Written by Annette Bross
The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Not only does it regulate temperature outside the Americas and provide the oxygen we need to breathe, the Amazon rainforest also carries water to a substantial part of the South American continent, in turn considered one of the breadbaskets of the world. In the last 40 years, the Amazon has lost an area equivalent to 8.4 million soccer fields, and according to a study by the Climate Observatory published in April 2022, deforestation reached a new monthly peak of 1,012.5 square kilometers. The deforestation has been the result of both legal and illicit mining, as well as the expanding agricultural industry, which is safeguarded by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies. As Brazil holds approximately 60% of the Amazon rainforest, a conflict between economic development and environmental concerns is currently taking place in the region. Due to climate change, deforestation, and wheat shortages as a result of the war in Ukraine, it is crucial for the world to reconsider the importance of such a vital ecosystem and closely watch President Bolsonaro’s policies.
The Bolsonaro Regime
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro came into power in January 2019. During his election campaign the nationalist politician promised to greatly boost the country's economy. He has done so, but at the cost of one of the world's largest and most vital ecosystems. Bolsonaro has publicly stated that his government aims to stop or slow down the deforestation of the rainforest, but behind the scenes there has instead been an active engagement in a campaign to privatize and boost economic development in the Amazon. Not only that but Brazil’s environmental agencies’ budgets also got slashed as their mission of protecting the biggest oxygen producing area of the world is incompatible with Bolsonaro’s economic policies directed toward industrial development inside the rainforest.
At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Brazilian representatives committed to end illegal deforestation by 2028. However, the government has yet to present adequate plans and concrete results toward this goal. The Bolsonaro regime is not the first one to turn a blind eye to actions that harm the Amazon, but it is the first one to encourage land grabs like never before. The Bolsonaro government has actively accelerated the course of the Amazon rainforest’s destruction.
Corruption is one of the most prominent contributing factors to this problem. In 2019 penalties for cutting down trees in protected areas were around 17 billion dollars, but only less than 4% were actually ever collected. This means there is currently a severe lack of implementation of Brazil’s forest protection laws.
Deforestation rates on lands securely held by Indigenous peoples tend to be significantly lower than in other comparable areas, yet Bolsonaro and his allies in Congress have promoted a bill to prevent Indigenous peoples from obtaining legal recognition of their traditional lands. A good example of this are the plans to construct infrastructure along the Tapajos River basin, where several dams are planned to be built. This would deprive indigenous populations, and the flora and fauna of the rainforest, of their access to water.
Mining in the Amazon
Mining is one of Brazil’s most important economic activities as it contributes an estimated gross value of USD 43.7 billion or 2.4% of its GDP. With one of the world's largest iron ore mines in Carajás, Pará, and reserves of 7.2 billion metric tons of iron ore, Vale S.A. is Brazil's largest mining firm and the world’s second-largest iron producer. Iron ore makes up almost 74% of the country’s mining sector based on 2020 tax figures. Brazil is also a significant gold, nickel, tin, and zinc producer. Due to rising gold prices, local gold miners in the Amazon rainforest have recently expanded their operations. These miners are thought to account for around a third of Brazil's total gold production. At the same time, illegal mining accounts for about 15% of gold production.
Local miners and global companies have prioritized their economic needs over environmental protection, despite the fact that this behavior has already resulted in mercury pollution in the water. In the state of Pará, Brazilian authorities estimate that 30 metric tons of illegal gold worth around 1.1 billion USD have been excavated - this is six times more than the legal gold excavated in Brazil. On top of that, 2,300 illegal mining sites have been found in protected areas.
In an effort to extend mining in the Amazon even further, the government introduced bill PL191/2020 in 2020 to regulate commercial mining on protected Indigenous lands. According to InfoAmazonia, almost 2,500 requests have been submitted, encompassing a total area of 5.6 million km2. This includes more than half of Brazil. If the bill is passed, mining might damage 17.6 million hectares (176,000 square kilometers) or 15% of total Indigenous lands in the Amazon. About 97% of these mining demands are concentrated on the territory of 21 isolated tribes, which tend to be the most vulnerable to the consequences of these kinds of operations.
The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has led to the displacement of hundreds of indigenous communities despite said territories having a protected status. Permanently evicting indigenous people from their land is forbidden under article 231 of the Brazilian constitution. As a rippling effect of the displacement of hundreds of people, violence has increased due to the fight for land and natural resources. In addition, Brazil’s indigenous peoples are more likely to assist in illicit mining and be exploited as a result of it.
Given the increasing need for mining activity as a result of the shortages caused by the war between Russia and Ukraine, this could eventually lead to the potential extinction of many of Brazil’s indigenous’ peoples and their rich cultures and ways of life.
The Russian-Ukrainian War and Fertilizer Demands
Brazil is the largest importer of potash, a powder that is obtained from the ashes of burned wood and sometimes used as fertilizer. For the largest part, the country relies on imports of this fertilizer for its grain crops. A quarter of Brazil’s demand for potash has usually been met by Russia, which halted exports due to sanctions following the country’s invasion of Ukraine. President Bolsonaro has used the conflict in Ukraine as the motivation for his newest attempt to gain further access to indigenous lands. During a radio interview, he stated: “This crisis between Ukraine and Russia is a good opportunity for us. We have a bill in Congress that will allow us to exploit those indigenous lands.” Due to the suspension of Russian exports, Brazil will be forced to meet the demand for potash through different methods, and members of Congress will likely vote in favor of the exploitation of indigenous territories.
It's crucial to remember that this discourse about potash is, of course, extremely political, especially with elections coming up in October. Bolsonaro needs to find a solid approach to continue to appeal to a fraction of the Brazilian population, especially since former President Lula da Silva launched his candidacy and became the man leading in the polls to win the October election.
There is now an increase in the demand for Brazil’s agricultural industry as a result of the worldwide wheat shortages due to the war in Ukraine. This increases the internal demand for more potash and fertilizers in order to meet the world's needs and possibly take advantage of this opportunity to grow its economy.
The Amazon Rainforest’s Future
Enhanced mining operations would impact the entire world. In addition to this already critical scenario in which we only have until 2025 to halt irreparable environmental harm, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the issue. Rising demand for wheat and minerals is shifting production to other parts of the globe which may be at greater risk of violence, criminal activities, and corruption. This will impact the supply chain, the livelihoods of the inhabitants, and the environment.
About the author: Annette Bross
Annette holds a bachelor's degree in History from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. She has now moved to the Netherlands to pursue a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. She is passionate about development, climate action, public policy, and security challenges with a strong commitment to social justice. She has experience in researching topics like the influence of soft power in Latin America and the Middle East.
The article was edited by Ruben Pfeijffer