Could forest loss have triggered the COVID-19 pandemic?

Scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates ideal conditions for the spread of diseases

By Ashutosh Senger
Last Updated: Tuesday 16 June 2020

Deforestation can cause wildlife to come into close contact with humans, causing a release of pathogens and new diseases. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Deforestation can cause wildlife to come into close contact with humans, causing a release of pathogens and new diseases. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Deforestation can cause wildlife to come into close contact with humans, causing a release of pathogens and new diseases. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of this pandemic, we all recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of World Earth Day that symbolises support for environment protection. Although this is perhaps the first time we are not taking nature for granted, this pandemic surely raises questions about how we impact our planet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, upgraded the status of the novle coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak from epidemic to pandemic. Calling it as a pandemic is an acknowledgement of its global spread.

The coronavirus, named for the protein protrusions that decorate the outside of the virus like a crown, is actually a zoonotic disease – meaning it is passed from animals to humans. Other zoonotic diseases include the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola and bird flu.

WHO opines that bats could be the most probable carrier of COVID-19 but believes that the virus jumped to humans from another intermediate animal host, either a domestic or a wild animal.

Unprecedented destruction of the environment by human activities has increased the frequency of zoonotic diseases. According to UNEP’s Frontiers 2016 Report on Emerging Issues of Environment Concern, zoonoses are a threat to economic development, animal and human well-being, and ecosystem integrity.

Zoonotic diseases are ranked among the world’s most ill-reputed. For example, HIV, Ebola, and H5N1 influenza, all started in wildlife before close interactions with humans spawned their international outbreaks.

According to Chinese geologists, Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei Province, was a lush tropical forest millions of years ago. This fact raises a serious question: is it possible that deforestation could have triggered this new virus pandemic?

For a zillion ecological reasons, the loss of forests can act as an incubator for serious human health problem.

A research paper published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases hypothesised deforestation and associated environmental and population changes as the main drivers of zoonotic malaria species Plasmodium knowlesi becoming the main cause of human malaria in Malaysian Borneo.

Throughout human history, pathogens have emerged from forests. The Zika virus, that was believed to be causing microencephaly in newborns in Latin America, emerged from the Zika forest of Uganda in the 1940s.

It is pertinent to mention that the ecology of the viruses in deforested areas is different. Once forests are cut down, edges get established between deforested areas and forest.

In fact, a mosquito called Aedes africanus that is the host of the yellow fever and Chikungunya viruses, habitually lives on this edge and bites people working or living nearby.

Scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates ideal conditions for the spread of diseases. Primates and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.

A study published by Nature in 2008 identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60 per cent of which came from animals. As such, one may blame bats or fishes for being possible sources of coronavirus, but humans are equally, if not more, to blame for the spread of this disease that is changing daily life across the globe.

Should the wildlife habitat destruction continue, the crowding of species will take place and their frequency of coming in contact with other different animals and humans will only increase.

Therefore, it is time we humans understand that nature poses threats and it is human activities that do the tangible harm by making health risks in a natural environment much worse by interfering with it.

In addition to doing everything we as global citizens can do to contain and extinguish the outbreak of coronavirus; Once the pandemic is contained, we must sit and relook our growth strategies.

Another aspect that needs to be given due respect is that public health research should learn from this pandemic and start considering the link between humans and surrounding natural ecosystems health. We ought to know what viruses the world might be up against in the future as they come out of the forest and how these viruses might spread and to potentially develop vaccines.

Ashutosh Senger is a practicing advocate and a patent agent based in New Delhi. Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

Can Trees Sequester Enough Carbon?

Life isn’t finding shelter in the storm. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.
~ Sherrilyn Kenyon 

I prepared the following report upon request from an organization interested in slowing or stopping the ongoing overheating of Earth by planting trees. Thus the formatting, atypical for this space.

***This document briefly investigates the idea of planting trees to sequester atmospheric carbon. Obviously, the process of photosynthesis insures that trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere. However, there are important questions that arise as we consider whether, how, and how many trees to plant. How fast do trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere? How much carbon do trees sequester? What negative side-effects are associated with planting large numbers of trees? These are the questions I will attempt to answer in this document.

Only by immediately halting all deforestation can we convert forests from a global carbon source into a carbon sink. The assumption that we will immediately halt all deforestation runs contrary to recent societal conduct and global trends. As of July, 2019, the Amazon basin alone was being deforested at the rate of 1 hectare per minute (Shukman 2019).

