Deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest: Wildfires and Reinforcing Feedback Loops

    By Justin Lucas

    One of the richest areas of biodiversity and natural resources in the world is the lush Amazon Rainforest in South America. The majority of this rainforest is located in the country of Brazil. For a long time, the Amazon was seen as an impenetrable fortress; however, recent events have shown the cracks in the Amazon’s armor. 

    In 2019 the Amazon burned. Hundreds of thousands of acres were ablaze throughout the year, with the fires continuing into 2020 and 2021. The massive loss of tropical forests presents not only a significant ecological loss but also a massive socioeconomic loss. The Amazon rainforest is one of the only locations on earth where you can find tropical moist forest biomes. This biome type is the most biodiverse in the world, harboring millions of unique species, as well as a plethora of valuable natural resources. These resources are valuable both as a commodity and in their ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Thus, the concern in the burning of the amazon is not just in the massive loss of biodiversity, which although significant pales in comparison to the impending force of climate change. 

    Deforestation of the Amazon not only directly contributes to climate change through the usage of heavy machinery, but it also destroys one of the world’s most valuable carbon sinks and accelerates the pace of global warming. The most concerning aspect of this deforestation; however, is in its status as a proximate cause of the outbreak of wildfires. While the progression of climate change contributes by increasing the severity and length of dry seasons, deforestation creates swathes of land susceptible to burning. An analysis of the 2019 Amazonian fires revealed that “the countries with the most significant deforestation rates, such as Peru (95% of fires in 2018 deforested areas), Colombia (91%), and Brazil (88%), had higher values compared to other countries (59%) undergoing less deforestation”. This concerning statistic reveals a reinforcing feedback loop that could easily lead to the almost complete destruction of the Amazon if left unchecked. 

    The demise of the Amazon has an obvious cause: neoliberal policy changes and the resulting entrance of big agriculture into South American countries. Although these corporations do not directly contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon due to legal restrictions, their indirect effects are tremendous. Brazilian agriculture has experienced a massive boom in recent years due to large corporations such as Cargill and JBS investing heavily in the industry. This has allowed farmers disconnected from the corporations to expand into the Amazon to meet the large demand that these corporations bring with them due to their expansive distribution chains. Various loopholes in anti-deforestation policies allow for these goods to eventually make their way into the hands of corporate entities, thus allowing for its continuation.

    The issue in addressing this crisis is in the fact that it revolves around consumerism, and current cultural norms contribute to increasing the demand for cheap agricultural goods. The two major products that are sourced from areas of deforestation are soybeans and meat. Both of these crops are heavily intertwined in the food cultures of many developed countries. In the fight against large-scale United States dairy distributors, consumers are turning more and more towards alternatives such as soy. This raises a whole new issue as something that is viewed as a sustainable, environmentally-friendly alternative is one of the most unfriendly if improperly sourced. This highlights the difference between something being agriculturally sustainable and being known as a “woke” alternative. 

    The advancement of environmental degradation in Brazil can be attributed to the general political views held by the leader of the county, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is a right-wing politician who has systematically dismantled many of the policies that protect the rights of indigenous people in the Amazon, and that protect the Amazon rainforest from destruction. The Environment Minister of Brazil was quoted as saying that they should take advantage of the fact that “the media attention is almost exclusively on Covid… to open the flood gates and change all the rules and simplify the norms”. This statement was followed by an influx of relaxation of laws promoting sustainability, including ones concerning fines for illegal deforestation, regulation of toxic chemicals used in agriculture, and those restricting mining permits. 

    There is an argument to be made in favor of Bolsonaro’s policy changes; however, this argument largely prioritizes economic development in a rapid fashion versus a sustainable fashion. The primary issue with criticizing this choice is that Brazil is essentially following the path to development that the United States did in the 19th century. This development path is one that largely relies on large corporations and rapid industrialization. While this strategy can be effective in terms of GDP growth, it does not take into account the tremendous environmental damage that occurs as a result of infrastructural development and the income inequality that it promulgates. While the people labor to produce the goods that are in demand, the majority of these goods are exported through large companies that take advantage of the poverty to generate profits by driving down prices. This has been accompanied by large-scale privatization of previously government-controlled assets, summing to the growth experienced largely in the upper echelons of Brazilian society.

    The combination of relaxation of sustainability-focused policies, foreign economic intervention, and rapid industrial infrastructure growth largely showcases the need for change in Brazilian policymaking. The consequence of inaction is continued deforestation and environmental degradation. It is important to balance these goals with the needs of local populations; however. It is a very precarious balance that must be struck between infrastructural development and promotion of sustainable practice, and one that is very hard to achieve in countries with economic profiles similar to that of Brazil. 

    Bibliography

    Yale E360. “Brazil Has Weakened Dozens of Environmental Laws During the Pandemic.” Accessed December 11, 2021. https://e360.yale.edu/digest/brazil-has-weakened-dozens-of-environmental-laws-during-the-pandemic.

    “The Companies Behind the Burning of the Amazon.” Accessed December 11, 2021. http://stories.mightyearth.org/amazonfires/.

    By Justin Lucas One of the richest areas of biodiversity and natural resources in the world is the lush Amazon Rainforest in South America. The majority of this rainforest is located in the country of Brazil. For a long time, the Amazon was seen as an impenetrable fortress; however, recent events have shown the cracks…

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