Latin America is facing the worst health crisis in its recent history, the consequences of which cannot yet be measured or imagined.
Beyond the human cost, the countries of the region are dealing with economic, migratory and political crises, particularly in Brazil, where the government of Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized internationally for its denialist behaviour in the face of the Covid-19, pandemic, which according to official figures of May 26th, has already caused more than 25,500 deaths.
The Amazon regions in Brazil, Colombia and Peru are among the most affected, and the coronavirus continues to spread among isolated and highly vulnerable communities.
In the face of so much tragedy, one of the only consolations seemed to be the viral videos and photos of animals walking through cities, dolphins swimming in bays that previously they would have never been seen in, and bluer skies in cities usually covered by pollution. Nature seemed to breath as humans shut themselves away.
Unfortunately, the isolation was not as revitalising to the environment as one might think. Among all the slowdown caused by the coronavirus there is one phenomenon that Covid-19 could not stop: the advance of deforestation. Activists, government agencies and NGOS moved away from these areas to limit the spread of the pandemic and yet, as an unwanted consequence, suddenly roads seemed to be clear for deforestation, illegal mining and other illegal extractions to continue.
The Brazilian Amazon this year has registered record levels of deforestation. But is is only the beginning of the tragedy.
The environment minister said the government should use the media’s focus on Covid-19 to hurry through changes to environmental laws
Data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) were analysed in April and demonstrated that deforestation in Brazil had increased by more than 50% in the first quarter of 2020, compared to 2019. Journalist and experts wondered whether this increase could be linked to coronavirus.
This was found to be in the case last Friday. In a video dating from April 22nd , released last week, showed a ministerial meeting where the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, said the government should use the media’s focus on Covid-19 to hurry through changes to environmental laws that might otherwise be challenged in court.
In his words, he said the government should “take advantage of the fact that the attention of the press is on the pandemic to approve infra-legal reforms of deregulation of the environment,” in relation to the Amazon.
According to the data obtained through the monitoring system developed by INPE, deforestation levels in the first three months of the year already exceed all records for the same period since the monitoring system started four years ago.
Between January and March, almost 800 km2 of primary forest in the Brazilian Amazon was cut down, territory which could cover the entire city of Salvador de Bahia or the equivalent of almost four Buenos Aires. The destruction of the forest in April increased by 64% compared to April last year.
These figures are surprising, given that the rates of deforestation are usually lower as the beginning of the year is the rainy season in the Amazon. Heavy rain and flooding rivers make it difficult for fires to spread and for humans to act.
In other words, it looks like this deforestation trend is likely to increase as the year progresses. With the onset of drought, which often last until October, fires spread with ease, as the world observed in July and August last year.
Estimates based on data from the last four years indicate that the level of deforestation in 2020 will likely be between 12,000 km2 and 16,000 km2, representing an increase in the destruction of the Amazon comparable only to the worst times in its history.
12,958 hot spots were recorded in the Colombian Amazon in March of this year, an 276% increase from last year
And this projection was made before the publication of the ministerial meeting which shows that the government has every intention of acting behind the scenes and could further exacerbate a deforestation that could already have possibly irreversible consequences for this generation and future generations around the world.
With the state of Amazonas suffering from the highest level of infection of the new coronavirus in Brazil, this is one of the regions with the least investment in health. The scenario is favourable for illegal activities to continue increasing.
‘That’s what worries me. It’s the confluence of several bad things happening at the same time,” said Sebastian Troeng, Executive Vice President of Conservation International.
Although the situation in Brazil represents the greatest threat to the future of the world’s largest rainforest, the situation in neighbouring Colombia is also alarming.
On the western side of the Amazon, environmentalists warn that the trafficking mafias and garimperios (illegal miners) are not following the quarantine imposed by the government of Iván Duque, and instead are taking advantage of the focus on the health emergency to burn the forest without any impediment or restriction.
Experts fear that the pandemic could stall, or even reverse, the progress made by the Colombian government in controlling deforestation, which has been supported by Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Deforestation has skyrocketed in the country since the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group signed the 2016 Peace Agreements, creating a power vacuum in several parts of the jungle. In 2017, deforestation reached a peak of 220,000 hectares, the equivalent of more territory than the cities Bogotá and Medellín combined. In reaction, aggressive targets were set to reduce the territorial loss of the Amazon, with no apparent results.
But official information from the Environment Ministry on this year’s deforestation figures has not yet been released, although estimates suggest that deforestation in the first four months of this year could be higher than for the whole of last year.
“Unfortunately, because the system is so slow to measure we will be receiving the results of what happened in 2019 as we experience the consequences of 2020” said Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS).
According to the Sinchi Institute, 12,958 hot spots were recorded in the Colombian Amazon in March of this year. In the same period in 2019, this figure was only 4,691 representing an increase of 276%. Hot spots do not necessarily turn into fires, but scientists say 93% of recorded hot spots are later confirmed as forest fires.
Meanwhile, on May 21st the Colombian House of representatives rejected the proposal that sought to protect the Amazon from hydrocarbon exploitation, by 88 votes against and 74 in favour, yet another step in the wrong direction.
As the Covid-19 accelerates in Latin America, declared this week by the WHO as the new global epicentre of the pandemic, the agenda of the most ferocious extractivism does not stop. No longer being scrutinised by the press and civil society, and protected by governments that work for the interests of a few, loggers, cattle ranchers, soja bean producers, miners and traffickers of all kinds continue to rampage over the already dwindling global supply of water, oxygen and biodiversity.
Sonner or later, the pandemic will have passed, but the climate crisis will continue to advance unchecked. As the Amazon fire season approaches, and Brazil continues to be ravaged by the irresponsible and aggressive policies of its president, we fear that the environmental catastrophe will get worse. All the alarms have already been raised..