Out with Bolsonaro, it says on Kretã Kaingang's mouthguard. Kretã Kaingang is coordinator at Brazil's Indigenous Association APIB. Photo: Matheus Alves


The Amazon must not be destroyed in the shadow of the pandemic

The corona pandemic means that attention to the Amazon has decreased. Then Brazil's government takes the opportunity to change laws to reduce protection for the rainforest. Now it is especially important that we demand that the forest and the rights of indigenous peoples be protected, writes Alex Brekke on Amazon Watch Sweden.

The rise of the corona virus has been devastating to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. In Brazil, the mortality rate is covid-19 twice as high among the indigenous peoples compared to the rest of the population. The corona virus has exposed the enormous vulnerability of indigenous societies, which has been made possible by systematic discrimination and down-prioritization for decades. Medical centers in the vicinity of indigenous communities are often poorly equipped and the nearest intensive care unit is hundreds of kilometers away. No field hospitals have yet been set up for indigenous peoples, despite emergency measures being approved by the country's congress in May. Between the necessities and the indigenous peoples is the Senate and the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who has never had much left for those who stand between him and the exploitation of the rainforest.

Indigenous peoples' best protection against infection has been isolation, but even this has proved difficult to implement due to the constant struggle against extraction companies and loggers. The intrusion of outsiders into the territories of indigenous peoples poses an enormous threat to their survival. Even before the pandemic, rights and rainforest defenders were subjected to violence and threats, and despite the fact that large parts of the world have now been put on pause, the devastation of the Amazon rainforest has not slowed down. On the contrary, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased by 55 percent compared with the same period last year, which was also a record year for rainforest destruction.

Reduces environmental protection when the media covers other things

Bolsonaro's government has clarified that rainforest conservation and indigenous peoples' rights do not outweigh short-term economic gains. Recently discovered that the Brazilian Minister of the Environment has proposed to seize the opportunity and reduce environmental protection now that the media is distracted by the pandemic. His proposal is disgusting and undemocratic, but proves the enormous power of the media and civil society. Not even the Brazilian government is comfortable breaking international agreements in a dazzling spotlight.

However, many steps have already been taken towards reduced environmental protection. Three bosses were fired from the country's leading environmental protection authority, IBAMA, in April after conducting a major operation against illegal miners. In May transferred responsibility for federal nature reserves from the environmental agency to the agricultural agency, a telling shift that paves the way for commercial "development" of protected areas.

Most worrying is one new law on land ownership, the third in a row in favor of illegal landowners, awaiting approval. The law would make it possible for anyone to simply self-declare ownership of illegally occupied land, even in the territories of indigenous peoples. This means, in essence, a legalization of so-called "land grabbing", ie that unauthorized people plunder large areas of land.

Authorities have been paralyzed by the pandemic

Authorities tasked with supporting indigenous peoples and protecting the rainforest have not only had resources and new directives cut in the past year, but have also been paralyzed by the pandemic, which has allowed illegal activities to operate undisturbed for several months. Large amounts of rainforest have already been devastated, worrying as it is not yet high season, and will be set on fire later this year, just like last year.

Deforestation has begun to prepare for the destruction season. Sales of bulldozers have so far more than doubled this year compared to last year, and the locals are already seeing a bolder attitude among criminal networks that are taking advantage of the corona crisis and finally expecting legal rights to the land they are soon going to encroach on. They know that they will not be punished for their crimes, they have the government on their side. According to a report from MapBiomas 99 percent of all deforestation in 2019 was illegal, while the number of interventions by environmental protection authorities was significantly fewer than in previous years.

As a precaution against the fire months of the year, and to curb international criticism, the Brazilian government has established a Amazon Council. The Council is chaired by the Vice President, General Hamilton Mourão, who has initiated a militarization of rainforest protection instead of including representatives of the research community, indigenous peoples' organizations or civil society in the Council.

We must not be distracted

The Brazilian government cannot be trusted when it comes to indigenous peoples' rights or environmental protection. The international and civil society must not be distracted by the pandemic to the extent that we leave the devastation of the Amazon unchallenged. It is important that we look at every move by the Brazilian Government and make it clear that we are serious when we say that this must not continue. A government that can not ensure the protection of its citizens or of a globally vital rainforest, should not be traded with. Meat from high-risk areas should not be sold in our stores. Investments in companies that destroy rainforests should not be in our pension funds.

We must stand strong in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and demand stronger protection of their rights and the rainforest. When we support the indigenous peoples' struggle for their territories, the rainforest is automatically protected. In two months, the Amazon will burn again, probably worse than last year, and many indigenous peoples will add another threat to their list. We must show indigenous peoples that we hear their calls, and we must show the Brazilian Government that we are looking through its false facade.

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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