Evidentiary Overview

There is a nearly perfect match between an organism and its environment. The environment is comprised of everything that influences the life of an organism, including sunlight, climate, geology, and surrounding organisms. As a result of this close correspondence between an organism and its environment, minor environmental changes can produce profound changes in organisms, including loss of habitat for some species. In other words, the organism – any organism – depends upon a wide variety of factors for its continued persistence in a specific location (and therefore, on Earth). Loss of a seemingly minor species can therefore cascade into loss of habitat for a large number of species, thereby leading to co-extinctions.

Strona and Bradshaw (2018) described how co-extinctions result from a change in environmental conditions. In their case, they described how a 5 C or 6 C global-average rise in temperature will result in a loss of all life on Earth. We are clearly headed for that degree of temperature change within the coming few years, as I have described repeatedly at Nature Bats Last (McPherson 2020).

An article from the peer-reviewed journal Landscape and Urban Planning examined efforts to quantify the sequestration capacity of urban flora (Velasco et al. 2016). It was titled, “Does urban vegetation enhance carbon sequestration?” For example, a Vancouver neighborhood sequestered about 1.7 percent as much carbon as human activities produced, while in Mexico City the figure was 1.4 percent. The results were worse in Singapore. Overall, the authors concluded, “The impact of urban vegetation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions directly through carbon sequestration is very limited or null.”

In other words, planting trees in urban areas is not a viable means by which to sequester carbon. What about planting trees in non-urban areas? This question is addressed in a study published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature on 2 April 2019 (Lewis et al. 2019).

As pointed out by Lewis et al. (2019), the most effective place to plant trees with respect to climate change is in the tropics and subtropics. Most forest-restoration commitments are found in these areas. In addition, trees sequester carbon relatively quickly near the equator, and land is inexpensive and available compared to temperate regions. In addition, establishing forests near the equator has little effect on the albedo (reflectivity) of the land surface, in contrast to high latitudes where trees obscure snow that would otherwise reflect incoming sunlight and therefore help keep the planet cool. Well-managed forests in the tropics and subtropics also can help alleviate poverty in low-income regions, conserve biological diversity, and support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

According to Lewis et al. (2019), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests in its October, 2018 report that atmospheric carbon sequestration by 2100 must total about 730 billion tonnes of CO2 (730 petagrams of CO2, or 199 petagrams of carbon, Pg C).In the near term, this means addingup to 24 million hectares (Mha) of forest every year between now and 2030. These 24 Mha of forest would be comprised of plantations. This is equivalent to all the CO2 emitted by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China since the Industrial Revolution began in 1750. There is no known means to capture so much CO2.

Fast-growing trees within plantations, such as Eucalyptus and Acacia, sequester up to 5 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. After such trees are harvested and the land is cleared for replanting — typically once per decade — the carbon is released into the atmosphere through decomposition. In other words, planting trees into plantations is a temporarymeasure. Worse yet, according to an analysis conducted by Bala and colleagues and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienceson 17 April 2007, “afforestation projects … would be counterproductive if implemented at high latitudes and would offer only marginal benefits in temperate regions.”

Recognizing the inability of tropical and subtropical plantations to rise to the challenge posed by IPCC goals, Lewis et al. (2019) call on the “restoration community, forestry experts, and policymakers to prioritize the regeneration of natural forests over other types of tree planting — by allowing disturbed lands to recover to their previous high-carbon state.” They go on to write that this task “will entail tightening definitions, transparently reporting plans and outcomes and clearly stating the trade-offs between different uses of land.” They conclude that restoration of extant forests, along with reforestation of deforested areas, is the most effective strategy for storing carbon.

Carbon-storage potential is currently being sabotaged by clashing global priorities. The best-case scenario offered by Lewis et al. (2019) has the entire area available to management regenerating to natural forest. However, even under this unlikely scenario, only 42 Pg of carbon would be stored in tropical and subtropical ecosystems by 2100 (vs. the stated goal of 199 Pg).

Other Considerations

In addition to technical obstacles directly related to the task of planting trillions of trees, other issues must be considered. For example, the economic cost of managing forests must be paid. By whom? Under what set of contracts? Who would derive financial benefits under these contracts? In addition to these financial concerns, at least three additional issues must be addressed: ongoing overheating of Earth, the aerosol masking effect, and the environmental consequences of water uptake by trees.

