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Rainforests May Be Smothered Due To The Newly Elected Brazil President: Scientists

If the rainfall cycle collapses, winter droughts in parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina could devastate agriculture.

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Brazil, rainforests
This photo released by the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (Ibama) shows an illegally deforested area on Pirititi indigenous lands as Ibama agents inspect Roraima state in Brazil's Amazon basin. VOA
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Scientists warn that Brazil’s president-elect could push the Amazon rainforest past its tipping point — with severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.

Jair Bolsonaro, who takes office Jan. 1, claims a mandate to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, calling Brazil’s rainforest protections an economic obstacle.

Brazilians on Oct. 28 elected Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate who channeled outrage at the corruption scandals of the former government and support from agribusiness groups.

Next week global leaders will meet in Poland for an international climate conference to discuss how to curb climate change, and questions about Brazil’s role in shaping the future of the Amazon rainforest after Bolsonaro’s election loom large. New Brazilian government data show the rate of deforestation — a major factor in global warming — has already increased over the past year.

Climate change, carbon
The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory stands in Sebastiao do Uatuma located in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil’s Amazonas state, Aug. 22, 2015. The tower, built by Brazilian and German governments, collects data on greenhouse gases. VOA

Brazil contains about 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, and scientists are worried.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Amazon rainforest to the planet’s living systems, said Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo.

Each tree stores carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. The Amazon takes in as much as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year and releases 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen, earning it the nickname “the lungs of the planet.”

It’s also a global weather-maker.

Stretching 10 times the size of Texas, the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Billions of trees suck up water through deep roots and bring it up to their leaves, which release water vapor that forms a thick mist over the rainforest canopy.

This mist ascends into clouds and eventually becomes rainfall — a cycle that shapes seasons in South America and far beyond.

Brazil President, rainforest
Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro arrives for a meeting in Brasilia. VOA

By one estimate, the Amazon creates 30 to 50 percent of its own rainfall.

Now the integrity of all of three functions — as a carbon sink, the Earth’s lungs, and a rainmaker — hangs in the balance.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro promised to loosen protections for areas of the Brazilian Amazon designated as indigenous lands and nature reserves, calling them impediments to economic growth. “All these reserves cause problems to development,” he told supporters.

He has also repeatedly talked about gutting the power of the environmental ministry to enforce existing green laws.

“If Bolsonaro keeps his campaign promises, deforestation of the Amazon will probably increase quickly — and the effects will be felt everywhere on the planet,” said Paulo Artaxo, a professor of environmental physics at the University of Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro’s transition team did not respond to an interview request from the Associated Press.

Rainforest
In this May 4, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, members of a specialized inspection group of Ibama walk with their weapons up through an area affected by illegal mining, after landing in helicopters in Munduruku indigenous lands in Para state in Brazil’s Amazon basin. VOA

Brazil was once seen as a global environmental success story. Between 2004 and 2014, stricter enforcement of laws to safeguard the rainforest — aided by regular satellite monitoring and protections for lands designated reserves for indigenous peoples — sharply curbed the rate of deforestation, which peaked in the early 2000s at about 9,650 square miles a year (25,000 square kilometers).

 

After a political crisis engulfed Brazil, leading to the 2016 impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, enforcement faltered. Ranchers and farmers began to convert more rainforest to pastureland and cropland. Between 2014 and 2017, annual deforestation doubled to about 3,090 square miles (8,000 square kilometers). Most often, the trees and underbrush cut down are simply burned, directly releasing carbon dioxide, said Artaxo.

“In the Brazilian Amazon, far and away the largest source of deforestation is industrial agriculture and cattle ranching,” said Emilio Bruna, an ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Now observers are parsing Bolsonaro’s campaign statements and positions as a congressman to anticipate what’s next for the Amazon.

Bolsonaro — who some call “tropical Trump” because of some similarities to U.S. President Donald Trump — is a former army captain with a knack for channeling outrage and generating headlines. As a federal congressman for 27 years, he led legislative campaigns to unravel land protections for indigenous people and to promote agribusiness. He also made derogatory comments about minorities, women, and LGBT people.

Brazil, cuban doctors, rainforest
Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro talks to the media, in Brasilia, Brazil. VOA

Much of his support comes from business and farming interests.

“These farmers are not invaders, they are producers,” said congressman and senator-elect Luiz Carlos Heinze, a farmer and close ally of Bolsonaro. He blamed past “leftist administrations” for promoting indigenous rights at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

“Brazil will be the biggest farming nation on Earth during Bolsonaro’s years,” said Heinze.

Indigenous-rights advocates are worried about the new direction signaled. “Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that indigenous territories in the Amazon should be opened up for mining and agribusiness, which goes completely in the opposite direction of our Constitution,” said Adriana Ramos, public policy coordinator at Social Environmental Institute in Brasilia, a non-governmental group.

In a Nov. 1 postelection interview with Catholic TV, Bolsonaro said, “We intend to protect the environment, but without creating difficulties for our progress.”

Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that Brazil should withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, a treaty his predecessor signed in 2016 committing to reduce carbon emissions 37 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. After the election, he has publicly wavered.

Meanwhile he has named a climate-change denier, Ernesto Araujo, to become the next foreign minister.

 

Amazon, Climate, carbon, rainforests
This Sept. 15, 2009 file photo shows a deforested area near Novo Progresso in Brazil’s northern state of Para.. VOA

Nelson Ananias Filho, sustainability coordinator at Brazil’s National Agriculture and Cattle Raising Confederation, which backed Bolsonaro’s campaign, said, “Brazil’s agribusiness will adapt to whatever circumstances come.”

