grosso and Para, two states where Brazil’s agricultural frontier has pushed into the Amazon basin and spurred deforestation. Wildfires are common in the dry season, but are also deliberately set by farmers illegally deforesting land for cattle ranching.

President Bolsonaro blames NGOs

The unprecedented surge in wildfires has occurred since Bolsonaro took office in January vowing to develop the Amazon region for farming and mining, ignoring international concern over increased deforestation.

The right-wing Brazilian President said on a Facebook Live session Wednesday, without any supporting evidence, that non-governmental organizations could be burning down the Amazon rainforest to bring shame on his government after he cut their funding.

He said “everything indicates” that NGOs are going to the Amazon to “set fire” to the forest. When asked if he had evidence to back up his claims, he said he had “no written plan,” adding “that’s not how it’s done.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, addressing a crowd at an International Youth Day celebration on August 16, said in a Facebook Live session Wednesday that NGOs are likely to blame for the Amazon fires, without evidence to back up such a statement. (Evaristo SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Bolsonaro pointed out that his government had slashed NGO funding, which he claimed may be a motive for NGOs burning down the forest as they seek to bring infamy to his government.

“Crime exists,” he said during the Facebook Live. “These people are missing the money.”

“I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada,” he told reporters earlier, referring to the usage of fire by farmers to clear land.

Cannot be attributed to dry season

Space agency INPE, however, said the large number of wildfires could not be attributed to the dry season or natural phenomena alone.

“There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” said INPE researcher Alberto Setzer.

Thousands of fires have been detected in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, South America’s largest country. (CBC News)

People frequently blame the dry season for the wildfires in the Amazon, but that is not quite accurate, he said.

“The dry season creates the favourable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” Setzer said.

Bolsonaro recently fired the director of INPE after he criticized agency statistics showing an increase in deforestation in Brazil, saying they were inaccurate.

“I am waiting for the next set of numbers, that will not be made up numbers. If they are alarming, I will take notice of them in front of you,” he told reporters.

TREES EMIT A SURPRISINGLY LARGE AMOUNT OF METHANE

https://www.wired.com/story/trees-emit-a-surprisingly-large-amount-of-methane/

Smoke rises above the Amazon rainforest, outside an indigenous reservation near Jundia, Roraima state. Brazil, on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.
DADO GALDIERI/GETTY IMAGES
This story originally appeared on Yale Environment 360 and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

There are many mysteries in the Amazon. Until recently, one of the most troubling was the vast methane emissions emerging from the rainforest that were observed by satellites but that nobody could find on the ground. Around 20 million tons was simply unaccounted for.

Then Sunitha Pangala, a British postdoc researcher, spent two months traveling the Amazon’s waterways strapping gas-measuring equipment to thousands of trees. She found that trees, especially in the extensive flooded forests, were stimulating methane production in the waterlogged soils and mainlining it into the atmosphere.

Her 2014 expedition plugged a gaping hole in the planet’s methane budget. And she had discovered a hitherto ignored major source of the second most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It now seems that most of the world’s estimated 3 trillion trees emit methane at least some of the time.

Nobody is arguing that trees are therefore bad for climate and should be cut down. Indeed, in most cases, their carbon storage capability easily outweighs their methane emissions. But in a world where corporations plant trees to offset their carbon emissions, we badly need to know if their numbers add up, or if they are undermined by the complex chemistry of trees and methane.

Forest scientists have long amused their students by cutting holes in tree bark and setting fire to gases hissing from the trunk. The first recorded measurements were made in 1907, when Francis Bushong of the University of Kansas cut a campus cottonwood and found the gas coming off was 60 percent methane. Yet “it was only about a decade ago that scientists thought to measure whether methane was actually emitting from trees growing in forests,” says Patrick Megonigal of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, a pioneer in the work.

