Brazilian Deforestation Affects the Entire Earth

Brazilian Deforestation Affects the Entire Earth

“It’s ours, not yours” sounds like the words of a petulant child. Yet, this was the retort of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, speaking to a European journalist in 2019.1 He was referring to the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, the largest in the world and a significant carbon sink.2 Even though 60 per cent of this mighty forest grows within Brazil’s borders, Brazilian deforestation affects us all.3

President Jair Bolsonaro and the Amazon

The election of right-wing President Bolsonaro spelled disaster for the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. From 2009 until 2018, the annual Brazilian deforestation rate was about 6,493 square kilometres. However, since Bolsonaro took office, the rate has accelerated to 11,088 square km per year.4 That is a 59 per cent increase. The repercussions of this are being felt across the globe as glaciers melt in Iceland and droughts scorch Australia.5

Deforestation in Brazil affects the air we breathe

How does Brazilian deforestation affect CO2 levels?

Deforestation around the world affects the air we breathe. This is because plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. In exchange, they produce the oxygen we need to survive. This process is called photosynthesis.6 It is among the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce the effects of climate change.7

Trees generate oxygen and store carbon on a much larger scale than most plants.8 For example, tropical rainforests produce an estimated 40 per cent of the Earth’s oxygen. This is despite that they cover just six per cent of the land.9 Destroying forests prevents this from happening. Felling trees stops trees from removing CO2 from the air. Burning or leaving the wood to rot releases the carbon they have stored.10

The Brazilian Amazon and its environmental impact

Deforestation in Brazil, specifically in the Amazon, is reversing the rainforest’s ability to soak up carbon. Large-scale degradation has caused the rainforest to emit more carbon than it had stored over the past decade.11 This is potentially devastating for the air we breathe and for climate change. The Amazon absorbs 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 each year. That represents five per cent of all human-caused emissions.12 Without the Amazon acting as a carbon sink, we cannot meet the target of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C.13

Trees improve air quality

Deforestation also increases air pollution. We all share the same air. Therefore, deforestation in Brazil may affect the air we breathe, even far away from the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Trees are extremely important for improving airflow and filtering out airborne pollutants. They have been referred to as an ecosystem’s “liver” since they remove toxic chemicals, like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, through their leaves.14 

Trees also remove particulate matter (PM). PM is one of the most deadly air pollutants.15 It consists of tiny particles from chemicals, acids, metals and dust. These are emissions from vehicles, fossil-fuel-burning factories and construction sites. PM can easily enter human respiratory systems. It causes lung and cardiovascular diseases and exacerbates respiratory illnesses. Exposure to fine particulate matter is linked to as many as 8.9 million deaths per year worldwide.16 

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and air quality

Indirectly, trees can also improve air quality. Simply by blocking sunlight with their foliage, they cast shade. This reduces the air temperature of the surrounding area. This can decrease the risk of harmful pollutants, such as ground-level ozone. Also, when trees cast shadows on buildings, this can reduce the need for electrical air conditioning. Subsequently, it minimises the greenhouse gases they cause.17

Source: Thiago Japyassu from Pexels

Trees and air quality in urban areas

Many cities around the world recognise the value that trees add to air quality. These cities may be unable to impact the rate of Brazilian deforestation, but they are committing to planting more trees in their own urban spaces. For example, Melbourne plans to increase its tree canopy cover to 40 per cent by 2040.18 This will require planting approximately 3,000 new trees each year.19 Likewise, Seoul, Milan and Athens are all engaging in tree planting initiatives to counter the effects of climate change and air pollution.20

What are the local politicians doing about Brazilian deforestation?

Local politicians in support of Brazilian Amazon deforestation

Local politicians are often complicit with deforestation in Brazil. Throughout 2019, shocking images of fires raging through the Amazon sparked international backlash. Farmers and ranchers purposefully ignite these fires to illegally clear land for pasture.21 In July alone, 73 square kilometres of rainforest were cleared every day.22 But local politicians did nothing to stop the fires from spreading.

On the contrary, in 2019, the three Brazilian states with the worst spike in fires were all governed by Bolsonaro’s allies.23 They believe in Bolsonaro’s rhetoric of ‘opening up’ the Amazon to business. This means increasing Brazilian deforestation to make it profitable for miners, farmers and loggers.24 In addition, hundreds of politicians running for mayoral positions in the Amazon region have received environmental fines in the past. Many of these shady candidates were elected or were running for second terms in 2020, despite their criminal backgrounds.25

Brazil’s politicians against deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Nevertheless, some local politicians have done what they can to counter Bolsonaro’s policies. During the 2019 Amazonian fires, the states governed by the right-wing president’s political opponents saw a decline in fires compared to previous years.26 They and their wider parties have used legal channels to challenge Brazilian deforestation.

For example, four opposition political parties joined forces in June 2020 to file two climate lawsuits before the country’s Supreme Court. Firstly, they called on the government to mobilise resources from the Amazon Fund to stop deforestation. Secondly, they wanted the Ministry of the Environment to reactivate Brazil’s Climate Fund to finance climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. The agency responsible for the fund had been dissolved early into Bolsonaro’s term.27 

Furthermore, in November 2020, these four parties found common ground with an additional three parties and a coalition of NGOs. They collectively filed another lawsuit before Brazil’s Supreme Court. Part of the claim involves accusing the government of violating the fundamental rights of populations living in the Amazon and other areas. In particular, this refers to the approximately 900,000 Indigenous Peoples who reside there.28 29

What are the repercussions of Brazilian deforestation for Indigenous Peoples?

In the Amazon rainforest, deforestation is destroying the lives of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples depend on the land being deforested for their survival. Some continue to live traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Therefore, the rainforest is their food source, livelihood and home. Stealing their land for its resources is killing their community and culture, and individuals.30 For decades, loggers and farmers have been invading Indigenous lands. But the invasion of their territory has surged under Bolsonaro.31

Source: Vincent Tan from Pexels

Brazilian deforestation causes violence

Brazilian deforestation leads to the murder of Indigenous Peoples. Between 2009 and 2019, more than 300 people were killed in conflicts over land and resources in the Amazon. Many of them were killed by illegal logging groups. Most of the victims were Indigenous Peoples defending their land from invaders.32

Indigenous Peoples bear the brunt of the pro-deforestation violence because they fiercely oppose it. The Brazilian government recognises about 13 per cent of Brazil’s landmass as belonging to Indigenous Peoples. 98.5 per cent of this area is within the Amazon rainforest.33 

In these territories, deforestation is up to 20 times lower than on non-Indigenous land in Amazonia. The land they own has lower deforestation rates than even officially protected areas, such as national parks.34 Other studies have found that Indigenous Peoples with full ownership rights over their land decrease deforestation rates by two-thirds.35 People who live in harmony with the natural world are unsurprisingly reluctant to see it razed for a quick profit. 

Who does the Amazon belong to?

When discussing who the Amazon rainforest actually belongs to, the most obvious answer is the Indigenous Peoples. Their ancestors have lived there for millennia. All land not in Indigenous hands was stolen from them at some point in history. 

But right-wing politicians, agriculturalists and logging companies hold a different view. They view the Amazon as a resource to be exploited. Since much of it is within Brazil’s borders, they have no problem with destroying it and converting the land for cattle ranching, soy plantations or infrastructure projects.36

However, as a store of carbon, the Amazon is vital for the survival of every person on Earth.37 Atmospheric levels of CO2 are at their highest point for at least 800,000 years.38 We need the vegetation of our remaining forests to help remove this greenhouse gas from the air. The fate of the world’s largest rainforest affects all of us. When will we realise the true value of the trees, people and animals that call this place home?


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