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Environment

Fracking could bring earthquake risk to Manaus

It is an often repeated falsehood that Brazil is unaffected by natural disasters. The floods that cause destruction in cities and villages around the country’s Southeast on an annual basis are an easy way to debunk this claim — while aggravated by nonsensical urban planning and lack of investment in damage limitation measures, these heavy rains are undoubtedly natural phenomena.

However, the sentiment behind the statement that “Brazil doesn’t have natural disasters” is really referring to earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. In this respect, yes, Brazil is almost completely untouched by these potentially deadly events. But, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Campinas and the University of Córdoba in Argentina, this may be about to change — and human interference is to blame.[restricted]

Disturbing the peace

The study in question focuses on the city of Manaus, which sits upon a vast shale gas basin that the Mines and Energy Ministry has coveted for potential fracking projects. The practice, which involves injecting high-pressure fluids into fractured bedrock to extract shale gas, has a risk of disrupting and increasing stress on local underlying tectonic plates — the result of which may be increased seismic activity, which could cause catastrophe in a city such as Manaus.

The lack of earthquakes in Brazil can be explained by the fact that the entire country sits on the massive South American tectonic plate, which also spans far over the Atlantic Ocean toward Africa. On the west side of the continent, however, the South American Plate meets the Nazca Plate in the Pacific Ocean, which created the Andes mountain range and causes a number of earthquakes from Ecuador down to Chile.


earthquake manaus fracking

While the practice of fracking does not directly disturb local tectonics and lead to earthquakes, byproducts from the process have been proven to affect seismic activity. After the hydraulic fracturing is carried out, the water injected to extract the gas has to be disposed of. Typically, it is stored in huge wells for long periods of time, thus penetrating into tectonic faults and causing a higher risk of earthquakes.

The study points to other examples in the literature that show increased seismic activity caused by hydraulic fracturing in the U.S., Canada, and China. 

Fracking: the risk for Manaus

A large part of the 1.8 million population of Manaus live in precarious housing. There are some 653,000 dwellings in the city proper and, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), over half are of a poor standard, be they in slums, unlicensed settlements, or in makeshift homes built on stilts at the banks of the Negro River. Basic sanitation infrastructure and necessary services are already lacking in these areas, and they would be extremely vulnerable in the case of increased seismic activity in the Manaus metropolitan region.

Considering the probabilities of induced tremors and earthquakes, the researchers estimated that the city would incur average yearly losses of USD 189 million in building damages were fracking activities to be set up close to its metropolitan boundaries.

Furthermore, the characteristics of the precarious housing in Manaus means that even relatively mild seismic events could result in significant destruction. The study calculated high values of loss even when earthquakes of a maximum magnitude of 5.0 were expected.

According to Luiz Vieira, one of the study’s researchers, the extent of the potential damage lies in the fact that Brazil has never had to contest with earthquakes before, and as such, its building codes do not take these risks into account — a problem exacerbated in a city such as Manaus, with so many homes build irregularly.

“Brazilian construction rules are not prepared to design buildings that are protected from seismic shocks, as it’s not something that happens a lot in the country. This study intends to show what could happen, and how we can prevent it,” he explained.[/restricted]

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Environment

The catastrophic effects of Pantanal fires on wildlife

After being ravaged by fire, Brazil’s Pantanal wetland is set to endure a long and severe period of famine, with several animal and plant species at risk of extinction. These are just some of the direct and indirect consequences for the biome, which has been burning out of control for over two months thanks to a series of forest fires that have already destroyed 23 percent of the Pantanal this year alone.

The potential impact for the fauna and flora in the Pantanal — the largest wetland in the world — are laid out in a report by the Instituto Homem Pantaneiro, the organization in charge of several environmental reserves within the Pantanal, specifically in the Serra do Amolar region.

The findings are attached to the Federal Police’s inquiry into the wave of fire outbreaks, which investigates four farmers for allegedly starting blazes that destroyed over 25,000 hectares of vegetation.[restricted]

Irreversible changes for wildlife

The Pantanal is home to a huge wealth of wildlife species, including at least 130 mammals, 80 reptiles, 460 birds, 30 amphibians, and 260 different types of fish. Among the most famous animals in the region, jaguars are suffering from the effects of the widespread fires, alongside tapirs, deer, alligators, toucans, Tuiuiu storks, snakes, and macaws.

