Fires along the Rio Xingu Amazon Brazil

The wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest – predominantly in Brazil, but also in Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru – are no accident. Expansion of the agriculture frontier to fuel corporate profits resulting from unsustainable production and consumption clearly contradicts the urgent need to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis. The case of Brazil – where the fires are caused by agribusiness, mining and timber companies, with the complicity of President Jair Bolsonaro – is a wakeup call for the world. Friends of the Earth International expresses great consternation over this environmental devastation, and solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples and local communities directly affected.

Brazil’s National Institute for Aerospace Research (INPE) recorded a 83% increase in fires so far this year, compared to the same period last year. More than half (52.6%) are in the Amazon rainforest. Between January and August 2019, the INPE detected more than 74,000 fires in Brazil alone, the most since records began in 2013. Beyond the figures, the devastating impact of these fires is being felt by peoples whose territories are burning across Brazil and the Amazon. On a global level, they have severe consequences for our climate, food systems and biodiversity.

Friends of the Earth International rejects the argument that the fires are a result of higher temperatures or greater drought, which remain within the annual averages. Rather, this tragedy is directly linked to the neoliberal policies promoted by Bolsonaro’s right-wing government, already the most disastrous in the history of Brazilian environmental policy. His government has dismantled climate change laws, promoted invasion of indigenous lands and murder of social activists, and sent deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions rates soaring.

When he took office in January 2019, Bolsonaro dismissed global warming as a “left-wing agenda” and cut the related policy budget by 95%. More than 60% of the fires in 2019 have been identified on private properties, where global agribusiness operates. The promotion of agribusiness and mining in the Amazon is coupled with the dismantling of environmental policy, including the weakening of oversight bodies and the flexibilization of environmental licensing. This hands greater power to ranchers and large landowners, giving loggers, soy and cattle producers / agribusiness and illegal mineral prospectors (garimpeiros) access to indigenous and black communities’ (quilombola) lands. As a result, deforestation in July 2019 increased by 278% compared to July 2018, reversing the trends in reduction of deforestation that previous governments had achieved through regulation.

Bolsonaro has since fired the INPE director, Ricardo Galvao, for allegedly falsely inflating deforestation figures and replaced him with a military leader. His response of blaming civil society groups and accusing NGOs of falsifying information is more than just smoke and mirrors; it poses a great threat to the capacity and validity of environmental and social justice movements, and to those who defend the territories on the ground. This could lead to further persecution and criminalization of Indigenous Peoples, left wing political groups and social movements, including human rights defenders, peasants, and women.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, home to the ancestral territories of around 900,000 Indigenous Peoples. It is a vital water resource and home to over three million species of plants and animals. Indigenous Peoples and local communities, with their traditional ways of life and knowledge, play a key role in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, as confirmed by a recent landmark United Nations report. Conservation managed by them is more effective at preventing deforestation and habitat loss than officially protected areas. Destruction of their territories thus has repercussions on the interrelated and fragile networks of the earth’s climate, food systems, biodiversity. In Brazil, Indigenous Peoples constantly struggle to resist monoculture plantations and mining companies, facing up to the huge power of corporations and now state persecution. Seeing them as an obstacle for development of the Amazon region, the self-declared “Captain Chainsaw” Bolsonaro has now handed over the precious demarcation of their lands to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Bolsonaro’s policies are part of a global neoliberal system, which puts profit over people and is driven by and benefits countries of the Global North and transnational corporations. Friends of the Earth International calls for governments and intergovernmental bodies to call out Bolsonaro’s fascist government for this tragedy, rather than remaining complicit in his destructive policies. We underline particularly the hypocrisy of the European Union in negotiating a free-trade agreement with the South American trade bloc which includes Brazil, MERCOSUR.

We will continue to work to denounce and confront policies that are a threat to peoples and territories such as the Amazon rainforest. We will continue to stand in solidarity with Brazilian peoples and fight for a system based on peoples’ sovereignty and environmental, social, economic and gender justice.

Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA