Amazon deforestation could unleash a wave of pandemics sooner than we think
Picture the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the novel coronavirus spread from Wuhan, China, global deaths from COVID-19 have surpassed 400,000. Economic loss estimates range from an optimistic $3.3 trillion up to $82 trillion in case of a depression. And social norms changed overnight as people adjusted to self-isolation, face coverings, and social distancing.
Now imagine the world coping with a new pandemic every month. This is not a prophecy or a piece of dark fiction, and surely not a plot for an upcoming Hollywood flick. This is what the world's leading climate scientists are warning will happen when, not if, the planet's ecological balance with microorganisms tips over, unleashing waves of pandemics of varying severity.
At the heart of this cataclysmic scenario is the loss of global ecological reservoirs, such as the Amazon rainforest, which maintains the delicate balance between the natural world and the human colony. But despite the recent fires that ravaged the rainforest and drew global calls for action, Jair Bolsonaro's right-wing government is encouraging rapid deforestation to facilitate agribusinesses owned by political establishment figures with links to Brazil's military and police.
Antonio Oviedo, a researcher at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), a nonprofit defending indigenous rights in Brazil, told The Real News that deforestation in the Amazon in the first three months of 2020 was 51% higher than in the corresponding period last year. "And it shot up by a whopping 170% in April compared to April 2019, and about 90% of this deforestation is illegal," Antonio added worryingly. Terra Brasilis, another Brazilian organization, estimates the current year (Aug 2019-Jul 2020) is the worst ever for deforestation, with almost 6000 km2 of the Amazon chopped down. That's almost twice the area cleared last year.
According to Greenpeace, the present waves of deforestation "pose a serious and imminent threat to the roughly one third of indigenous land that has not yet been demarcated by the state, and will encourage even greater deforestation." Bolsonaro's government has tried to pass legislation in recent weeks to legalize huge land seizures, mostly comprising indigenous territories. The proposed law is still before Brazil's congress and is expected to go to a vote in the coming weeks.
Dismantling of Environmental Institutions and Safeguards
To facilitate large-scale agribusinesses and other commercial use of the Amazonian forest, Bolsonaro's government has employed tactics such as defunding regulatory bodies and relaxing environmental safeguards through executive orders. A number of indigenous lands in Brazil await formal approval from the president's office for their protected status. On April 16, the government agency which implements policies relating to indigenous people, FUNAI, received instructions that those lands can be made available for agribusiness. Claudio Angelo, spokesperson for the Climate Observatory organization in Brasilia, estimates some 90 indigenous territories out of more than 700 lands are awaiting the president's signing, the last step in a lengthy bureaucratic land claim process.
The pressure on federal regulatory agencies to relax rules has emboldened illegal operators who have reportedly moved inside protected lands. Oviedo says an estimated 20,000 illegal gold miners are inside the Yanomami lands alone-the largest of indigenous tribes located in the north of Brazil, with lands equaling the size of Portugal-"and they are within 5 kilometers of local tribes." He added that in March FUNAI enacted a law forbidding outsiders from entering the protected lands, "but illegal miners are crossing over freely, increasing the risk for native populations' exposure to COVID-19."
Despite the attempts by native tribes to self-isolate and move deep inside the forest, COVID-19 has spread to indigenous communities, causing the deaths and suffering forewarned by experts. According to the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai), Brazil's federal body for providing healthcare for the native peoples, 2085 indigenous people have tested positive for COVID-19, and 82 have died so far. But the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Association (APIB), which tracks all indigenous cases, has reported 2600 cases and 247 deaths among 94 ethnic groups. APIB claims the actual count is likely much higher due to underreporting.
