WASHINGTON (CN) – The thousands of fires that have been engulfing the Amazon Basin since last month are largely a cause of Brazilian policy failure and climate change, witnesses told a House panel Tuesday.
The Amazon Basin makes up 60% of Brazil’s land area, covering 3.3 million square miles and storing 60 to 80 billion tons of the world’s carbon. Man-made deforestation fires, like the blazes that have raged in the region since August, threaten to release 200 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, if they continue at their current rate.
The Brazil-based National Institute for Space Research issued a report last month which found that 72,843 fires have been detected in the Amazon so far this year, marking an 83% increase since this time last year.
Monica de Bolle, director of the Latin American Studies program for Johns Hopkins University, testified Tuesday before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has intentionally weakened protective agencies and efforts that are responsible for monitoring the health of the Amazon region.
For example, the Amazon Fund – introduced in 2008 by the United Nations through an initiative to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – has seen significant changes to the rules used to compensate Brazilian landowners, she said.
The fund collects donations for non-reimbursable investments in fighting deforestation efforts from outside countries. Norway is the fund’s largest contributor, accounting for nearly 94% of its resources.
“But in May 2019 the Bolsonaro administration announced its intention to change the rules of the fund to compensate Brazilian landowners who lost their properties on the ground that they were not in compliance with the country’s environmental codes,” de Bolle testified. “The Norwegian government responded by suspending $500,000 in transfers to the Amazon Fund.”
De Bolle said another example of weakening policies is the defunding of an action plan used to monitor the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by the Brazilian government.
“His government has undercut their funding, dismissed personnel and weakened their oversight and enforcement roles. The Brazilian leader has called the law enforcement activities of public environmental agencies excessive, referring to the agencies as ‘factories of fines and other penalties,’” she said.
Daniel Nepstad, executive director of the Earth Innovation Institute – an organization advocating for land, water and food security, reducing tropical deforestation and stabilizing the climate – testified that deforestation efforts have cleared about 6,000 square kilometers of land in the Amazon so far this year. This is on track to be lower than the annual average of 20,000 square kilometers from 1996 to 2005, but above the 4,600 square kilometers in 2012.
China’s involvement in the region also will contribute to deforestation in the coming years, he said, as the country shifts from a large demand for pork to a demand for soybeans.
Bill Millan, director of policy and chief conservation officer with the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, said China’s entry into these kinds of markets is not a good sign.
“We’ve talked about the importance of good governance, I think that the kind of government, the Chinese government, simply does not take these environmental issues very seriously, particularly not when it is outside China,” Millan said.
Congressman Andy Levin, D-Mich., asked witnesses about the most beneficial way for America to help Brazil preserve the Amazon and to hold the country to higher environmental standards.
De Bolle said America should be using trade negotiations to enforce environmental standards on products exported to the country.
“I think the U.S. should use its leverage on that right. The Brazilian government is greatly interested in pursuing some kind of bigger trade agreement with the U.S.,” she said. “And those closer trade relations, that conversation in itself can be used for the U.S. to leverage and try to enforce some of these regulations that are not being met.”
But Nepstad said it’s “a very vulnerable time in Brazil” and unilateral actions like trade restrictions could backfire.
“I think it’s time for sitting down at the table and recognizing that managing a continental-sized forest like the Amazon is a phenomenal task,” he said. “It’s very expensive. Brazil did what no one thought was possible and now it’s time to recognize that and say, ‘How can we help?’”