According to an overview published by European Strategy and Policy Analysis System in April 2019 (Gaub et al. 2019), an “increase of 1.5 degrees is the maximum the planet can tolerate; … at worst, [such a rise in temperature above the 1750 baseline will cause] the extinction of humankind altogether.” In other words, according to this major synthesis, we have passed the point beyond which human extinction is likely to occur. After all, Earth is currently at least 1.73 C above the 1750 baseline (Carana 2018).

The aerosol masking effect, sometimes called global dimming, refers to the cooling effect associated with industrial activity. The aerosols produced by industrial activity are temporarily suspended in Earth’s atmosphere, thus serving to cool Earth. These aerosols constantly fall to the surface of Earth, and without sustained industrial activity their impact is lost within a matter of a few weeks. As a result, slowing or stopping civilization serves to heat Earth even faster than the ongoing warming resulting from this set of living arrangements. The impact of the aerosol masking effect has been greatly underestimated, as pointed out in an 8 February 2019 article in Science(Rosenfeld et al. 2019). As indicated by the lead author of this paper on 25 January 2019 (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 2019): “Global efforts to improve air quality by developing cleaner fuels and burning less coal could end up harming our planet by reducing the number of aerosols in the atmosphere, and by doing so, diminishing aerosols’ cooling ability to offset global warming.” The cooling effect is “nearly twice what scientists previously thought” (Fagan 2019). This paper cites the conclusion by Levy et al. (2013) indicating as little as 35% reduction in industrial activity drives a 1 C global-average rise in temperature, which suggests that as little as a 20% reduction in industrial activity is sufficient to warm the planet 1 C within a few days or weeks. This Catch-22 of abrupt climate change takes us down the wrong path regardless of the direction of industrial activity, assuming we are interested in maintaining habitat for vertebrates and mammals on Earth. A decline in the aerosol masking effect means loss of habitat for human animals, with human extinction soon to follow. Such an event will solve all our problems, albeit in a manner that eliminates most or all life on Earth (McPherson 2019).

Finally, planting trees reduces surface water. Several peer-reviewed studies have linked increased forest cover with reduced river flow and potentially detrimental effects downstream (Bentley and Coomes 2020). A peer-reviewed meta-analysis of 43 published studies published in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biologyby Bentley and Coomes (2020) found that forests reduced annual river flow by 23% after 5 years and 38% after 25 years. These adverse effects persisted for five decades after forests became established.

Conclusion

I am not proposing “giving up,” whatever that means in the midst of a Mass Extinction Event and abrupt, irreversible climate change. Rather, my ongoing scholarly efforts are focused on minimizing suffering. How do we minimize suffering? Is such a quest restricted to humans, or are other organisms included? What is the temporal frame of the quest? Does it extend beyond the moment, perhaps to months or years? Does it extend beyond the personal to include other individuals? These are the questions on which I have chosen to focus.

Perhaps others will join me in my quest to understand suffering and its causes. Perhaps doing so will alleviate further suffering. I can imagine worse pursuits.

Literature Cited

Bala, G., K. Caldeira, M. Wickett, T.J. Phillips, D.B. Lobell, C. Delire, and A. Mirin, 2007, Combined climate and carbon-cycle effects of large-scale deforestation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences104:6550-6555, pnas.org/content/104/16/6550

Bentley, L.B. and D.A. Coomes, 2020, Partial river flow recovery with forest age is rare in the decades following establishment, Global Change Biology, doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14954

Carana, S., 2018, How much warmer is it now? Arctic News, 2 April 2018,arctic-news.blogspot.com/2018/04/how-much-warmer-is-it-now.html

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, ipcc.ch/sr15/

Fagan, L. 2019, Cooling from atmospheric particles may mask greater warming, Sustainability Times, 25 January 2019, https://www.sustainability-times.com/environmental-protection/research-cooling-from-atmospheric-particles-may-mask-greater-warming/

Gaub, L. et al., 2019, Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe, European Strategy and Policy Analysis System, April 2019,espas.secure.europarl.europa.eu/orbis/sites/default/files/generated/document/en/ESPAS_Report2019.pdf

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2019, We need to rethink everything we know about global warming: New calculations show scientists have grossly underestimated the effects of air pollution, ScienceDaily22 January 2019, sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190122104611.htm

Levy II, L.W. Horowitz, M.D. Schwarzkopf, Y. Ming, and J.-C. Golaz 2013, The roles of aerosol direct and indirect effects on past and future climate change,JGR: Atmospheres118:4521-4532, https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jgrd.50192

Lewis, S.L., C.E. Wheeler, E.T.A. Mitchard, and A. Kock 2019, Restoring natural forests is the best way to remove atmospheric carbon.Nature568: 25–28, nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01026-8

McPherson, G.R. 2019, Becoming hope-free: Parallels between death of individuals and extinction of Homo sapiensClinical Psychology Forum317:8-11.

