Recent Flooding a Wake-up Call to Climate Change
Increasingly severe weather irregularities are making Brazil’s environmental issues of more pressing importance to national and global policies. The existence of climate change no longer appears to be much of a debate for Brazil, in light of the unusual and frightfully destructive flooding in the north this May that killed forty-four people and left more than 180,000 homeless. This is not to say that flooding is not uncommon in the Amazon region given its heavy annual rainfall, but the fact that it came in such unexpected quantities implied that there is climate change already occurring at disturbing magnitudes. This has been compounded by droughts in the south that were the worst Brazil has seen in 80 years. Another side effect of climate change has been the desertification of the northeastern Sertão region, a semi-arid region that suffers from comparatively low rainfall and droughts. Its caatinga scrub-forest vegetation has also suffered similar environmental degradation as it too has been mainly destroyed by cattle farming. “Brazil is feeling climate changes that are happening in the world, when there is severe drought in areas that don’t have drought, when it rains too much in places where it doesn’t rain,” observed Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in his weekly radio talk after the flooding.3 This is quite a statement from a known skeptic of environmental matters, as he is only now admitting that the world needs to be more careful with the planet as a whole.4
Brazil’s recent bout of flooding has brought to the forefront the fact that the partial destruction of the Amazon rainforest is a significant culprit of global warming. As the rainforest is one of the largest natural resources, when properly functioning, it actually counteracts the global pollution. Presently, Brazil’s contribution to global pollution levels at this point stems almost entirely from the destruction of the rainforest, as 75 percent of Brazil’s contribution to global greenhouse emissions is a result of deforestation. Brazil’s tropical climate is extremely influential to climate change and is particularly delicate in terms of its ability to store carbon and the amount of rainfall produced. Consequently, given the fragile environmental conditions in Brazil, deforestation of hills, slopes, and river banks also contribute to the severity of recent flash floods and landslides.5
Climate change does not take borders into account. In spite of Brazil’s concerns over its national sovereignty, the international community needs to recognize that Brazil needs the assistance of the rest of the world in order to police illegal rainforest activities and help create alternative sources for jobs. This would allow Brazil to continue improving its quality of life and prudently develop economically without destroying the rainforest. The international community, through foreign governments, businesses, non-profits and foundations, needs to be involved in preparing funds for enforcement of existing environmental legislation and the introduction of technology that would make better use of the world’s resources in order to protect the rainforest. These funds would be used not only to curb illegal logging, but also finance sustainable development and alternative lifestyles. There needs to be a better way to make use of already deforested land that would bring about a more efficient solution, such as developing agriculture on previously deforested areas, rather than creeping further into the vernal Amazon region.
Some countries and organizations have already heeded the call. Norway has donated $1 billion to the Amazon Fund and Germany is expected to make a substantial donation in the future. Private companies, such as Marriott Hotels, have donated $8.1 million, which is being put to create a state bank system that would allocate money to 6,000 families in exchange for their promise to preserve the trees on their land.
As suggested by its name, the UN Collaborative Programme on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) is focusing on combating the deforestation caused by environmental degradation. It recognizes the difficulties for developing countries to choose between saving their natural resources for future generations and exploiting them for immediate profit that could be used for development. Currently, REDD has no incentives to motivate individuals or institutions towards taking the voluntary steps needed to preserve the rainforest. Initiatives are also necessary so the population can personally benefit from maintaining the Amazon rainforest as a coherent ecological entity.
The Domestic Issue
The deforestation of the Amazon is tarnishing Brazil’s reputation as a leader in renewable energy sources. There are certain issues that Brazilians need to take upon themselves, such as by the protection of the forest from cattle ranchers and loggers. The Amazon is estimated to store 80-120 billion tons of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when each tree is cut down. According to the Brazilian authorities, the cattle industry is responsible for 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation. On average, one hectare of rainforest is destroyed every 18 seconds due to the industry.
The lack of Brazilian government oversight is proving to be a reason why the cattle sector can so easily expand into the rainforest regions illegally. Increased soy bean production began encroaching into the land previously used for cattle farming, pushing ranchers to look for other unoccupied lands to raise their cattle. The easiest and cheapest place for them to look is the Amazon rainforest due to the inability of the Brazilian government to prevent land grabbing of federal lands.
