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Exterminating the Future: World Outcry Grows as Brazil Rapidly Expands Deforestation of Amazon

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Image Credit: Riccardo Pravettoni/GRID-Arendal

New government data in Brazil shows that deforestation in the Amazon has dramatically increased since the far-right former military officer Jair Bolsonaro became president in January. Brazil has lost more than 1,300 square miles of forest cover this year, and the pace of deforestation is increasing. One report claims that the equivalent of three soccer fields are being deforested every minute in the Amazon. In June, deforestation increased by 88% over the same month last year. The drastic spike is due to Bolsonaro’s rolling back of regulations and allowing illegal land invasions, logging and burning. Climate scientists say the protection of the Amazon rainforest is crucial in the global effort to fight climate change. Meanwhile, residents of a remote indigenous village in the Amazon say at least 10 heavily armed gold miners in military uniforms raided their community last week, stabbing Wajapi tribe leader Emyra Wajapi to death. We speak to Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Brazil, where new government data shows that deforestation in the Amazon has dramatically increased since the far-right former military officer Jair Bolsonaro became president in January. Brazil has lost more than 1,300 square miles of forest cover this year, and the pace of deforestation is increasing. One report claims that the equivalent of three soccer fields are being deforested every minute in the Amazon. In June, deforestation increased by 88% over the same month last year.

The drastic spike is due to Bolsonaro’s rolling back of regulations and allowing illegal land invasions, logging and burning. In May, a group of former Brazilian environment ministers warned, quote, “We’re facing the risk of runaway deforestation in the Amazon.” One former minister said that Brazil was becoming an “exterminator of the future.”

AMY GOODMAN: Climate scientists say the protection of the Amazon rainforest is crucial in the global effort to fight climate catastrophe. Bolsonaro has defended his administration’s actions and has publicly criticized the National Institute for Space Research, which released the government data showing the spike in deforestation.

Meanwhile, in other news from the Amazon, residents of a remote indigenous village say at least 10 heavily armed gold miners in military uniforms raided their community last week, stabbing a village leader to death.

Joining us in São Paulo, Brazil, is Carlos Rittl. He’s the executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Rittl. Can you lay out the crisis and the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, promising to, quote, “open up the Amazon to development,” what this has meant?

CARLOS RITTL: Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for the opportunity.

What happens is that President Jair Bolsonaro was elected promising with an anti-environmental campaign. Now he’s delivering, unfortunately. He has reduced the environmental governance. The department responsible to combat deforestation, the Ministry of the Environment, was shut down. The number of operations to combat deforestation has been reduced so that between January and April this year, it was reducing in 70% in the number of operations in comparison to the same period of last year.

And what happens is that he has a speech, a message that he delivers, and expresses tolerance with environmental crimes. And when he says that he fostered the mining within the indigenous lands, and you see at the same day the crime against one of the leaders of one community, the Wajapi, the state of Amapá, this is exactly the result of an agenda moving on.

And you’ve mentioned the deforestation in June, more than 80% above the same month of last year as recorded by the National Space Agency, but in July, only until the 24 of July, the deforestation rate for this month is 212% above the deforestation rate registered last year by the National Space Agency.

Unfortunately, with this, the violence against indigenous peoples comes along with the deforestation of the forest, the destruction, and the policies in place and the lack of proper governance and the lack of law enforcement don’t give us good signals for the future. We could see the escalation of the crimes. And you have mentioned the Global Witness report just a couple of minutes ago, when—before we started speaking. And Brazil is one among the top countries where environmental defenders are murdered every year. And unfortunately, the deforestation might rise very fast in the coming month. And together with that, the violence against indigenous people, local communities might rise also, unfortunately.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carlos Rittl, could you talk about the person in charge of all of this for President Bolsonaro, the environment minister, Ricardo Salles? What’s his background and his record?

CARLOS RITTL: Well, actually, he was a former secretary at the state level in São Paulo, the secretary of environment for the state of São Paulo, a couple years ago. And during the time he was there, he was sued and considered guilty by irregularities, exactly providing permits for the economic activities to be run, not following fully the legislation, the state-level legislation, and so he was sued. And I think this is a very important record of his career in the environment. And many of the employees at the state level at the time, from different institutes, were blaming him, saying that he was a bad manager.

And right now what he did, together with the president, Bolsonaro, was to—what he’s doing is to dismantle the environmental legislation, the environmental governance of the country. And also, he is now reviewing the size and the area and the level of protection of 334 protected areas at the federal level, and it could be reduced in the future based on the analysis of him. And he keeps speaking with land grabbers, with illegal loggers, rather than speaking with scientists and speaking with former environmental ministers and with the leaders of the environmental agency at the federal level. And he’s there delivering, and he’s not there to protect the environment. He’s there to open the protected areas and to open the forest for activities to run without any control.

