If another 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is destroyed, it could start a vicious cycle of self-destruction, unleashing enormous amounts of CO2 and massively impacting regional and global climate, says Alexander Zaitchik

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

 The policies of Brazil’s right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro, is placing the Amazon Rainforest under extreme threat once again. For a while, from 2004 to 2016, the Amazon’s destruction had been slowed and even partially halted. However, ever since Bolsonaro has taken over as president, the rainforest destruction has been accelerating again at a frightening pace. According to Imazon, a Brazilian research center, deforestation in the first months of 2019 increased by more than 50%, relative to the same period in 2018. Most of this deforestation took place illegally in protected areas. The Amazon is an ecological system that is essential for the world’s climate. 20% of the world’s freshwater cycles through its rivers, plants, soils, and air. And about 20% of the rainforest was already destroyed in the course of the 20th century. If another 20% were to be destroyed, which could happen in less than 30 years, it would trigger a vicious feedback loop that scientists called “dieback.” This is what happens when the forest begins to dry out and burn on its own, until it disappears completely.

Joining me now to discuss the impact of the Bolsonaro government on the Amazon Rainforest is Alexander Zaitchik. He’s a freelance journalist who has covered Indigenous issues and land conflicts in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. His most recent article was published in The Intercept and is titled, “Rainforest on Fire: On the Front Lines of Bolsonaro’s War on the Amazon, Brazil’s Forest Communities Fight Against Climate Catastrophe.” His investigation and the article were supported by the Pulitzer Center. Thanks for joining us again, Alex.


GREG WILPERT So before we get into the policies of the Bolsonaro government, give us a brief overview of how the Brazilian government has dealt with the Amazon Rainforest before Bolsonaro became president.

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK Well, there’s really two distinct phases. There is the period up until the transition to civilian rule in the late 1980s. And that entire period, which covers the modern history of Brazil, was basically one of either indifference or extremely aggressive attempts to develop the region and bring “civilization” to the rainforest— to settle it, to develop agriculture, to log it, to mine it. And that triggered runaway deforestation that really wasn’t brought under control until about 2004, as you mentioned. And beginning in the late-1980s, there were attempts put in place to preserve the rainforest. There was an understanding that was happening not just in Brazil but around the world that climate change was related in a very serious way to deforestation, to the carbon that was released when the forest was burned, and the agencies that are now being dismantled were set up— primarily IBAMA, and ICBO, the conservation agency in Brazil. There were satellite systems put into place, which the Bolsonaro government is now trying to privatize.

All of the efforts that resulted in the slowing and eventual stop to confront deforestation, unleashed in the 70s and 80s, basically are now being, all those attempts are being rolled back across the board. It’s hard to think of any initiative that Bolsonaro has not gone after. And it’s gotten to such a point where even the Norwegians, who have done the yeoman’s work of trying to keep momentum going forward in Brazil, are talking about pulling support for the Rainforest Fund, which is a billion-dollar fund that they and certain other mostly European countries started to make sure Brazil was not on its own in dealing with this international crisis. Which, as you mentioned, has profound implications for the health of the Earth’s biosphere.

GREG WILPERT Well, let’s dig a little bit deeper into this. I mean, as we’ve had you on before, actually a couple of months ago, and it was already clear back then and also already when Bolsonaro was running for president, that he has complete disdain for the Amazon’s protection. Now, in what ways exactly has he fulfilled on his campaign promise to open the Amazon for development?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK Well, it begins with signals, very important signals even during the campaign that he sent to the illegal economic actors that are hiring chainsaw crews, that are now with the beginning of dry season beginning to burn the land they’ve cleared. And basically, those signals were very clear in saying it will not be [inaudible] from this government, and we’re now seeing the fruits of that. Some of the early data that we got in the beginning of winter, which you mentioned, were scary enough, but now we’re getting information in regard to the dry season which is not just 50% up, but 90% and 100%. We’re seeing double the rates of recent years.

And the satellites, it’s worth noting, can’t even capture the worst of it because all they can really see is outright deforestation and they catch the plumes sent up by the burns, but what you find on the ground—And this is why the Indigenous communities that I wrote about in that piece are so important. They’re sort of like satellites on the ground. What they can tell you about is forest degradation, forest fragmentation, the smaller cuts which show you the trend lines into the future. They can show you what’s happening under the canopy, which is often as important as the outright clearance of the canopy.

And the agencies that were put in place to monitor this stuff on the ground alongside the Indigenous communities and other traditional forest communities, are being defunded. They’re being destaffed. They’re basically being restricted from doing their jobs. In the most famous instance in Jamari National Forest, IBAMA agents were told personally by Bolsonaro in a video he released not to destroy—They were prohibited from destroying equipment that was requisitioned in the forest, which is their main deterrent actually. I mean, the fines they give have always kind of been jokes. Almost none of them are ever paid, but when heavy machinery is destroyed in situ, in the forest, that’s a serious deterrent because this is quite expensive machinery regardless of who’s finding the operations. And Bolsonaro is actively holding back IBAMA agents from executing the one power they have to actually deter this kind of activity in protected areas.

It’s, it’s—Like I said, it’s across the board. I mean, you can go through any of the agencies and show basically how it’s been gutted, and how people are being kept back from doing their jobs. FUNAI, the Indian agency, is operating at a drastically reduced capacity. Often you have field stations in the middle of the Amazon with one FUNAI agent who’s responsible for a vast territory of escalating social conflict and violence. And the idea that they’re going to be able to fulfill their duty to help the Indigenous communities monitor and protect their lands is, you know, not realistic.