For a while, few forest researchers wanted to know. They were not keen to hear that trees might not be quite as good for the climate as they hoped. Perhaps they feared a rerun of the furor in 1981, when Ronald Reagan used research on the discovery of volatile organic compounds from trees to falsely claim that they “cause more pollution than automobiles.”

Similarly, climate scientists saw forests as absorbing methane, rather than releasing it. It only slowly dawned on anyone that trees might do both.

Among the first was Vincent Gauci, then at the UK’s Open University and now at Birmingham University. “When I was first working on this, it was poo-pooed,” he says. When Pangala, then also at The Open University, made her first measurements of trees emitting methane in the swamps of Borneo, she had the same experience. Despite finding that the trees increased standard estimates of emissions from the swamps sevenfold, “it took 18 months to get it published,” she says. “We were rejected by several journals. They just weren’t interested.”

“We found a consistent story that the trees all emit a lot of methane,” she says. “In the seasonally flooded part of the Amazon, the trees become a massive chimney for pumping out methane.” Emissions from individual trees were more than 200 times higher than any previously measured anywhere. This was not trivial. Every hectare of flooded forests was emitting several kilograms of methane each day. The on-the-ground findings doubled previous estimates of Amazon methane emissions to around 40 million tons a year. The trees were emitting as much methane as all the tundra ecosystems of the Arctic, whose permafrost contains huge amounts of the gas—a store that is expected to be released in ever-greater quantities as the region warms and its soils thaw.

Pangala’s “bottom-up” findings were confirmed by “top-down” measurements from aircraft flown by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others across the same areas. It was a game-changer. “She blew the story open,” says Kristofer Covey of Skidmore College in New York. “The work was very thorough and considered. She provided a full ecosystem picture, and showed the missing methane was coming from trees. It was very difficult to argue with.”

Not least because it explained a long-standing data gap, first identified by hydrologist Christian Frankenberg, now at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He had pointed out in 2005 that remote sensing data from satellites suggested the Amazon was emitting twice as much methane as researchers on the ground could account for. Now the world knew why. “She closed the Amazon methane budget,” says Covey.

After water vapor and carbon dioxide, methane is the most important greenhouse gas. In fact, molecule for molecule, it is a much more potent planet-warmer than CO2. Human sources—most prominently rotting landfills, coal mines, rice paddies, cattle, and leaks from natural gas pipelines—have raised atmospheric concentrations by around 250 percent. They are reckoned to be responsible for around a fifth of global warming.

Because methane only lasts in the atmosphere for around a decade, removing major sources could have a quicker effect on global temperatures than removing CO2, which lasts for centuries. That does not mean that cutting down the world’s trees would cool the planet, however. Far from it. In most places at most times, trees’ ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide trumps any contribution their methane emissions make to the atmosphere.

But equally, it can’t be ignored, says Pangala. The numbers are too high. “We find a total footprint of 50-65 million tons of methane annually from wetland trees,” she says. “That is a third of the total from natural wetlands. A third we didn’t know about at all until recently.”

The most intense tree emissions are almost certainly from forested areas of tropical wetlands, such as the Amazon. But the role of trees outside wetlands cannot be discounted. “We know emissions from [non-wetland] trees are lower, but there is a far larger area of upland forests in the world to emit,” says Megonigal.

Likewise, trees outside the tropics do not generally emit on the scale of those in the tropics. Temperatures are too low. But even so, some forests in the mid-latitudes may at times emit enough methane to negate the methane-absorbing capacity of their soils, turning their ecosystems from net methane sinks to net sources, says Megonigal.

Some researchers see wetland tree trunks merely as passive conduits for methane generated by micro-organisms in the waterlogged soils. Tree trunks may look solid, but they contain spaces and channels through which gases travel up and down. “A large proportion of the volume of a tree stem is gas,” says Covey—anywhere between a quarter and half.

