Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was named the world’s most dangerous climate denier by Rolling Stone magazine last year. Deforestation has soared under his presidency. And his confrontational approach with Norway hasn’t helped in the battle to save the forests.
This month, the world celebrates International Forest Day on March 21. The day was inaugurated in 2012. By marking the day, the United Nations hopes to highlight the pivotal role forests play in the world.
The United Nations says that sustainable forest management and the sustainable use of forest resources has a key role to play in combating climate change. As such, the theme of this year’s International Day of Forests is “Forests and Sustainable Production and Consumption”.
Nowhere is the sustainable production and consumption of forest resources more crucial than in Brazil.
Brazil holds approximately two-thirds of the Amazon basin, home to the Amazon rainforest. Although the basin extends into seven other South American countries, the vast majority of it falls within Brazilian borders.
The forest is more than 55 million years old and is one of the most biologically complex regions in the world. It is home to one-tenth of all living plant and animal species.
As a result, Brazil has a key role to play in any global action to tackle climate change, protect biodiversity and move towards net zero.
Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for climate change at the US Natural Resources Defence Council, told Rolling Stone magazine, “If we can’t do something about deforestation in Brazil, then the 1.5˚C target is probably out of reach.”
Large-scale deforestation of the Amazon began in the 1970s in Brazil, as the government encouraged settlement in the rainforest. This continued until the early 2000s, when the country seemed to be getting deforestation under control. Up until 2016, the rate of deforestation was falling.
However, when Jair Bolsonaro became President in 2019, the progress on deforestation ended. Instead, he has presided over the destruction of around 10,000 square miles of one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet. Deforestation in Brazil‘s Amazon rainforest soared 22% in the past year.
Typically, the forest is cleared, the wood sold and then the land used for cattle or soy farming.
Over the last fifty years, the international community has worked together with Brazil to protect the rainforest. Between 2008 and 2018, Norway alone paid $1.2 billion into the Amazon fund. The fund pays Brazil to monitor and prevent deforestation.
Even though deforestation has soared under his leadership, Bolsonaro has sought additional funding from the international community to help protect the rainforest. His demands have met with criticism at home and abroad.
Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, told Rolling Stone magazine, “Everyone knows Bolsonaro is not interested in the climate. He is only interested in the climate to extort money to use for himself and his friends.”
In 2019, both Germany and Norway withheld funds in an effort to put pressure on the Brazilian President to do more to counter deforestation and protect the Amazon rainforest.
Bolsanaro hit back, saying, “Isn’t Norway the one that kills whales up there in the North Pole? And also does oil exploration there?”
He suggested Germany redirect the money it would have donated to the fund towards reforestation projects at home.
This confrontational style of leadership might win Bolsonaro points with a certain section of the Brazilian electorate. Meanwhile, the forest continues to burn.
Rampant deforestation risks transforming the Amazon from a carbon sink into a carbon source. Experts estimate that should the deforestation of the Amazon reach 20 to 25 percent, the ecosystem could collapse – turning the basin from lush, tropical rainforest into dry savannah.
The Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre has warned that “if you exceed this threshold, fifty to sixty percent of the forest could be gone over the next three to five decades.”
Currently, around 17 percent of the forest has already been cut down.
In April 2021, Norway again warned Bolsonaro that his administration must do more to protect the forest and demonstrate reductions in deforestation.
If the pressure is working, it isn’t working fast enough. In October 2021, Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian President announced plans at the United Nations for national carbon neutrality by 2050 or 2060. In the address, Bolsonaro admitted that “our forest code must set an example for other countries.”
However, since the rate of deforestation in Brazil increased through 2021, the current example is more one of “what not to do”.
The battle to save the Amazon rainforest underlines the huge importance of the International Day of Forests. As the international community seeks out sanctions that might impact on Bolsonaro’s approach and slow the rate of Amazon deforestation, the world is running out of time.