The Amazon is enveloping and lush, a place of stupefying richness. But a powerful web of extractive forces is also at work here.
Every day, thousands of miners, loggers, farmers and ranchers burn or cut roughly 10,000 acres of forest, working to satisfy a growing demand for its resources. They are tiny cogs in a global machine that has destroyed nearly one-fifth of the Brazilian rainforest — an area about the size of California — over the last 35 years, driving more than 10,000 plant and animal species toward extinction.
During an extensive reporting trip through three of the Amazon’s most degraded and deforested states, Inside Climate News met with Indigenous leaders, farmers, ranchers, miners, activists and researchers to talk with them about the destruction and why it continues.
The sequence of that destruction in the Amazon has for decades unfolded like this: The loggers come first, often followed by miners who use the inroads that loggers have cut in the jungle. Then ranchers move in and graze on the pasture where the trees stood, and farmers plant soy and corn in those pastures. More recently, demand for soy has become so great that parts of the Amazon and the neighboring Cerrado region, a savanna biome that’s critically important for climate stabilization, are being converted directly to soy. American grain traders, including Cargill, Bunge and ADM, have profited from this escalating demand.
The Amazon is the biggest in a belt of forests that wraps the planet’s midsection. Its soil and vegetation store 150 billion to 200 billion tons of carbon — roughly five times the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions — helping provide a counterweight to global warming.
If the planet loses the Amazon, it will be almost impossible to maintain that balance.
“A vast amount of carbon would be converted from organic matter into carbon dioxide, and that would add to the carbon dioxide we’re already putting into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels,” said Scott Denning, a Colorado State University atmospheric scientist. “That would be a catastrophe for humanity and for everything else.”
For about a decade, beginning in 2009, deforestation rates in Brazil, which contains 60 percent to 70 percent of the rainforest, declined and then stabilized after the government imposed stronger protections. But in 2019, with President Jair Bolsonaro’s election, that trend quickly reversed. Since the right-wing former military captain took office, the annual deforestation rate has increased, rising nearly 60 percent from 2020, according to a Brazilian research institute. Bolsonaro has called recent government data on deforestation a “lie.”
The reversal has been so convincingly tied to Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies and rhetoric, his critics say, that advocacy groups, Indigenous tribes and some of the world’s most prominent human rights lawyers believe the president should be prosecuted as a criminal on a par with genocidal dictators or the architects of war crimes.
So far, four complaints against Bolsonaro have been filed with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accusing him of crimes against humanity. The complaints could help persuade the court to adopt a new crime — ecocide — as the fifth international crime, along with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and waging illegal war. It would be the first crime to have nature, not humanity, as the victim, and was defined this year by an independent legal panel as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment.”
The complaints to the court will take years to play out. But they bring to the world’s legal stage a longstanding conflict between industries that have exploited the Amazon’s resources and the Indigenous people who’ve lived in the rainforest for millennia.
The outcome of that conflict now has consequences for the entire planet.
Indigenous tribes in the Amazon are on the front lines of the climate battle, and increasingly, scientific research demonstrates that Indigenous land rights are critical for solving the climate crisis. When tribes have clear ownership of their land, the forest remains intact, and otherwise dangerous carbon stays locked away in roots and soils.
“Without the forest, we Indigenous people cannot live and humanity cannot live,” Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, one tribal leader represented in the complaints, said in an interview at his village in the Sete de Setembro reservation. So, he added, Bolsonaro “is making genocide against the world.”
The Bolsonaro administration did not reply to requests for comment from Inside Climate News.