But it seems that wetland trees are much more than conduits. They also create the conditions, and provide the raw materials, for methane generation by micro-organisms. “In wetland systems, trees send a lot of carbon into their roots,” says Pangala. This delivery, known as rhizodeposition, provides the essential raw materials for methane-generating micro-organisms that congregate among the trees’ roots. “Trees are bioreactors”, says Gauci. “Without them, methanogenesis, even in wetlands, might be much less.”

Many trees, especially outside wetlands, also actively generate methane. Some methane comes from photochemical reactions in their foliage. More may be from microbes living in the trunks that themselves generate methane, says Gauci. Some researchers have termed trees as crypto-wetlands or vertical wetlands.

The scale of these processes remains unclear. But what we are learning, says Covey, is that the chemical interactions between trees and the atmosphere are extremely dynamic. “Until recently, in climate terms, we have seen forests mostly as carbon sinks,” he says. “ The reality is very different, there is much more going on.”

The bottom line, says Pangala, is that almost all trees can both emit and absorb methane. But finding out the net balance is very hard because it changes so much. And that methane is, of course, only part of a much bigger picture of the role of trees in climate.

“In the wider world of climate change, their benefits are almost always much greater,” says Pangala. “Even for an individual tree, the methane element usually turns out to be quite small compared to carbon storage.” And besides storing carbon, they recycle moisture, create shade, stimulate cloud formation, protect biodiversity, and cleanse the air.

But even if trees are rarely “bad” for the climate, clearly some can be better than others, says Pangala. So if the world is to embark on a sustained program of reforesting the planet as a means to fight climate change, then “let’s choose trees with a small methane footprint.”

Her former supervisor at The Open University is on the case. Gauci currently is working on the Indonesian island of Sumatra with the owners of huge plantations of acacia trees growing on drained peat bogs. Dried peat emits carbon dioxide, and to prevent that, the Indonesia government is requiring peatland concession holders to plug drains and raise the water table. But the risk, says Gauci, is that rising waters will trigger a burst of methane emissions from the waterlogged trees. He hopes to find a perfect combination of trees and water levels—a “sweet spot that will minimize carbon emissions but avoid a methane bomb.”

The need is all the greater, notes Covey, when governments and corporations are planting trees with the promise that they will thereby offset their industrial emissions by adding trees that soak up CO2, thus meeting their international obligations for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The climate benefits could be inflated if methane emissions from the trees are ignored, he says: “The danger is that we end up trading real emissions on the carbon markets for perceived offsets.”

“Ultimately we want to get to the situation where if you… know the type of trees and soil and temperature and water table, we will be able to calculate how much methane gets into the atmosphere,” says Pangala. But that still requires a lot more science, and a lot more data.

Earlier this month, Pangala, now at Lancaster University, flew to Mexico with her young son, ready to clamp methane monitoring equipment to mangroves in the coastal swamps of the Yucatan. “It will be hard work,” she said before she departed. “The mangroves are dense. There are snakes to contend with. But it is wet and there are trees. So surely they will be releasing methane. The only question is how much.”

Brazil guts environmental agencies, clears way for unchecked deforestation

Illegal timber harvest seizures drop toward zero

Government seizures of illegally harvested timber fell even more dramatically than the number of fines: just 40 cubic meters (1,410 cubic feet), equivalent to 10 large trees, were confiscated in the first four months of the year under Bolsonaro. By contrast, 25,000 cubic meters (883,000 cubic feet) of illegal timber were seized in 2018 under the Michel Temer administration.

It seems unlikely the volume of seizures will increase by much in the near future: all six monitoring operations planned for coming months have either been cancelled or downsized.

And those that do go ahead are likely to yield few results: IBAMA’s website must now announce in advance when and where each operation will take place, even though it’s obvious that the success of the raids depends on secrecy and the element of surprise. This advance publicity also increases the risks to IBAMA agents, leaving them more vulnerable to criminal attacks.

The number of ICMBio operations has declined heavily this year.