AMY GOODMAN: In northern Brazil—you talked about this—residents of a remote indigenous village say at least 10 heavily armed gold miners in military informs raided their community last week, stabbing their leader to death, Emyra Wajapi. On Monday, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, said, quote, “The murder of Emyra Wajapi, leader of the indigenous Wajapi people, is tragic and reprehensible in its own right. It is also a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land—especially forests—by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil.” The president, Jair Bolsonaro, even denies that he was murdered. But if you can explain what happened, and then go deeper into what the deforestation of the Amazon means for the world, called the “lungs of the world,” but start with the Wajapi?

CARLOS RITTL: Well, the problem with these indigenous groups, that they are there in areas that illegal loggers, miners, they have interests there. They are interested in invading those lands and taking the gold and timber from these areas. But this is illegal. We have very strict rules for activities to be carried on within the indigenous lands.

But the speech and the message and the positions that President Bolsonaro delivers in public, they incentivize the invasion. We have right now 20,000 illegal miners in the Yanomami indigenous lands in the state of Roraima in the northern Amazon, as well. And so, these people just feel that they have a partner in the Cabinet in Brasília because of his fostering. And he’s, as I said before, in the very first day—the very same day when the Wajapi leader was murdered, the president, Bolsonaro, said he would open indigenous lands for mining. And so, those guys entering the lands, what they expect is that at some point their activity will be legalized, sort of formalized, and so that they will be able to stay there and to remain there, doing their activities. And, unfortunately, they are harming the environment and also the indigenous people.

In terms of the impacts of deforestation, of course, the Amazon is the home of the highest percentage of the world’s biodiversity. And chopping down tree, chopping down forests, in the speed that we are doing, helps us to enter in this mass extinction of biodiversity worldwide. And so, the fast speed of Amazon destruction helps that, unfortunately.

But we don’t lose only the biodiversity. The forest is very important for local people, not only indigenous people. We have the local communities that depend on the forest for their livelihoods. They extract their natural products from the forest. They fish. And so, they depend of a good environment for keeping the quality of their livelihoods.

And also, the Amazon plays a very important role for the climate balance at the local level, regional level, at the global level. Deforestation is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions for Brazil. Brazil is in the top seven global emitters of greenhouse gases. And the destruction of the Amazon is our main source of—it’s about 50% of Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions, comes from the gross deforestation in the Amazon. And so, if we lose forest at the speed that we are doing, this might put us in risk of not meeting the Paris Agreement emissions reduction goals in the long term, to keep the global warming below—well below 2 degrees, and then possibly to keeping the rise in the temperature at 1.5 Celsius degrees, degrees Celsius, to the end of this century. And so, it’s a problem for Brazil and also for the world, if we keep doing—destroying forests at the speed that we are facing right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you describe the turnaround in Brazilian policy on the Amazon, specifically from the period of the Workers’ Party rule of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff to now what Bolsonaro is doing? How big a turnaround is this or has this represented for the environmental movement?

CARLOS RITTL: Well, actually, since the impeachment process of former President Dilma, the balance of power has shifted a lot. When president—the vice president, the former vice president, Michel Temer, became president, he was allied with the rural caucus in the National Congress. For example, the votes from rural caucus prevented him of being investigated by the federal prosecutors. And what he gave to those members of Parliament in the National Congress was to approve laws to legalize—easily legalize land grabbing and to withdraw fines, huge fines, against illegal loggers and farmers, and a series of attempts to reduce protected areas.

But at that time, even during the former Vice President Temer, we had the minister of environment who were there dialoguing with the civil society, dialoguing with the scientists. And so, they were not there allowing everything to happen without any control. And even the minister in place during the Vice President Michel Temer, he was attempting to enforce, to combat to illegal deforestation.

And from the first mandate from President Lula in 2004, something remarkable was the establishment of a national plan to combat deforestation in the Amazon. This was extremely important, because by implementing this plan, we were able to see the level of Amazon destructions coming down from—in about 50% between 2004 and 2012. The level of destruction has been fluctuating since then, but in something between 5,000 square kilometers every year to 7,000 square kilometers a year, which is still very high, but much lower than the rates that we were observing back in 2004, for example. It was almost a 30,000 square kilometers of forest destroying in one year.

But right now we have a president who is implementing an anti-environmental agenda, and a minister of environment who is not there to protect the environment. And the rural caucus has appointed this minister and also the minister of agriculture. And together with that, we see attempts of the president, Bolsonaro, to withdraw the demarcation of indigenous lands from the minister of justice and to put this under the control of the minister of agriculture. And so, we have a very different condition, at least at the federal government level right now. We have an agenda being carried on which is against indigenous peoples’ rights, against the environment. And the consequence are those reported by you—the rise in deforestation, the violence, such as in the case of Amapá.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Carlos Rittl, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Again, the president of Brazil declaring, “The Amazon is ours,” and calling deforestation data lies. In May, eight former Brazilian environment ministers writing a joint letter, warning, “We’re facing the risk of runaway deforestation in the Amazon.” Dr. Carlos Rittl is executive secretary of Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations, speaking to us from São Paulo, Brazil.

Coming up, we look at the privately owned Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, where at least four immigrants have died over the past two years, including one last week. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “I’m Alive,” a song for Brazil’s rainforests, by Caetano Veloso.

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