The Instituto Homem Pantaneiro report shows that the biome’s animals will suffer from increased exposure to predators, changes in their habitats and diet, as well as being forced into changing behavioral and migratory patterns. Some species may even go extinct. According to the institute’s technical coordinator Letícia Larcher, various species of plants could disappear for some time, as the region’s organisms will all react differently to the fire crisis. “For instance, one type of plant may take longer to respond when the rain comes than others around it. Animals that are associated with this plant may then require more time to adapt to the burned environment,” she explains.

pantanal wetlands wildfires
Firefighters in the Pantanal. Photo: Christiano Antonucci/Secom/MT

Dr. Larcher explains that species are set to see significant changes to their eating and migratory habits. “When a fire destroys such a large area, the nutritional content of animals’ food is affected. Fires have left animals without food, forcing them to forage in dangerous areas where they may be killed by humans or other predators. They could also starve to death.”

Some already endangered animals are likely to be put at even more risk. “Take the giant anteater as an example. It is slow, and it has a dense coat that is susceptible to fire. And they feed off ants, which live in the soil. So what happens when this soil is scorched?” says Dr. Larcher.

The jaguar effect

NGO S.O.S Pantanal carried out its own study to identify the direct effects of the fires on the animals living in the wetland biome. The most common impacts were burns, smoke poisoning, and death.

In a standard fire season, jaguars, for instance, can seek refuge in floodplains, rivers, or lakes that are largely safe from blazes. This year, however, as a result of prolonged droughts, these safe areas are fewer and further between. Furthermore, the sheer size of the fires makes escape more difficult, and many animals end up injured or killed by the flames.

The jaguar finds itself right in the middle of another potential effect of the Pantanal fires, one that is potentially even more devastating. As a top-of-the-chain predator, the jaguar naturally regulates the populations of smaller predators. After becoming even more endangered amid the fire crisis, the lack of jaguars will see lower-level hunters booming in population, and consequently, several prey species could begin to struggle.

There are also big concerns about the hyacinth macaw. The largest population of the species in the world lives in the Pantanal, where it eats fruits from the acuri trees. With the fire striking as the acuri begin to bear fruit, the birds will be left with nothing to eat.

Pantanal plants and fungi under threat

In the Kew Gardens’ State of the World’s Plants and Fungi — a comprehensive study into the diversity of vegetables and fungi around the world — Brazil is listed as the country which discovers the most new species of plants, with an average of 200 per year — last year saw 216 discoveries. Brazil is the home of the most plant and fungus species in the world, with over 41,000 described species, just under half of them being endemic to the country. And even this undersells Brazil’s potential in biodiversity, with new species being discovered that can be used in food, medicine, fuel, and materials.

Among the new species identified in 2019 in Brazil were two wild forms of cassava, one type of sweet potato, and a new species of yam — all of which have agricultural potential. “The discovery of new species of cassava is of worldwide importance, as 800 million people have diets based on this plant family,” reads the report. New species may be planted directly or crossed with other types of cassava to improve disease resistance or tolerance to climate changes.

Brazil also saw 24 new species of guava, jabuticaba, and pitanga fruits. Even some well-studied plant families have seen new discoveries: there were 24 novel species of orchids and seven bromeliads. However, the study notes that two out of every five plant species in the world are near extinction.

The researchers say that avoiding the extinction of vegetables is a way of protecting the human species. Besides helping to regulate climate and contribute to water supply, plants also provide food, fuel, and medicine.[/restricted]

Categories
Environment

Amid drought and slews of garbage, the Paraguay River is drying up

The 2,695-kilometer long Paraguay River is one of the biggest and most important rivers in all of South America. Winding through four countries, it is a key part of regional economies and tourism in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. 

But this historic river is beginning to dry up.

Thanks to a prolonged drought that has aggravated the wave of forest fires throughout the Pantanal wetlands region, the Paraguay River has hit its lowest water level since 1969.[restricted]

In response, the Paraguayan government declared a state of “hydrological emergency,” calling on the country’s state-owned sanitation company to put together a task force to avoid water and energy shortages. The low levels of the river could cut output of hydroelectric dams in the region by half.

An investigation into the drying river showed that drought is not the only factor to blame: the river bed is plagued by an enormous amount of garbage. On an average waste-collection operation in the Paraguay River and its tributaries, over 1,000 tons of garbage are often removed.