GREG WILPERT Now, the Amazon is known not to be very good for growing crops because the soil is not very fertile. Now, if it’s not good for growing crops, what are the material interests behind the Amazon’s deforestation?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK Well, it’s not good for growing crops, but you can grow things in the soil for short periods of time. You can grow forage for cattle, and then through pesticides and more clearing, expand that ranch territory. You can ranch on that ground, as we’ve seen over the last 50 years, but it requires constantly expanding to make up for the depleted soil. Same thing with soy. I mean, you can farm in it, but it requires heavily industrial poisonous methods of farming. Of course, there’s logging. There’s a lot of trees in Amazon. They’re worth a lot of money to the international lumber trade, which despite a lot of efforts in recent years, is still not close to being one that is monitored or certified in any sort of credible way. The certification regimes that we’ve seen in the last 20 years are full of holes and they’re very easily gamed. So people who think that they can choose, you know, good rare woods and hardwoods out of the world’s rainforests are sort of kidding themselves.

So obviously, there’s a lot of economic activity that pays off. The problem is it requires a huge environmental trade-off and most of it is short-term because, as you mentioned, the soils are not very good. And the reason the rainforest is so abundant with life and always has been is because of the canopy, which is constantly falling, degrading, deteriorating, and releasing nutrients into the soil. And when you remove that cycle, these very thin layers of dry soil and clay die very, very quickly.

GREG WILPERT In my introduction, I already pointed out the Amazon’s importance for fresh water. Tell us more about the role that the Amazon plays in the global ecology, and what its destruction would mean for that ecology.

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK Yeah. It’s hard to overstate. I mean, the amount of water that flows through the Amazon is estimated to be a fifth or more of the world’s supply of freshwater. And that’s not just the rivers— the famous Amazon and it’s 2,000 feet of rivers— but it’s also the moisture in the air. It’s the rivers, the constant trans-evaporation that is taking place under the canopy. Just above it, the cloud forests. The way that this water is swept up into these massive, you know, conduits in the atmosphere that are responsible for agriculture thousands of miles away. And if the Amazon system begins to break down, then those river systems will begin to dry up and so will the atmospheric moisture that cycles throughout the world as well. And the implications are profound for our ability to grow food, which is already being recently put under great and lots of pressure with climate change.

GREG WILPERT Well, yeah. And actually, one of the things that the Amazon is known for, or is called sometimes, is a “carbon sink.” It absorbs carbon dioxide. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about that, and also what that would mean if it were actually to burn off the existing carbon that is already basically sequestered currently in the Amazon.

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK Yeah. I mean, it’s a constant process. Rainforests are always absorbing carbon. They’re always releasing a certain amount. It’s not just as a carbon sink, but it is large enough that it is a net carbon sink. And that is now being reversed with their cutting of more of the forests. You have generations-worth of carbon that is released, and it’s released immediately when these trees are cut or when the forest begins to degrade. And again, the degradation is almost as important as their cutting and the degradation is not picked up by the satellites. So you have to take the satellite data with an asterisk because there’s other stuff happening in the forest. And should all of that carbon be released in the form of a, sort of, rolling systems collapse like you mentioned in your introduction, it would be the equivalent of— I don’t have the exact number in front of me. But it would be like a hundred-plus-years-worth of industrial activity. Just a carbon bomb. It would be the closest thing you could imagine to, you know, a carbon doomsday bomb on par with the permafrost or other big feedback triggers that people are warning about right now. It’s up there with the big stuff.

GREG WILPERT Now, what needs to happen for the Amazon to be saved? I mean, in terms, you know, the policies in Brazil. And what are the Indigenous and ecological groups of Brazil doing in that sense?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK Well the first thing most immediately would just be to enforce the laws already in the Brazilian Constitution. There are laws regulating how much deforestation can take place in protected areas and nonprotected areas. And that foundation should be immediately respected and provide the baseline for further regulation. That is not happening. The agencies that are being gutted should be expanded. They should be empowered to do their jobs. More people should be hired, not fired, which is what’s been happening under Bolsonaro. The tribes who are on the frontlines of these struggles and provide often the buffer between larger tracts of forests and the so-called economic frontier, they should be assisted to do the work that they’ve been doing for so long and want to continue doing and they’re now doing alone.

They’ve been abandoned to monitor these ancestral forests themselves, which is a very dangerous thing to be doing when you don’t have state support. And murders have been a big part of this story and unfortunately, looks set to increase. And that’s a risk that they very bravely are going to take. When I was down there, it’s very inspiring to hang out with these people and see how much danger they’re in and how much danger they’re willing to accept from [inaudible] to try and protect what they understand to be an international cause. And even more than that, I think there’s a conversation that’s beginning to take place that I think has to deepen and accelerate, the sooner the better. And that’s the conversation about whether this 8 billion-person global economy based on growth and consumption can be massaged into sustainability, which is a very dubious proposition and I think we need to really start thinking about different frames, different organizing principles for our way of life on this planet.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Alexander Zaitchik, freelance journalist and author of The Intercept article “Rainforest on Fire,” which I highly recommend for everyone to look at and we’ll link to it with our story. Thanks again, Alex, for having joined us today.

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK Great to be here. Thank you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

Gregory Wilpert

Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.