Participation on the state and national levels is needed to achieve the goal of preserving the rainforest. State governments need to enforce the laws through stricter land titles for those that legally inhabit the rainforest, as well as better policing the Amazon region without corrupt forces. Forces undermining their authority show that there must be plans and policies implemented so that ranchers do not encroach on the rainforest region and so that earmarked funds are being funneled in the proper manners.
Brazil has consistently maintained that providing the funds to prevent deforestation would be too burdensome for the Brazilian economy to bear unilaterally. However, Brazil recently proposed lending $10 billion to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an attempt to prove that developing countries can effectively pay their loans from the IMF and at the same time provide an opportunity for developing countries to receive aid during the economic recession. If Brazil is capable of contributing to the IMF, then the vital $1.5 billion dollar budget for the Ministry of Environment is proving to be an increasingly inadequate amount for the conservation of the Amazon. The donation to the IMF demonstrates Brazil’s determination to becoming increasingly active in global issues and therefore such actions as these will serve as motivation for it to make Brazil’s environmental issues as an international priority.
Alarmingly, the current situation is not looking optimistic for the survival of the Amazon. As of now only 4 percent of Amazon land is privately owned. Bill 458, which would legalize the occupation of large deforested areas of the Amazon by local company, has already been ratified by the Brazilian Senate and is currently in President Lula’s hands. This measure is intended to regulate the situation and facilitate the enforcement of environmental laws.6 The legislation ignores most of Brazil’s environmental laws and justifies the illegal land-grab for personal gains.
Developing countries have come to understand the importance of reducing emissions and taking preventative measures against climate change, since they are heavily dependent on the natural orderly functioning of nature and the challenge of engaging appropriate agricultural pursuits. The deforestation of the Amazon decreases Brazil’s resilience to climate change, with the harshest effects felt by impoverished population, as the food and energy sectors of the affected regions become increasingly shaped by temperature changes.
However, there have been some positive developments to Brazil’s energy sector. As a pathfinder in the bio-fuel industry, the production of sugar cane ethanol has become the energy source for 40 percent of Brazil’s cars. Bio-fuels represent an important strategy against greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. However, such practices may lead to more environmental issues, as the lands that were once used for agriculture, farming and ranching have now become a habitat for development of the energy sector. Large scale production may have significant side effects, including contributing to pollution problems. It is certainly one of the reasons the cattle industry is being pushed further and further into the Amazon rainforest.
Since President Lula’s presidency began in 2002, he has spurred development in Brazil to bolster its position in the international community, an effort that has proved to not be environmentally sound. Only in recent years has he begun to recognize the environmental concerns of his country as an issue of importance. Fear of the erosion of sovereignty over the Amazon due to U.S. influences during the Bush Administration, made Brazil reluctant to receive outside assistance or advice. However, with the change of administration in Washington, there are efforts to reach bilateral as well as multi lateral agreements. The Obama and Lula administrations have been attempting to create the groundwork for a forest-related provision in the global climate treaty scheduled to be signed in December 2009 in Copenhagen.
According to the Sustainable Amazon Foundation, the best hope for the Amazon would be to put a “market value” on the rainforest so its value would be officially established and paid for by Brazil, other members of the international community, and big multi-nationals who currently aid in its destruction through their support of the cattle industry.7 This would indicate that the rainforest was internationally protected and confirm the fact that a global initiative to protect it was now in place. The devastation is a result of business activities, and the strongest protection would be to make it worth more than the mining, farming, lumber, or cattle industries combined which presently help to destroy it, representing a rational protecting mechanism. The companies profiting from the loss of the Amazon due to cattle farms and ranchers need to take a part in paying reparations for the damages caused and to prevent future illegal movements into what should be restricted zones.
For now, Brazil and the rest of the world have to decide how important the preservation of their rainforests is to them and how much they are actually concerned about the future of the planet. The issue is no longer about what people are doing but what they are not doing. Therefore, Brazilian authorities need to be more focused and willing to reorganize their priorities. The government has begun to consider climate change as an urgent global problem that requires an adequate response from the international community, saying that “different countries bear different responsibilities for causing the problem and should face the next steps in the international effort accordingly. We are doing our part and we are ready and engaged to do even more.”8 If only this meant that Brazil would stop allowing deforestation and the international community would help Brazil enact the necessary measures for the preservation of the world’s greatest natural resources in the fight against global climate change.