In the town of San Antonio, just south of Paraguayan capital Asunción, the river banks are littered with tires, half buried in the sand below.

The damage to the river is not just an environmental issue, as over 80 percent of Paraguay’s foreign trade is dependent on river transportation. Of all the meat, grain, agricultural, and forestry commodities exported by the country, 65 percent relies on ships travelling up and down the Paraguay River. 

The Paraná-Paraguay waterway, among the largest in the world, starts in the town of Puerto Cáceres, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, and flows all the way down to the Uruguayan city of Nueva Palmira. In Brazil alone, this complex is responsible for the transportation of at least 56 million tons of products each year. When taking all five countries into account, this total jumps to 184 million tons, according to Brazil’s National Waterway Transport Agency (Antaq). 

In light of the risks to transport with falling water levels, Paraguay’s Public Works Ministry announced a dredging project, consisting of excavating the riverbed to increase the draft by the end of 2022. The project is valued at PYG 105 billion (USD 1.8 million).

Looking to the future

According to the Paraguayan Center for Fluvial and Maritime Shipowners (Cafym), the current situation of the river is “discouraging,” with analysis indicating that low levels will persist over the next five years. Furthermore, if rainfall is sparse at the end of the year, oppressively high temperatures in the region could lead to all-time negative records in the river’s water levels. On Friday, temperatures hit 44 degrees Celsius in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. 

With a projected GDP growth of -1 percent in 2020 and more than 80,000 jobs lost during the pandemic — predominantly in border regions — Paraguay will be hoping to avoid environmental setbacks which could result in further economic hardship. 

Indeed, the member nations of Mercosur — the trade bloc comprising Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay — are being put under the microscope when it comes to sustainability and climate change issues, as a result of the group’s historic trade deal with the European Union.

Brazil has already caused the bloc problems, angering European Union members with the government’s laissez-faire attitude toward deforestation. The situation in the Paraguay River and surrounding ecosystems is unlikely to help matters.[/restricted]

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Environment

Bolsonaro to open up indigenous lands to miners

On Monday afternoon, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro launched the Mining and Development Program, which, among other things, intends to regulate mining activities on protected indigenous lands. 

Drawn up by the Mines and Energy Ministry, the plan includes 108 targets and guidelines to be implemented over the next three years. While also including provisions for mining in border areas and fast-tracking licenses, the possibility of allowing mining in indigenous territories is by far the most controversial aspect of the program.[restricted]

Jair Bolsonaro has had his eye on exploiting indigenous lands ever since taking office as president. “Whatever we can do for you to have autonomy over your geographical perimeters, we will do,” said Mr. Bolsonaro in April last year, after a meeting with indigenous leaders. “In [the state of] Roraima, there are BRL 3 trillion [USD 500 billion] under the ground. And Indians have the right to explore this rationally. Indians cannot keep being poor on top of rich land,” he added.

In February, Mr. Bolsonaro submitted a bill regulating the exploitation of mineral, water, and organic resources on indigenous reservations. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia set up a special committee to discuss the matter, but debates were brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

President Bolsonaro’s plan will face significant opposition. The Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) demands that indigenous communities be consulted before new rules are decided upon. The Federal Prosecution Service agrees, recommending to the government that “surveys and extraction of mineral resources on indigenous lands should only be allowed with authorization from Congress, consulting the affected communities and guaranteeing them a share in the mining profits.”

The real impacts of mining on indigenous lands

A study published in scientific journal One Earth on September 18 concludes that allowing mining to go ahead in these new lands could impact 863,000 square kilometers of forests in Brazil’s Legal Amazon — 20 percent more than under current rules — and also losses of up to USD 5 billion with the ecosystemic benefits these territories provide, such as regulating rains, reducing carbon emissions, and producing food. The paper is authored by researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP), Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and the University of Queensland in Australia. 


mining indigenous lands
Sources: Forest cover (PRODES, 2018); Indigenous lands (FUNAI, 2020); Conservation units (MMA, 2020)

As the researchers point out, Mr. Bolsonaro’s original proposal does not include any environmental or social safeguards and dismisses the need for studies on the impact of setting up new mines.