Mass firings leave environmental agencies leaderless

According to experts, the disarray at IBAMA is largely due to the firing of the heads of the agency’s state bodies, which carry out most of the deforestation-monitoring operations. In February, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles axed 21 of the 27 state superintendents in a single day. To date, only four of the state bodies have official heads. Without leadership, there is no proper planning for operations to curb illegal deforestation.

It’s these state superintendents who have the authority to make decisions regarding the charging of smaller fines, those up to 500,000 reais ($129,000), which constitute the majority of fines. “The employees who occupy the top posts temporarily do not feel they have the authority to take such decisions,” said another IBAMA employee.

Morale is also very low at the environmental agency, with both Salles and Bolsonaro repeatedly attacking IBAMA. One incident that greatly affected employees was Bolsonaro’s surprise announcement that IBAMA agents could no longer set fire to tractors and other equipment used by illegal loggers. This legally approved policy had long been an effective deterrent for IBAMA agents to combat criminal deforestation in remote areas where it’s both difficult and expensive to confiscate illicit equipment.

In a short video interview, Bolsonaro, standing beside Marcos Rogério, a right-wing senator from Rondônia state, banned operations to end the illegal extraction of timber from Jamari National Forest, a protected area in Rondônia that is being extensively invaded by illegal loggers and land grabbers. That presidential statement was enough to not only stop all government monitoring operations in the forest, but also make IBAMA officials fear potential assaults if they set foot in the protected area, an official said.

“If before the video, staff were already being attacked by loggers, imagine what it is like with the president’s endorsement of the criminals,” an IBAMA employee said. In practice, the government’s new policies have forced a host of highly skilled environmental officials to be paid to sit idle and not uphold the nation’s deforestation laws.

Brazil’s conserved areas at grave risk

At ICMBio, the situation is similar. O Estado de S. Paulo reported that 350 fines, imposed by ICMBio officials, are awaiting confirmation from the institute’s president before they can be enforced. In other words, bureaucratic bottlenecks are holding up the process. The total value of uncharged fines is 146 million reais ($37.6 million). The Environment Ministry did not respond when asked by Mongabay for its response.

At the same time, just as in IBAMA, important bodies within ICMBio remain leaderless. There are no directors at 47 of Brazil’s 334 conservation units, which means there is no top-level management at conservation units covering 161,000 square kilometers (62,200 square miles), an area larger than England.

When an employee is removed from a management position, they remain a civil servant with a salary; they merely lose the right to extra payment for special duties. Under Brazilian law, employees appointed to their jobs in a public concurso (a lengthy selection process open to all) can only be fired as the result of a disciplinary process.

However, some IBAMA employees say they believe the system may change under Bolsonaro. “I have found out that the ministry has decided to begin disciplinary procedures against employees involved in monitoring operations on indigenous land and in protected areas,” one official said. “How can you continue to work in such conditions?”

Trade unions, representing Ministry of Environment employees, accuse the ministry of firing four employees this year without following proper procedures. Only one of those four had been accused of unacceptable behavior that could merit dismissal, but Salles decided to fire the other three as well. This was seen by many analysts as a sign of what lies ahead. “It’s part of process of intimidation, of putting fear into people,” said Beth Uema, director of the National Association of Environmental Employees.

Speaking to a gathering of landowners at the end of April, Bolsonaro said he had directed Salles “to clean out” ICMBio and IBAMA. He also told the audience that he had instructed the minister to order employees to stop fining those committing environmental crimes, and rather merely inform lawbreakers about environmental regulations. Employees say the new policy is already being rigorously adhered to.

In President Jair Bolsonaro’s first 100 days, his administration weakened environmental protections and institutions, while the Amazon saw an uptick in violence against indigenous groups and traditional communities. Photo credit: Palácio do Planalto / CC BY 2.0

Bolsonaro conduct may be investigated

Lucas Furtado, the deputy attorney general for public prosecution at the Federal Court of Accounts (TCU), the government’s accountability office, has asked the TCU to open an investigation into whether the administration’s management of the country’s environmental policy is jeopardizing the monitoring and control of illegal deforestation.

