The Amazon's Frontline Defenders Are Under Siege. Where Are Their Reinforcements?

Photo credit: Mídia Índia / Edinei Manoki

Indigenous peoples in Brazil are in an increasingly precarious position and, as a result, the Amazon forest is, too. That's bad news for the world.

The fires burning and choking the western United States have transfixed the nation's attention and the alarm is warranted: The world is warming, meaning present and future changes to the climate will continue to lengthen and intensify fire seasons. Now labeled the worst fire season on record, the 5 million acres already burned across California, Oregon and Washington may not be unprecedented for long.

Yet the fate of US forests doesn't rest in American hands alone. Thousands of miles away from the inferno gripping the West Coast, nearly 30,000 active fires are burning throughout the Amazon, pushing that forest toward a tipping point and jeopardizing the world's ability to meet its Paris Agreement targets.

In response, President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently slashed fire suppression budgets, going as far as ending all efforts to combat them in the Amazon and Pantanal biomes, only to reverse the policy three hours later. In contrast, Amazonia's indigenous peoples, besieged by the triple threat of illegal land encroachment, coronavirus and fires, are calling on global actors to help defend their front lines.

Over 34,000 indigenous individuals in Brazil have contracted Covid-19, among them Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapo, perhaps the forest's most iconic defender and a popular favorite for last year's Nobel Peace Prize. Even while recovering from Covid-19, Raoni, nearly 90, is rallying attention and resources to counter this triple threat, notably denouncing Bolsonaro's unfounded claims at this year's UN General Assembly. But the world came close to losing a formidable warrior for a livable planet. What's worse is that his legacy is in even greater danger.

Bolsonaro is using the chaos of the global pandemic to accelerate his administration's environmentally destructive agenda. In his address to heads of state at the United Nations' virtual General Assembly recently, he claimed Brazil was the victim of a "brutal disinformation campaign about the Amazon and the Brazilian wetlands (the Pantanal)" and blamed "shady interests coupled with exploitative and unpatriotic Brazilian associations" for smearing his record.

However, the actions he brags about taking are ineffective and misleading. His much-touted, short-term moratorium on fires covers only the small fraction that occur with legal permits, whereas most are already illegal. Reversing Bolsonaro's deep cuts to environmental enforcement budgets, which have allowed illegal fires to flourish, would be far more effective.

Similar to President Trump, Bolsonaro has appointed cabinet members with ties to mining and agribusiness. He has opened protected areas to extractive industries and aggressively deregulated hard-won environmental protections. He has routinely ignored science, also bungling his country's coronavirus response. Consequently, the Brazilian Amazon's 12-month deforestation rate has increased 96% since Bolsonaro took office.

These policy shifts not only provoke more fires, but also increase indigenous communities' exposure to Covid-19 and violence against indigenous peoples by ranchers, loggers, miners and agribusiness. Emboldened land grabbers have contributed to a 59% increase of deforestation on indigenous lands when comparing the first four months of 2019 and 2020. Recently, two gunmen attacked the sanitary barrier of Piaraçu, an indigenous village where Raoni and other indigenous leaders often meet to organize collective actions.

Like in the United States, Bolsonaro's incendiary language discredits and all but sanctions persecution of select minority groups. In his address to the UN Assembly last month, Bolsonaro implicated "Brazilians of indigenous ancestry" for the Amazon's raging fires and deforestation. The previous year, he singled out Chief Raoni, memorably maligning him from the UN floor.

Raoni is among the most prominent, but far from the only environmental leader under assault in Brazil. In July, Global Witness released its annual report cataloguing violence against land and environmental defenders worldwide. Their findings reveal that 212 activists died violently in 2019, the highest annual number since record-keeping began. Forty percent of the casualties were indigenous, despite comprising only 5% of the world's population. For years, Brazil has consistently ranked among the world's most deadly countries for environmental activism, ranking third in 2019.