And health provisions are nauseatingly inadequate because of the budget cuts that severely constrain Sesai and its suboffices from delivering healthcare to the native people. Problems caused by Sesai's shoestring budget are compounded by low staffing and a dearth of ventilators, and the nearest healthcare units are located nearly 200 miles from native communities, reports suggest. "Medical facilities are working as hubs for spreading COVID-19 because of untrained staff and indigenous people have reportedly contracted COVID-19 after visiting there," Oviedo told The Real News. "Also, food security is becoming another problem and indigenous people are told to go to cities for food assistance, which serves as an invitation to get the virus and take it back to the community," he added.
A Pandemic A Month
This systematic dismantling of regulatory bodies and healthcare systems that protect the Amazon and its native people has already resulted in massive deforestation and created conditions for environmental catastrophe of epic proportions. In an exclusive interview with The Real News, Dr. Carlos Nobre, the leading environmental scientist in Brazil, said all new COVID and SARS viruses that cause epidemics and pandemics are generated by the lack of ecological balance with microorganisms.
"There are hundreds of species of coronavirus present in the Amazon and there are hundreds of thousands of other types of viruses found there," Dr. Nobre said. "If we disturbed this most diverse sanctuary of biological diversity that would mean disturbing the ecological balance of millions of species of microorganisms. If we moved beyond the tipping point in the next few decades, we have to be prepared for one pandemic a month."
Dr. Nobre adds the native people of the Amazon survived in the forest for 11,000 years because of their sense of maintaining a balance with the natural world. "Given the number of microorganisms existing in the forest, you can be certain that a virus or bacteria would have exterminated them. But they are very smart and they evolved the vision of living with the forest. And for 11,000 years there was not a single pandemic across the indigenous communities." He lamented that the number of indigenous people in Brazil fell from 10-15 million to a mere 70,000 in the 1940s. "We're the ones to cause that imbalance and bringing viruses to these native tribes."
Dr. Nobre's three decades of research also warn of the Amazon reaching a tipping point in the face of growing deforestation, urbanization and global warming. "Those three factors happening simultaneously are driving a very large portion of the forest becoming a dry savanna (a drier forest compared to tropical rainforest where it rains all year). In our estimates, we are seeing 50%-60% of the Amazon almost at the edge of suburbanization and the tipping point almost being crossed because the forest in those areas are becoming drier." He warned that if global warming and deforestation is not halted, most of the Amazon will irreversibly begin the transition to savanna, inevitably disturbing the ecological balance.
The Right-Wing Orchestration of Death and Destruction
Dr. Nobre blames the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro for encouraging illegal activity inside the Amazon. "The political discourse the president has been issuing since he came into office in January 2019 has been encouraging environmental criminals because they feel there will be no punishment." He observed that Brazil's law-enforcing agencies have shrinking budgets, and some of the heads of divisions were fired because they were acting lawfully. "So, the message that went to the Amazon criminals was, we are never going to jail anymore because we have a president who supports what we are doing, who supports opening up more areas, who supports invasion of indigenous territories for illegal mining for illegal selective logging."
Christian Poirier of Amazon Watch echoes Dr. Nobre's sentiment.
In an interview with The Real News, Poirier said the Bolsonaro regime has been an abject disaster for the Amazon, its peoples, and for the planet. "When we saw essentially fascists come into power last year with a package of regressions, regressive actions to cut down hard-fought human rights and environmental protections, we saw a process that has led us to the catastrophe we're seeing today, which is actually not being talked about enough." He lamented that not enough is being said about the catastrophic impact the Amazon's destruction will have on the climate crisis, and that "all of this is being spurred simultaneously by this recklessly, this criminally irresponsible regime."
Highlighting the mitigation actions Amazon Watch is undertaking, Christian Poirier said: "We helped spearhead a moratorium on all industrial activities and criminal activities in and around indigenous territories during the COVID crisis that were signed onto by more than 200 global organizations and endorsed by all of the principal indigenous federations and organizations in the Amazon areas in which we work." He said this action calls on governments to fulfill their duties, and for companies to be mindful of the consequences of their actions in the Amazon. "These businesses should know their activities are exacerbating this crisis gravely and they need to respect the moratorium at this critical moment," he asserted.
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