The request resulted from a visit to the Attorney General’s Office on May 15 by representatives of 50 NGOs, led by the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection (PROAM). According to the Furtado, the NGOs delivered a document that details a series of Bolsonaro government initiatives aimed at “destroying the current environmental policy.” The administration initiatives range from the overriding of technical advice, to the hounding of civil servants “with the clear objective of changing procedures.”

Furtado says it is the TCU’s obligation to examine the NGOs’ accusations, as it is the federal body responsible for the review of public expenditures, including spending by the government on the management of environmental agencies. If the accusation about the dismantling of these agencies is substantiated, the administration would be guilty of the misuse of resources to actively work against the nation’s environmental laws.

Threats to Amazon Fund also being scrutinized

Furtado cited the Bolsonaro administration’s actions regarding the Amazon Fund as a particular potential example of resource misuse. The Amazon Fund was founded in 2008 and created an effective international partnership with developed world nations, particularly Norway and Germany, who agreed to fund efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, and to promote preservation and sustainability in the Brazilian Amazon.

However, economic support from those donors (roughly $87 million annually), and the Amazon Fund itself, could come to an end soon if Environmental Minister Salles does as he has said he will, and decides without consulting the major foreign donors to dramatically overhaul the fund’s rules.

Among those unilateral rule changes would be a move by Brazil to curtail the role of NGOs in implementing deforestation programs. The Bolsonaro government also recently announced its intention to use some Amazon Fund resources to pay for the forcible purchase of land, for instance when the government wants to pay compensation to property owners with land within protected areas. The issue is often complex, as some of the land was occupied after the creation of the protected area was announced, and the use of the resources in this way has not been approved by international donors Norway and Germany.

In his request for an investigation, which has not yet been authorized by the TCU ministers, Furtado has asked the Federal Court of Accounts to look into allegations, made by Salles, that his ministry has found irregularities and inconsistencies in past grants made by the Amazon Fund. Salles has claimed publicly that NGOs, whose deforestation-monitoring and sustainability projects are supported by the Amazon Fund, failed to account for more than $1.2 billion in spending.

Furtado said an audit carried out previously by the TCU itself determined that, in general, the resources of the Amazon Fund were being used properly. He says Salles’s claim that the funds are being misused “may compromise the arrival of more funds, which may make it more difficult to protect the Amazon forest.”

As the administration pushes ahead rapidly to dismantle the country’s environmental agencies, policies and funding, there is growing consternation in Brazil and abroad. It seems likely that opposition will grow even further when the far-reaching consequences of Bolsonaro’s aggressive policies become apparent in the Amazon rainforest, and with indigenous and traditional rural populations.

Brazil guts environmental agencies, clears way for unchecked deforestation

 

How Capitalism Stokes the Far Right and Climate Catastrophe

We are living in ominous times. Every week something new: white supremacist murders in Kentucky and Pittsburgh; the continued rise of the far right in Europe; Trump’s attack on transgender rights; the election of aspiring tyrant Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that climate catastrophe is likely only about 20 years away. What’s next?

At a time when we should be uniting globally to reorganize our way of life to stave off climate disaster, many parts of the world are instead veering to the right, rejecting internationalism and demonizing marginalized communities. How did we get here? How can we escape annihilation?

Overlapping Roots of Fascism and Climate Catastrophe

Crucial to answering these questions is understanding how the rise of the far right and the imminence of climate catastrophe are related threats. Most obviously the far right promotes policies and perspectives that destroy the planet. Currently, the Trump administration is working hard to repeal Obama’s environmental protection policies. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has lifted a moratorium on mining exploration while pushing a constitutional change that would enhance multinational exploitation of the resources of the Philippines. The newly elected Brazilian President Bolsonaro is poised to allow agribusiness free reign to cut down the Amazon.

