Eye on the Amazon

Resisting Another Record-Breaking Year of Deforestation and Destruction in the Brazilian Amazon

While Brazilian authorities deny the impact of the criminal arson, Amazon Watch and our allies exposed and challenged the growing fires and deforestation in the Amazon

Photo credit: Bruno Kelly / Amazonia Real

Over the past year, Bolsonaro's government failed once again to present a plan to curb deforestation and instead further emboldened land grabbers to destroy the rainforest. Evidence points to the greatest loss of trees in the Brazilian Amazon since 2008. The destruction of the Amazon is linked to Indigenous rights violations and conflicts on Indigenous territories. This International Human Rights Day, we call on the world to fight for Indigenous rights and self-determination. Our ability to protect the Amazon and our climate depend on it.

Amazon Watch sought to respond against what we knew would be yet another disastrous burning season. In solidarity with Indigenous Amazon defenders, we called for an #AmazonCeaseFire by mounting a communication, advocacy, and direct relief campaign alongside a coalition of Brazilian and global allies. We exposed the true drivers of today's crisis – from political delinquency to market complicity – and then targeted those responsible through strategic campaigning. One such complicit financial actor is BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, which plays a pivotal role in financially enabling the industries behind the Amazon burning season.

In early November, Brazil's vice president and head of the Amazon council, Hamilton Mourão, hosted a three-day "media propaganda" tour of the Amazon for foreign ambassadors, concentrated on the rainforest's better-protected northern region. Their itinerary deliberately did not include the reality of the Amazon – deforestation, fires, violence, illegal mining – because, according to Mourão, seeing the effects of Amazon deforestation and fires close up was "not necessary." The Brazilian government attempted to deny, minimize, and hide the reality of the destruction of the Amazon and later even sought to blame Indigenous peoples for the fires. Despite these efforts, official reports from the Brazilian Space Research Institute (INPE) provided proof of the extent of the burning and devastation of the forest. Brazil's own data and scientists show the world's leaders the reality of the devastation in the Amazon.

After the tour, the U.K.'s ambassador in Brazil, Liz Davidson, tweeted, "It is a shame the trip did not include visits to areas more impacted by environmental degradation." In contrast, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, Germany's ambassador to Brazil, Heiko Thoms, said that his perception has not changed: "The [Brazilian] government is informed about deforestation and fires, about where they are and how big the problem is."

The latest official government data from INPE showed that deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high between August 1, 2019, and July 31, 2020. The destruction has soared significantly since President Jair Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental protections and enforcement. As Bolsonaro has said himself, in the Amazon rainforest, there are no wildfires. Smoke there is a sign of land invasions, illegal logging, and deforestation. Fires are the last step in the land-grabbing process.

In fact, more than 2,500 major blazes have burned across the Brazilian Amazon so far this year, according to a fire season summary released via the Amazon Conservation Association's Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). Estimates say that nearly 5.4 million acres (2.2 million hectares) of Brazil's standing Amazon rainforest burned this year — an area roughly the size of the country of Wales in the United Kingdom. Many were on recently deforested lands, indicative of land grabbers destroying forests into pastures and croplands, while others were within conserved areas and Indigenous reserves. During this burning season, 41% of fires were in standing primary forests.

In spite of international pressure, Bolsonaro continues to lie about the fires and promote his economic development priorities to open the Amazon rainforest for financing and exploitation. Unfortunately, protecting the Amazon and defending Indigenous rights doesn't fit into this profit scheme or bode well with his allies in the congressional rural caucus. The fires wouldn't have been as rampant if Bolsonaro and his administration hadn't dismantled Brazilian environmental policies while simultaneously underfunding and undermining environmental agencies, such as IBAMA and INPE. In the end, it was up to the Brazilian federal government to oversee and create preventive and responsive measures, but these institutions had little authority and resources to do so.

Fires across the Amazon also burned within protected lands inhabited by isolated uncontacted Indigenous peoples. The following groups were particularly threatened by this year's fires: the isolated Ãwa people who live on Bananal Island in Tocantins state; the uncontacted Awá inhabiting the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve in Maranhão state; and the uncontacted peoples in both the Uru Eu Wau Wau Indigenous territory in Rondônia and Ituna Itatá Indigenous territory in Pará. Pará is the Brazilian state with the highest rates of deforestation and land conflicts, but all of these Indigenous territories are under intense pressure from land grabbers, illegal loggers, and ranchers. Many of this year's fires are known to have been intentionally set as a means of clearing protected rainforest for agribusiness.

As part of our campaign, in September Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, SumofUs, and other climate activists hosted a Fires Week of Action targeting major brands and financiers as the world's most vital rainforests are intentionally burned for profit.

In October, Amazon Watch partnered with Amazônia Real – an independent investigative news agency based in the Amazon – to fly over and document the environmental destruction of the Munduruku Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian state of Pará. As Alessandra Munduruku reported to Amazônia Real, "Everything you saw from above [overflight] is what we already see down here. We know about the projects planned for this region, spanning from Mato Grosso to the Tapajós. Everything that was illegal has now been made legal."

Another important action was the creation of our Amazon Burning Season Tracker to offer data and analysis that unequivocally demonstrates the realities unfolding on the ground by layering satellite data over the rainforest, Indigenous territories, and protected areas. This tool allows us to visualize and analyze the true, and disastrous, scope of this year's burning season.

Amazon Watch also partnered with the Association of Brazil's Indigenous Peoples (APIB) to publish Complicity in Destruction III: How global corporations enable violations of Indigenous peoples' rights in the Brazilian Amazon. The report exposed six major U.S.-based financial Institutions – BlackRock, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Vanguard, Bank of America, and Dimensional Fund Advisors – that from 2017 to 2020 invested more than US$18 billion dollars in nine companies enabling environmental and Indigenous rights violations and forest destruction. The report findings demonstrated why shifting the policies and practices of financial giants like BlackRock offers a strategic opportunity to counter the reckless behavior of Brazil's cattle, soy, and mining sectors, as well as that of their global corporate accomplices. The emergency for the rainforest and its peoples – and the future of our climate – requires swift and decisive action.

Against this backdrop of environmental destruction, international solidarity to support the Amazon's Indigenous movement is growing stronger. In October, two Brazilian Indigenous leaders – Alessandra Munduruku and Sonia Guajajara of APIB – were recognized for their activism with the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights awards, respectively. The climate justice movement is united and focused against the drivers of climate chaos and now Amazon destruction: global financiers like BlackRock and the governments that fail to regulate them. By following the lead of our Indigenous partners, we've built a platform of solidarity ready to name and shame those responsible.

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