When setting up a mine in the Amazon, all vegetation in a 70 kilometer radius must be deforested. “The impacts are direct — when they are related to the facilities required for the activity — and indirect, when we consider the structure needed for access, transport, and provision of services, among other things,” explained Britaldo Soares-Filho, head of the Remote Sensory Center of the Geoscience Institute at UFMG, in a university publication. His team assessed economic losses based on the value of four ecosystemic benefits provided by preserved Amazon forests: production of foods, such as Brazil nuts, of raw materials, such as wood and rubber, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and climate regulation.

While they considered the true value of these services to be unmeasurable, the UFMG researchers were able to assign them a price by using their own methodology. “The change in rainfall, for instance, affects the generation of hydroelectric energy. If you deforest vegetation, rainfall decreases. And the losses depend on the location of each destroyed part of the forest,” Mr. Soares-Filho affirmed. He noted that agribusiness also depends on the rain cycles controlled by the forest, and that deforestation causes a drop in productivity and profitability for producers, particularly those who deal in soybeans and cattle. 

Stopping deforestation is seen as the cheapest way to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases that are destroying the planet’s ozone layer, in comparison to reducing the number of cars on the world’s roads. “This is a part of our calculation. Brazil isn’t doing its part in the Paris Agreement, which makes the situation worse as we are losing funds for environmental conservation and development,” said Mr. Soares-Filho.

Who’s really benefiting?

He also pointed out that the federal government’s mining plan is unlikely to be a success, as it will struggle to attract major players, increasingly worried about the risks to their reputation involved with setting up in the Amazon. “Even these companies are weighing up the benefits of going into business like this. Global investment funds have refused to encourage environmental degradation.”

In fact, Mr. Soares-Filho believes that the new rules — if approved — will work to benefit landgrabbers and illegal wildcat miners, which do not provide any financial returns to the affected communities. “The bill does not have the capacity to develop mining and it scares off capital and threatens indigenous lands, which are sanctuaries of social and biodiversity. In other words, the plan doesn’t make economic, environmental, nor strategic sense.”[/restricted]

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Environment

In 18 years, Brazil’s forests lost an area almost the size of Spain

President Jair Bolsonaro is facing tremendous heat for his laissez-faire approach to the environment. Since he took office in 2019, his administration has been accused by federal prosecutors of “purposely dismantling” the country’s environmental agencies and all but encouraging illegal deforestation. During an infamous April 22 cabinet meeting that became public in an unrelated investigation, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the government should take advantage of the undivided attention of the press on the Covid-19 pandemic to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all of the rules and simplifying standards.”

But as deleterious as the Bolsonaro administration has been for the environment, uncontrolled deforestation is a problem that predates the far-right leader. [restricted]A new study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) shows that, between the years 2000 and 2018, the country lost around 500 square kilometers of its native forests — an area almost as large as Spain.

According to researchers, all six Brazilian biomes — Amazon, Caatinga (semi-arid), Cerrado (savannah), Atlantic Forest, Pampa (lowlands), and Pantanal (wetlands) — have lost part of their vegetation. With the exception of the latter two, the pace of deforestation had decreased until 2018, a trend which has since been reversed.


Brazil’s lost forest in the 21st century

While Amazon deforestation generates international outcry, the rainforest was not actually the biome which lost the most land, proportionally speaking. The Brazilian portion of the pampa lowlands — the biome also extends to parts of Argentina and all of Uruguay — lost nearly 17 percent of its original forests between 2000 and 2018. Over that same period, the Cerrado savannahs lost almost 13 percent of vegetation.

Meanwhile, the Amazon — the largest biome in Brazil — lost 7 percent of its area.

That process is tightly linked to the expansion of agriculture in the country: 43 percent of destroyed vegetation was converted into pastures, while 19 percent was used for crops. In the Cerrado, for example, plantation areas increased by 102,600 sq km between 2000 and 2018 — growth mainly driven by grain and cereal production. 

As a matter of fact, an paper published in August by Science magazine shows that just 2 percent of all Brazilian farms account for no less than 62 percent of illegal deforestation in the country. The study, called “The rotten apples of Brazil’s agribusiness,” says that roughly 20 percent of Brazil’s soybean exports — and 17 percent of beef exports — might be linked to the illegal destruction of forests.

Pantanal: 2020 has been worse than last two decades

Between 2000 and 2018, the Pantanal wetlands lost roughly 2,100 square kilometers of native vegetation. During that span, Pantanal was the Brazilian biome that suffered the most intense changes to its landscape. According to the IBGE’s change intensity index (IIM), a measurement to analyze territory transformation, 75 percent of the region saw the highest intensity of change.