McPherson, G.R. 2020, Nature Bats Last, guymcpherson.com

Rosenfeld, D., Y. Zhu, M. Want, Y. Zheng, T. Goren, and S. Yu 2019, Aerosol-driven droplet concentrations dominate coverage and water of oceanic low-level clouds. Science363(6427) doi.org/10.1126/science/aav0566

Shukman, D. 2019, ‘Football pitch’ of Amazon forest lost every minute. BBC News2 July 2019, bbc.com/news/science-environment-48827490

Strona and Bradshaw 2018, Scientific Reports8, Article 16724, doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-35068-1

Velasco, E., M. Roth, L. Norford, and L.T. Molina. 2016. Does urban vegetation enhance carbon sequestration? Landscape and Urban Planning148:99-107, doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.12.003

The African Congo Is Quietly Being Deforested As The Amazon Rainforest Burns

Dead Trees in the African Congo

While the world is paying a lot of attention to the Amazon rainforest burning, deforestation is quietly gutting another major forest in the African Congo, thus compounding the threat to our planet.

The nation of Brazil under the anti-environmental policies of President Jair Bolsonaro has seen a devastating rise in forest fires this year as wannabe farmers try to clear land for cattle ranches to take advantage of the worldwide demand for beef.

The world has been outraged by deforestation, which threatens the global oxygen supply and is dealing with a major setback to the fight against climate change.

That’s why Norway is telling companies based there not to fund deforestation and a major shoe company in the United States is no longer buying leather produced in Brazil.

And the deforestation in the Amazon comes as President Donald Trump is set to open up the largest temperate rainforest in Alaska, Tongass National Forest, to logging and corporate development. It’s a move that will only perpetuate the climate crisis.

But while everyone is paying attention to the fires in the Amazon, another major forest region is being clear cut in Africa.

The African Congo is rich in timber resources. Demand for these timber resources are rising, resulting in a direct threat to the thick jungles that support an entire ecosystem teeming with plants and wildlife that must be protected at all costs.

Among the endangered species threatened by deforestation include gorillas, elephants, and the white rhino, which scientists are desperately trying to save right now.

Alas, deforestation is increasing here, according to Climate Focus co-founder Charlotte Streck.

“Deforestation has increased rapidly in Africa, coming from a relatively low level, to begin with, but it is rising very quickly but very quietly,” Streck told The Guardian, which reported on the dire situation that is unfolding there.

According to a report on the New York Declaration on Forests, signed in 2014 with the aim of halting deforestation globally by 2030, the new hotspots of increasing forest loss are in west Africa and the Congo basin.

While the greatest losses of forests by area in the years 2014-18 occurred in tropical Latin America, the greatest rate of increase was in Africa, where deforestation rates leapt from less than 2m hectares a year on average from 2001 to 2013, to more than 4m a year from 2014 to 2018. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo rates of deforestation have doubled in the past five years.

Of course, China could play a large role in reducing deforestation in the African Congo by issuing tighter regulations on timber imports.

“African timber is exported to China, and this is one of the three dominant causes of deforestation,” Streck said. “China could act on illegal timber and be very effective, for instance, if the Chinese government put in a requirement on tracing [timber and forest goods].”

2019 could very well be the single worst year of deforestation the world has ever witnessed, and we will all be negatively impacted as species die-off, medicinal plants are destroyed, and the Earth’s primary defense against climate change is ruthlessly cut down to make way for agricultural and fossil fuel industry pursuits. If we are to deal with this problem before it’s too late, nations must take action now.

EPA Moves to Loosen Methane Rules as Trump Opens Alaskan Rainforest

Stop signs — perhaps the most ubiquitous form of taxpayer-funded socialism found in the U.S. today — exist for a reason. People who barge through them are putting others in active danger, and anyone doing it deliberately would be considered a fool and a menace by pretty much everyone else.

