History repeats itself: the Amazon

Since 1978, over 750,000 square kilometers (289,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana.

Without asking for it, we know why.

For most of human history, deforestation in the Amazon was primarily the product of subsistence farmers who cut down trees to produce crops for their families and local consumption.

Increased government incentives to take down the forest come in the form of loans and infrastructure spending, including roads and dams, scaled-up private sector finance due to growing interest in “emerging markets” and rising domestic wealth, surging demand for commodities like beef, soy, sugar, and palm oil.

But in the later part of the 20th century, that began to change. An increasing proportion of deforestation driven by industrial activities and large-scale agriculture. By the 2000s more than three-quarters of forest clearing in the Amazon was for cattle-ranching.

The result of this shift is forests in the Amazon were cleared faster than ever before in the late 1970s through the mid 2000s. Vast areas of rainforest were felled for cattle pasture and soy farms, drowned for dams, dug up for minerals, and bulldozed for towns and colonization projects. At the same time, the proliferation of roads opened previously inaccessible forests to settlement by poor farmers, illegal logging, and land speculators.

But that trend began to reverse in Brazil in 2004. Since then, annual forest loss in the country that contains nearly two-thirds of the Amazon’s forest cover has declined by roughly eighty percent. The drop has been fueled by a number of factors, including increased law enforcement, satellite monitoring, pressure from environmentalists, private and public sector initiatives, new protected areas, and macroeconomic trends. Nonetheless the trend in Brazil is not mirrored in other Amazon countries, some of which have experienced rising deforestation since 2000.

However Brazil’s success in curbing deforestation has stalled since 2012. And in July 2019, deforestation soared to levels not seen since the mid-2000s.

Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon surged this year to the highest May level since the current monitoring method began, prompting concerns that president Jair Bolsonaro is giving a free pass to illegal logging, farming and mining.

The world’s greatest rainforest – which is a vital provider of oxygen and carbon sequestration – lost 739sq km in 31 days, equivalent to two football pitches every minute, according to data from the government’s satellite monitoring agency.

Although a single month is too short to confirm long-term trends, May is considered an important guide because it marks the start of the dry season, which is when most burning and other forms of forest clearance are carried out. We already know of the fires that began this year.

But protectors of the forest are at a high risk as well.

Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a protector of the forest, met his end last week.

Three of his fellow “guardians of the forest” – a squad of armed indigenous sentinels – had already been killed by land grabbers trying to knock down and develop one of the last remaining shards of the rainforest in Maranhão state. Paulino would talk about this fear frequently, then swallow it down and head out on another patrol.

This past Friday, his worries were realized. State authorities say Paulino and another guardian from the Guajajara tribe went out to fetch water when at least five armed men surrounded them. The meant then opened fire and Paulino, 26, was shot in the neck. He died in the forest.

As deforestation in the Amazon surges under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, threatening thousands of indigenous people, Paulino’s death has drawn media attention and promises by officials to act.

The governor of Maranhão state announced the creation of a task force to protect indigenous life, and Justice Minister Sérgio Moro vowed “to bring those responsible for this serious crime to justice.”

Environmental regulations slackens and deforestation rises under Bolsonaro, there’s fear that the recent deaths of the forest guardians might be only the beginning.

In the first eight months of Bolsonaro’s tenure this year, authorities issued the fewest fines for deforestation infractions in at least two decades, Human Rights Watch reported. Deforestation over that period was more than double that of the previous year. An expanse larger than Delaware has been lost this year alone.

The retreat of the federal state and the encroachment of developers has placed more pressure on nontraditional defenders of the forest – small-time farmers, cops, indigenous tribes – viewed by many conservationists as integral to maintaining its structural integrity.

But their work is increasingly subject to threats and violence. More than 300 people have been killed in the past decade while trying to protect the land, according to the nongovernmental Pastoral Land Commission – and that figure, analysts say, is probably an undercount. In a frontier as vast as the Amazon, where police have few resources and where many killings happen in remote areas, many deaths receive little notice.

Some of the people facing those threats were Paulino’s family members.

The story of people defending the earth and being taken out by corporate or governmental greed is one that no one wants to see, but know that for a fact it is there.

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