Whether or not Brazil formally remains in the Paris Climate Accord, the only way for the country to make its emission targets is to completely stop deforestation by 2030 and to reduce agricultural emissions, said Nobre, the climate scientist. “If Bolsonaro keeps moving in the current direction, that’s basically impossible.”

There’s another danger lurking in deforestation.

Aside from the oceans, tropical forests are the most important regions on the planet for putting water vapor in the air, which eventually becomes rainfall. “It’s why we have rain in the American Midwest and other inland areas — it’s not just the Amazon, but it’s the largest tropical rainforest,” said Bill Laurance, a tropical ecologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.

Also Read: Brazillians at a Disadvantage Due To Loss Of Cuban Doctors

Carlos Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy, an environmental scientist at George Mason University, have estimated that the “tipping point for the Amazon system” is 20 to 25 percent deforestation.

Without enough trees to sustain the rainfall, the longer and more pronounced dry season could turn more than half the rainforest into a tropical savannah, they wrote in February in the journal Science Advances.

If the rainfall cycle collapses, winter droughts in parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina could devastate agriculture, they wrote. The impacts may even be felt as far away as the American Midwest, said Laurance.

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric about potentially dismantling the environmental ministry and rolling back indigenous rights worries Nobre who says, “I am a scientist, but I am also a Brazilian citizen, and a citizen of the planet.” (VOA)

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Green Groups In Brazil Prepare A Climate Change Plan

A Brazilian version would draw on linkages between about 150 civil society groups who worked closely over the last year to oppose Bolsonaro's campaign

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Brazil, rainforests
This photo released by the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (Ibama) shows an illegally deforested area on Pirititi indigenous lands as Ibama agents inspect Roraima state in Brazil's Amazon basin. VOA

With its wooden walls and posters on protecting forests and fauna, Brazil’s pavilion at the U.N. climate talks in Poland offers no hint of the angst at home and abroad over mixed messages on global warming from its president-elect.

But campaign promises made by Jair Bolsonaro that could weaken protection for the Amazon rainforest are a hot topic of conversation among visitors, said Caio Henrique Scarmocin, one of three hosts on the stand.

At the conference, whose outcome will be key to implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, scientists and environmental activists said they were laying the groundwork should calls for Bolsonaro to protect Brazil’s forests fail.

Campaign statements from Bolsonaro, who takes power in January, suggested indigenous lands could be opened up to economic exploitation, including agribusiness and mining, and environmental fines eased.

Brazil President, rainforest
Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro arrives for a meeting in Brasilia. VOA

The ability of Ibama, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, to fine those who break environmental laws is one of the government’s best defenses against the destruction of forests, stoking fears of a deforestation spike under the new government.

Bolsonaro, who campaigned on a far-right platform, also pushed the Brazilian government to withdraw its offer to host next year’s U.N. climate conference.

“He has a hostile approach over environmental issues,” said Paulo Barreto, a researcher with Imazon, a Brazilian institute monitoring deforestation in the Amazon.

Brazil is home to about 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, considered by many as nature’s best weapon against global warming, because trees absorb and store carbon from the air.

Alfredo Sirkis, executive secretary of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change, said he thought dialogue with the incoming government was still possible.

Rainforest, Brazil
In this May 4, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, members of a specialized inspection group of Ibama walk with their weapons up through an area affected by illegal mining, after landing in helicopters in Munduruku indigenous lands in Para state in Brazil’s Amazon basin. VOA

But if environmental roll-backs proceed, there was a “contingency plan,” he told journalists.

A coalition would assemble regional governments committed to respecting Brazil’s emissions reduction goals set under the Paris pact, said Sirkis.

Governors in as many as seven Brazilian states, including Amazonas, Pernambuco, the Federal District, Espirito Santo, Parana and Rio Grande do Sul, had already expressed interest in joining, he said.

“This is for starters,” said the former congressman.

A spokesman for the presidency of Brazil at the climate talks declined to comment.

U.S. shows the way

The plan has similarities with “We Are Still In,” a U.S. group of more than 3,500 mayors, governors and business leaders who have promised they will not retreat from the Paris deal.

Brazil, cuban doctors, rainforest
Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro talks to the media, in Brasilia, Brazil. VOA

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump gave notice the United States would leave the accord — although it cannot formally withdraw until 2020 — arguing it was bad for the economy.

Mauricio Voivodic, executive director of WWF-Brazil, said his group had been in touch with the U.S. campaign through WWF-US, which is part of the “We Are Still In” secretariat.

The American coalition has its own pavilion at the U.N. climate talks.

“We are learning from ‘We Are Still In’ the importance of sub-national (governments) and companies enhancing commitments for the implementation of the Paris Agreement,” Voivodic said.

But WWF-Brazil is not yet trying to emulate the model because it wants to prioritize dialogue already under way with the transition government, he added.

“It could be an option, but we are not going in the direction of starting planning this,” said Voivodic.

Deforestation, Brazil
Brazil Surpasses 2020 Target to Cut Deforestation Emissions. Flickr

Brazil’s future environment minister told Reuters on Monday his “inclination” was not to leave the Paris Agreement, after Bolsonaro said on the campaign trail he might quit the deal, under which countries set their own targets to cut emissions.

Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator for Greenpeace Brazil, said he also looked to the United States as a vague blueprint to build a similar “resistance movement.”

A Brazilian version would draw on linkages between about 150 civil society groups who worked closely over the last year to oppose Bolsonaro’s campaign, he said.

Also Read: Many Countries Refused To Endorse Landmark Study as Climate Conference Enters Second Week

Also mirroring tactics used in the United States, his group does not exclude filing lawsuits to push back against potential weakening of environmental and climate regulations in Brazil.

“It’s on the table,” he said, adding that it was still a last-resort option. (VOA)