For comparison’s sake, only 8 percent of the Amazon rainforest got the same rating.

Still, nothing compares to the sheer level of devastation that the biome is experiencing this year — as criminal fires coupled with historic droughts, have destroyed over 23,000 sq km of the Pantanal — a shocking ten times the area lost between 2000 and 2018.

Still, during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro called international outcry around deforestation a “brutal smear campaign” fostered by “spurious” international interests and “unpatriotic” Brazilian organizations.[/restricted]

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Environment

China’s deforestation footprint in Brazil

The increase in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and its links to agricultural supply chains has become a hot-button issue for investors worldwide. With firms now painstakingly judged on their ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) credentials, there is significant pressure placed on companies in the food industry to ensure that their deforestation footprints are minimized. However, while much of the coercion has come from companies in Europe and the Americas, what of China, Brazil’s biggest trading partner?[restricted]

China’s appetite for Brazilian products has increased significantly in 2020, as a result of the devalued Brazilian Real and trade war tensions with the U.S. While soybeans, oil, and iron ore continue to top Beijing’s Brazilian shopping list, trade of meat has seen the sharpest increase, totalling USD 1.84 billion in the first half of 2020 — more than double what was seen in the previous year.

Among the Chinese firms that has ramped up its purchases in Brazil is fast food company Yum China, which operates popular chains KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Deforestation and commodities think tank Chain Reaction Research estimates that in order to feed Yum China’s approximately 1 billion chickens, the company would take up between 0.9 and 1.6 percent of Brazil’s entire soybean production every year, not to mention Yum China’s significant appetite for imported beef.

Burning paradise to put up a cattle farm

Environmental monitoring has shown that cattle ranching is the largest cause of deforestation in the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands. Landowners illegally torch the native vegetation on their properties to make way for pastures. This allows them to raise cattle which often make their way onto supply chains of major food companies.

A Federal Police investigation concluded that the overwhelming wave of forest fires ravaging the Pantanal began with blazes in four large farms. Since the beginning of the year, 25,000 hectares of the Pantanal have been destroyed by fire.


While the new found importance of ESG has prompted firms in Brazil and around the world to increase oversight on food supply chains, reducing their deforestation footprints as much as possible, Yum China did not even acknowledge its perceived links to environmental destruction as a sustainability risk in its recent prospectus supplement.

This lack of importance placed on deforestation risks could spell trouble for Yum China. With the growing concern around ESG credentials, Chain Reaction Research believes company shareholders BNP Paribas Norges Bank, Legal & General, and JPMorgan “might reconsider their positions or engage [Yum China] to support their investment value.”

Brazilian meatpackers make deforestation pledge

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the world’s biggest meat producer JBS has launched a plan to minutiously track every one of its cattle suppliers by 2025, thus completely eradicating any links to deforestation from its supply chain.

The company’s proposal involves using blockchain technology to oversee the entire life cycle of cattle, and severing ties with any farms linked to illegal deforestation. The focus of the initiative is to target so-called “indirect suppliers,” which are the farms that rear cattle before selling them to larger farms, where they are purchased by beef giants like JBS.

Competitors Marfrig and Minerva have made similar promises to monitor their supply chains, but critics say the 2025 deadline is too far in the future and that the firms have had plenty of time to implant these measures already — in 2009 all three companies pledged to fully track indirect suppliers by 2011.

Investment analysts from BTG Pactual are buoyant about the news coming from JBS, maintaining the firm as their “top pick in the food space.” A recent report from the financial management company highlights that JBS’s “ESG metrics are gaining increased attention from investors” and talks of the meatpacker’s strong earnings momentum for the coming future.[/restricted]

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Environment

Scientific research another victim of Pantanal blazes

Biologist Gabriela Schuck was in isolation at her home in Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s South, protecting herself from the coronavirus. While she worked on her master’s dissertation, the 25-year-old kept up with the news on television and social media about the spread of forest fires ravaging three of Brazil’s largest biomes: the Amazon, Cerrado, and Pantanal. The latter is in an increasingly critical situation: the world’s biggest wetland has seen around 20 percent of its area destroyed by blazes.