The Amazon rainforest is on fire. The Arctic is on fire. Swaths of Indonesiaand central Africa are on fire. The Greenland ice sheet melted virtually overnight and caused the ocean to visibly and measurably rise. Iceland is holding funerals for melting glaciers. These are stop signs, huge ones that can be seen from space.

Climate disruption is not lurking in some faraway land of maybe; it was here yesterday and the day before, and last week, and last year. It is here today, and will be here tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives. It will never get better, and is going to get worse, but if we heed the stop signs, we have the chance to, perhaps, keep it from driving us into extinction.

Clearly, the president of the United States doesn’t see it that way. “I’m an environmentalist,” said Donald Trump after blowing off a G7 meeting on the climate crisis. “A lot of people don’t understand that. I think I know more about the environment than most people.” In his mind, nuking hurricanes and buying Greenland to plunder its newly ice-free resourcesis what environmentalists do.

Now, Trump the “environmentalist” has also reportedly orderedAgriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to open Alaska’s 16.7 million-acre Tongass National Forest — the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world — to logging, energy and mining projects.

Not satisfied with his quest to erase Barack Obama from the history books, Trump has begun erasing Clinton-era environmental protections like the one that has defended Tongass for 20 years. “Trump has taken a personal interest in ‘forest management,’” reports The Washington Post, “a term he told a group of lawmakers last year he has ‘redefined’ since taking office.”

Trump did not stop with Tsongass. On Thursday, his administration announced it intends to roll back regulations on the release of methane by the oil and gas industry. Methane is a highly dangerous greenhouse gas that has “80 times the heating-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years in the atmosphere,” according to The New York Times. There is near-universal fear among environmental scientists that melting Arctic permafrost — exacerbated by the ongoing fires — will release a methane bomb into the atmosphere, creating a feedback loop that will drastically worsen climate disruption. Loosening methane restrictions on the fossil fuel industry for profit is exactly, precisely the wrong thing to do.

This, as right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro spurns G7 money to help fight Amazon wildfires caused by cattle and soybean farmers who are deliberately torching the land with Bolsonaro’s direct approval. The Brazilian president has ostensibly turned down the fire-fighting funding because French president Emmanuel Macron said mean things about him, but in truth, Bolsonaro sees the Amazon as nothing more than a cash machine. He wants these fires to burn.

Trump and Bolsonaro: “environmentalist forest managers” at the vanguard of the end of everything.

“How can they do this?” people will exclaim.

“Because someone asked them to,” is the proper reply.

Trump and Bolsonaro are undeniably dangerous leaders whose oppressive policies must be resisted. The origins of the plunder we are witnessing, however, do not lie with them. Plunder is the reason the United States exists, and has been the reason since the first European ships cracked the horizon on their way to the North and South American continents. Plunder has been the point of the exercise for more than 400 years. Trump and Bolsonaro are not aberrations. They are the fulfillment of ultimate purpose, the triumph of U.S.-style capitalist practices.

Here in the U.S., we use red-white-and-blue bunting to cover up the scars, and the well-manicured lawns preside over stolen lands as they hide the mass graves. The big bank accounts are all offshore, and soot from the burning chokes the poor neighborhoods and what’s left of nature.

There is a lot of talk about “saving the environment” and “stopping climate change,” which is good, because awareness must come before action. That awareness, however, must encompass the fact that we will not save even the smallest fraction of the environment unless and until we derail the ravenous juggernaut of capitalism.

U.S.-style capitalism heeds no stop signs. It exists to feed, to plunder, and to despoil for profit. Trump and Bolsonaro are energetic avatars of the practice, one which is older than the country that birthed it. It is the capitalism of slavery, the cotton field and the lash, of the burned forest and the poisoned well. It knows only hunger, and is never sated. If we are going to save ourselves from the apocalypse of climate collapse, saving ourselves from the capitalism causing it is where we have to start.

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.

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

 

Heartbreaking footage of orangutan trying to fight off excavator that is destroying his home

In the last four decades, Bornean orangutans lost over a half of their natural habitats. And the main reason is logging operations. Nowadays, Sungai Putri Forest is among the very few homes left for these animals. But, unfortunately the place is under a major threat, because of humans actions.

“Sungai Putri is home to one of the largest populations in the world, and we are at a critical point for the Bornean orangutan,” Karmele Llano Sanchez, program director of IAR in Indonesia, stated. “Without forests like this, they can’t survive.”

IAR does restless efforts to save and the last natural environments in Indonesia, but their success rate seems to be very low.