But our analysis cannot stop here. Centrist and even nominally “leftist” governments pursue anti-environmental policies. Major signatories to the Paris Agreement are not on pace to meet the agreement’s goals, and even if they were it would be too little too late. No, the roots of these crises extend much deeper.

We must recognize that the climate crisis and the resurgence of the far right are two of the most acute symptoms of our failure to abolish capitalism.

A capitalist system that prioritizes profit and perpetual growth over all else is the mortal enemy of global aspirations for a sustainable economy that satisfies needs rather than stock portfolios. “Green capitalism” was touted as a compromise that could allow humanity to keep the planet and eat it too. But scientific data show that incremental adjustments of pollution standards and banning plastic straws cannot compensate for the destruction wrought by the 100 companies that produce 71 percent of global emissions. Far too often, efforts to reel in pollution (or establish decent working conditions) are derailed by the ability of multinational finance to either run roughshod over local laws or divest from countries or regions that challenge their profitability.

Capitalist crisis, competition and manufactured scarcity also provide essential fuel for the growth of fascist and far right politics—especially when there is no viable left alternative. Early fascist and Nazi movements grew by exploiting economic insecurity during the Great Depression while the left tore itself apart. In the 1970s, the fascist National Front took advantage of economic turmoil in the UK and more recently, the emergence of parties like the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece owed a great deal to the 2008 financial crisis. In part, Bolsonaro rode to victory by harnessing popular disenchantment stemming from “the worst recession since the return of democracy.”

In times of crisis, we can either look outward in solidarity or turn inward in xenophobic, reactionary fear. Fascism and far right politics harness and promote fears of difference and anxieties about joblessness and financial ruin when left alternatives falter. When avowedly socialist political parties in Greece or Brazil enacted brutal austerity measures, they opened the door for the far right. In the United States, Trump managed to capitalize on opposition to free trade policies that had become the hallmark of the Democratic Party. In a context of economic anxiety, Hillary Clinton’s promise to “put a lot of coal miners” out of work — even if it was in the interest of saving the planet — played into the ability of the far right to generate support for Trump by taking advantage of the antagonism between working class livelihood and ecological sustainability that capitalism fosters.

System Change, Not “Civility”

Even the northern European welfare states that have avoided harsh austerity have failed to prevent the rise of the far right. In part, this stems from the rise of welfare chauvinism — the belief that welfare is beneficial, but should not be extended to “outsiders” — which demonstrates the limitations of “social democracy in one country” when such wealth is still produced by exploiting the resources and labor of the global South.

A very different analysis has been offered recently by centrist pundits and politicians in the US, who argue that the underlying root of threats to our society emerge from the growth of “extremism” at the expense of “moderation.” When Cesar Sayoc mailed bombs to Democratic Party figures, Chuck Schumer echoed Trump’s infamous “both sides” comments by arguing that “despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum.” To Rachel Maddow, “Puerto Rican separatists” and the KKK are both simply “violent extremist groups.” The policy of interning migrant children in concentration camps spurred less of a public debate about institutional racism than it did about the “civility” of those who confronted the policy’s architects. Of course, this implicit argument — that no policy is ever more heinous than the “incivility” of one who violates common decorum in protesting it — paves the way for ascendant authoritarianism while curtailing the scope of resistance.

Centrist discourse has abstracted white supremacy and anti-Semitism into “hate,” depoliticized fascism and antifascism by caricaturizing them as mirror images of “extremism,” and ignored what should be one of the most important news stories: the fairly imminent destruction of the planet.

Debates about reformism vs. revolutionism have waged for generations on the left. But now we are on a deadline. Lesser-evilism among capitalist politicians may have some rationale when spending five minutes casting a ballot on Election Day, but we don’t have time for it to be a guiding strategical outlook. We need to organize movements to build popular power and shut down the industries that threaten our existence.

Fascism is ascendant. The world is on fire. This is no time to be patient. If we don’t abolish capitalism, capitalism will abolish us.