A football pitch of rainforest lost each minute

Two worlds collide: These contrasting images, taken in 1986 and 2018, show the extent of deforestation.

Who owns the rainforest? Deforestation in the Amazon has increased by 30% in the past year, with many blaming Brazil’s president. Activists say the precious ecosystem is not his to destroy.

The Amazon rainforest is home to 360 billion trees and one in 10 of the Earth’s known animal species. Its dense canopy and winding rivers cover 5.5 million sq km of South America. And, now, this rich ecosystem is being torn down at a rate of one football pitch every minute.

According to the Brazilian space agency, INPE, deforestation has accelerated by 29.5% in just 12 months, reaching its highest rate since 2008. Between August 2018 and July 2019, almost 10,000 sq km of rainforest was lost.

While it sprawls into eight countries, the majority of the Amazon lies in Brazil, where it covers an area half the size of Europe. This puts it at the mercy of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose commitment to development over conservation has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump.

Nicknamed “Captain Chainsaw”, Bolsonaro’s government stands accused of undoing years of work to protect the rainforest. Since he was elected in January, convictions for environmental crimes have plummeted. Land-grabbers, miners, loggers and agribusiness have capitalised as officials turn a blind eye.

The situation worsened in August, when vast areas of the rainforest were engulfed in fires. Many of the blazes had been deliberately started on so-called “fire days” by groups of farmers, who wanted to use the land to graze cattle. The number of fires has risen 85% since last year.

Often called the “lungs of the planet”, the Amazon rainforest absorbs millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year and produces around 6% of the oxygen we breathe.

The recurrent fires are a particular concern for the global fight against the climate crisis. Trees in a humid forest like the Amazon have not evolved to cope with fires. Once they have burned, the forests hold 25% less carbon even after three decades of regrowth.

“Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us,” said Al Gore, former US vice-president, in 1989 when he was a senator. Three decades later, his words are more poignant and contentious than ever.

Who really owns the Amazon?

Jewel of the Earth

Brazil, says Bolsonaro, citing national sovereignty: the principle that every state can decide its own affairs without interference. When Emmanuel Macron offered an aid package to protect the Amazon, Bolsonaro declined it. As president of a colonised nation, he understands the risks of being indebted to wealthier rivals who use economic muscle to get their own way. These concerns should not be dismissed out of hand.

But the state of the Amazon is a test case for many future battles to come. “The climate crisis will strain the usefulness of seemingly simple concepts — like national sovereignty,” writes Quinta Jurecic in The New York Times. From the burning rainforests to the melting ices of Greenland, we will have to reimagine the ownership of the natural world as something global — belonging to everyone and no one — in order to survive.

You Decide

  1. Does the Amazon belong to everyone?
  2. Is it wrong to use the rainforest for profit?

Activities

  1. Find out three interesting facts about a species of animal that is unique to the Amazon.
  2. Research an indigenous community living in the Brazilian Amazon and prepare a short presentation about its relationship with the rainforest.

Some People Say...

“We cannot remove the evils of capitalism without taking its source of power: ownership.”

Neil Kinnock, British Labour politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Scientists are extremely concerned that the Amazon is close to a tipping point known as a “dieback”. Between 15 and 17% of the Amazon rainforest has already been lost. If the amount of cleared forest land reaches 25%, there won’t be enough trees cycling moisture through the rainforest. This will cause the rainforest to dry out and become a desert.
What do we not know?
Who ought to own the Amazon. The question has always been fraught, with many Brazilians holding a suspicion that the real goal of foreigners is to take control of Brazil’s tropical rainforest and its riches. In the 1980s, military generals drew up a plan to “occupy it to avoid surrendering it”. They built highways in the Amazon and encouraged Brazilians to seize land.

Word Watch

360 billion trees
From at least 16,000 species, compared with just 72 species of trees in all of the US.
Years of work
Deforestation slowed dramatically between 2004 and 2018, when past governments introduced fines and protective policies.
Land-grabbers
Wealthy individuals from distant cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba hire “grileiros” (land-grabbers) to invade and clear the forest, then bribe officials to gain ownership of the land. The value of the land can rise up to 100 times its original value. Most of it goes unused.
Agribusiness
Farming business, often large companies that farm livestock and crops on a mass scale.
Poignant
Evoking sadness or regret.
Contentious
Likely to cause an argument.
Colonised
Brazil was first colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and settlers from other European countries followed. Bolsonaro’s family is of Italian and German descent. Today, only 0.4% of Brazil’s population is indigenous.

Subjects

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