Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, the massive swath of vegetation that accounts for 10 percent of the world’s known species, is again under siege. Last year alone, over 3,000 square miles were deforested, and if Brazilian President Michel Temer gets his way, a host of new infrastructure projects — dams, man-made waterways, mines — will only accelerate the degradation.
Deforestation in Brazil is nothing new; since 1970, nearly 300,000 square miles have been destroyed. But the rate of deforestation had actually slowed for much of the past decade, reflecting the “Save the Rainforest” initiative supported by countries around the world, including several countries that share the Amazon with Brazil, to reach zero net deforestation by the year 2020.
Now, however, the easing of environmental regulations in Brazil and the desire to combat the country’s brutal recession appear to once again be accelerating the demise of Brazil’s portion of the Amazon, known as Amazonia — deforestation rates were up 29 percent from the previous year. Low humidity caused by the loss of rainforest has already triggered record droughts in Brazil’s northeast. And scientists and environmentalists worry that the construction will not only have its own detrimental effects but also make way for more destructive projects in the world’s largest remaining rainforest, covering an area more than half the size of the contiguous United States.
“It opens the floodgate for any kind of project,” said Philip Fearnside, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and professor at the National Amazon Research Institute who’s researched Amazonia for more than 40 years. “Politicians are very anxious to have the economy recover, but removing environmental restrictions and approving all sorts of projects adds up to environmental and social impacts that are not being considered.”
Temer and his administration have begun to approve dams, waterways, and mines in the Tapajós and Xingu river basins, endangering about one-fifth of Amazonia, which is regarded by scientists as a crucial climate regulator for the planet. The government of Pará state, where the projects are planned, says that the investments will help ease the economic woes of the people who live there and the country as a whole — but the region’s ribeirinhos [traditional riverside communities], along with indigenous tribes who have long relied on the rivers and their ecosystems to survive, may instead be devastated by the results and be forced to leave their homes.
Driving the development is a powerful agroindustrial bloc collectively called the ruralistas, which manages the world’s second-largest soybean industry in Mato Grosso state south of Pará. Ruralistas have lobbied the government for years to gain easier access to the Amazon in order to transport their products, which would require developing industrial waterways with dams and locks that would make the Tapajós and its tributaries in southeast Pará more navigable.
The government plans to build more than 40 hydroelectric dams in the area by 2022. Scientists expect the resultant industrial waterways to flood tens of thousands of hectares of land in the Tapajós, including ribeirinhos and indigenous communities that have been inhabited for generations.
In January, the Brazilian government delegated the task of demarcating indigenous lands — essentially setting up reservations — to the Ministry of Justice, a move widely seen as friendly to agribusiness and hurtful to indigenous peoples. Demarcation had previously been overseen by the National Indigenous Foundation.
On March 10, new Justice Minister Osmar Serraglio appeared to make his stance on indigenous land rights clear when he said “land doesn’t fill up their stomachs” and that he only wants “good living conditions” for them. Serraglio has direct ties to the ruralistas.
“You cannot deny land to indigenous people that are ancestrally attached to it and expect them to continue to exist as a culture,” said Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch. “It’s not just about demarcation; we’re talking about opening indigenous territories to unfettered industrial activity. It’s a huge favor the current government is paying to the ruralistas.”
The development is already under way. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Xingu involved shady deal-making and has already been termed a “disaster.” Nearby, the Pará state government approved the construction license in February for Brazil’s largest gold mine since the notorious Serra Pelada, where at least 100,000 people worked in brutal conditions during the 1980s. The lead engineer who signed off on the project’s environmental impact assessment was later charged with murder for Brazil’s worst-ever tailings spill, which left 19 dead near Samarco’s Minas Gerais state mine.
(The mine won’t be the only one in the region; the world’s largest iron ore mine was recently opened at Canaã dos Carajás.)
In Altamira municipality, near the dam and planned mine, homicide rates have nearly tripled since dam construction commenced. Last October, after receiving multiple death threats for his vocal opposition to deforestation, the municipality’s environment secretary was shot 14 times in front of his home.
Federal prosecutors oppose the mine permit and say communities were not previously consulted for this project. On Feb. 22, a state judge suspended the license for 180 days until dubious land appropriations are resolved; Belo Sun, the Canada-based company heading up the project, said in a press release that it has strong support from communities.
“Pará has a lot of mineral deposits, and indigenous reserves are in the way of these projects,” Fearnside said. “They’re likely to become victims after Congress reduces their stake via land demarcation.”
José Pereira, a local mining co-op leader at the village of Ressaca, frets over what will become of his homeland.
“They’re going to take it all, everything,” he said. “They are giving us two options: 20,000 Reais [$6,400] to get out and fend for ourselves, or move to a pre-fab town. We are resisting, we’re fighting to keep our livelihood. If this mine goes through and tailings were to spill over, we can be sure all that we know will cease to exist.”
With little support from regulators, locals are increasingly relying on the few NGOs and environmentalists to fight back against project initiatives. The outlook is grim.
“We’re talking about an ecosystem,” said Luis de Camões, a federal prosecutor in Pará, “that is fundamental for regulating climate and the hydrological system of the country, the Americas, and humanity.”