The Global Witness report emphasizes that "environmental defenders have been the first line of defense against climate breakdown." Research supports this, finding that the demarcation of indigenous land by granting full property rights is proven to be effective at preventing Amazon loss. Demarcating indigenous land can decrease deforestation by as much as 66%. Indigenous lands covering one third of the Amazon, in conjunction with protected lands, emit only 10% of the forest's carbon emissions. Raoni and his Kayapo peers have been particularly successful at registering their land rights and, consequently, at preventing deforestation on and emissions from their territories.

Yet in spite of – or because of – its efficacy, the Brazilian government has destabilized indigenous land tenure since 2017, when then-President Michel Temer froze certain petitions for indigenous territorial protections. Bolsonaro has continued this policy, which may cause roughly 1.5 million hectares of additional deforestation annually.

The world cannot afford for millions of additional Amazon hectares to disappear. Over 17% of the rainforest has been lost. Leading scientists Carlos Nobre of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University estimate the Amazon could reach an irreversible tipping point once it loses 20-25% of its original size. Given current trends, experts warn the Amazon could reach this point as early as 2021.

This year, the Consumer Goods Forum, an association of 400 companies, failed to reach its net-zero deforestation goal across members' supply chains. The Big Three investors for these companies, BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard, are complicit, opposing or abstaining from voting on 100% of shareholder resolutions mandating supply chain policies that prevent deforestation.

As the private sector drags its feet, some climate change-affected US states, such as fire-weary California, are stepping up to scrub their own supply chains, and some nations, such as Germany, France and Canada, are exploring, but have not yet committed to, stipulations limiting deforestation in ongoing trade negotiations with the Mercosur bloc.

But penalizing Brazil is only half the answer. Norway and Germany have used direct funding vehicles like the Amazon Fund to subsidize Brazil's conservation needs, and French President Emmanuel Macron raised millions for Amazon fire suppression in 2019. While Bolsonaro has disparaged both efforts as international meddling with Brazil's sovereignty, the most constructive path forward for a new US administration's engagement with Bolsonaro's Brazil will be one that balances sticks and carrots by making trade contingent upon – and aid available for – established conservation targets.

To this end, US presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed $20 billion in aid for Amazon conservation, balanced by conditional economic sanctions, if elected. Biden reiterated his plan for this fund during one of the less incoherent moments in the first US presidential debate, signaling that climate will be a lens for his diplomacy. Bolsonaro, a vocal Trump supporter, called Biden's proposal "disastrous," further politicizing the Amazon's conservation as a zero-sum strategy.

For decades, the Amazon debate has been dominated by the "conservation" versus "development" dichotomy. But the future of the Amazon may rest on the world's ability to pilot a Third Way that seeks to change the financial calculus for the forest's destruction. Amazon 4.0, an initiative started by Nobre and other preeminent Brazilian scientists, seeks to invest in sustainable, commercializable forest products and technology solutions. Yet as these scale to market, the proven conservation solution of protecting indigenous lands and communities needs more support to hold the line. The Amazon Emergency Fund, an emergent indigenous and NGO-led effort, is doing some of this urgent work to prevent the loss of more lives and literal ground on the frontlines.

The Amazon has faced bleak outlooks before. It was Raoni and his generation of peers who first rallied the world for its protection. Raoni has been hospitalized twice in the past few months. His fellow Kayapo leader, Bepkororoti Paulinho Paiakan, died of complications from Covid-19 at 67. Their peer, Aritana Yawalapiti, died of Covid-19 at 71.

Had Bolsonaro not been bent on waging his own disinformation campaign, his recent UN speech might have acknowledged, rather than distorted, some fundamental truths: The world is warming, meaning present and future changes to the climate will lengthen and intensify fire seasons in both the United States and Brazil. Deforestation in the Amazon accelerates this warming. Frontline defenders of the Amazon face a worsening triple threat. Addressing the Amazon's imminent tipping point is politically inconvenient, but scientifically necessary. And the world has the research and resources to change the forest's trajectory. All it needs now is the resolve.

Allison and Vanessa Fajans-Turner are climate professionals and sisters. They are members of Amazon Watch's Advisory Board, founders of its Terry Turner Memorial Fund to defend indigenous rights, and have collaborated with and translated for Chief Raoni Metuktire and other Kayapo leaders in Brazil and abroad.

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