Though she lives over 2,000 kilometers from the Pantanal, Ms. Schuck began seeking out institutions and offering her help as a volunteer, when her university advisor told her of the possibility of being deployed to the Sesc Pantanal Natural Heritage Reserve (RPPN), a conservation unit located on the banks of the Cuiabá River, in the middle of the Pantanal.[restricted]

RPPNs are private preservation areas dedicated exclusively to protecting fauna and flora and scientific research. The Sesc Pantanal Reserve, which became the biggest hotspot of biological studies in the wetlands, was one of the areas most damaged by fires.

Around 90 percent of its 108,000 hectares has been turned to ash and cinder. Gabriela Schuck had worked there in 2017 and 2018 as a field assistant alongside other researchers, so naturally heeded the call and embarked on a journey consisting of a three-hour plane journey, 200 kilometers by car, and 40 minutes by boat.

Upon arrival, what she saw was jaw-dropping. “The gray ground changed the landscape a lot. The grasses and bushes simply disappeared, all that’s left is dry soil and some trees,” she explains. “It is terrifying to see such destruction.” 

research pantanal brazil deforestation 2020
Photo: Lucas Ninno

Two fires started in neighboring cattle farms joined forces and advanced on the reserve’s vegetation. Strong winds, the biggest drought in 50 years, and human involvement created a “perfect storm,” with flames persisting for 20 days, trapping wild animals and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Birds abandoned their nests and managed to escape by air. Mammals — such as jaguars, tapirs, coatis, monkeys, and armadillos — were not so lucky. With no choice but to flee by land, many were burned alive or suffocated due to smoke inhalation.

Pantanal: the anatomy of a tragedy

The consequences for biodiversity are still hard to fully quantify. Scientists from the Wildlife Study Group (GEVS) — which includes researchers from numerous Brazilian universities — put together a task force with the mission of cataloguing dead animals and creating a diagnosis of the tragedy among various species. Ms. Schuck is one of the members of this group. “I’m surprised to still find live animals as the damage was so severe. We are sweeping area by area, documenting, photographing, identifying carcasses and deciding on a methodology that allows us to have a real dimension of the damage caused to the [region’s] biodiversity. The invertebrates are the hardest to count, because their bodies simply dissolve and become nothing,” she says.

Photo traps set up by the team have captured the presence of some surviving animals. Many have burns on their paws, while others are severely debilitated due to a lack of food and water. With insufficient support from governmental institutions, rescue and treatment operations have been left down to NGOs and volunteers.

Picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the blaze, researchers are slowly finding evidence to explain how this tragedy occurred and the potential ways to resuscitate the Pantanal biome. However, science itself has been one of the fires’ victims.

Another setback for Brazilian research

In the Sesc Pantanal Reserve, at least 30 scientists working on various projects will be forced to interrupt, cancel, or change the objectives of their research, as several mini-biomes and species have simply been incinerated. The RPPN manager, Cristina Cuiabália, says that despite the disaster, the research teams are still keen to work.

“On the one hand, it’s a huge frustration, on the other hand, we have to stay motivated, working harder. Scientific production is fundamental in this process of obtaining answers to the factors that contributed to what we are seeing today, and showing what we can do so that these disasters do not happen again.” 

However, Brazilian scientists were already in a precarious position, before the fires. President Jair Bolsonaro’s government froze scientific funding in 2019, causing the payment of research grants to stop nationwide. The government also sent a budget proposal before the pandemic that earmarked the paltry amount of BRL 16.5 million (USD 3 million) for the purchase of inputs and material for academic research in 2020. For the previous year, the budget was BRL 127.4 million.

Regardless, science persists through adversity. With sparse resources, young people like Gabriela Schuck are eyeing up the results of their labor in the long term. “As a new generation researcher, I feel useful being here. Actually, I’m better off here in the forest than shut in at home. When I was a teenager, I watched TV programs about the Amazon, the Pantanal, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do with my life, and today I’m fulfilling my duty. Science is allied with enlightenment about phenomena such as forest fires and knowledge makes prevention easier.”

After four months of drought, a brief shower fell on the Pantanal on the morning of September 20, slowing down the fires that continue to burn. Local residents celebrated the rain on social media, symbolizing a small instance of respite and hope for better days in the Pantanal, which is now facing a long path to recover its beauty.[/restricted]

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Environment

Agro giants and NGOs stand together against Bolsonaro

The 19th-century essayist Charles Dudley Warner once said “politics make strange bedfellows.” The quote is appropriated to describe a newly-formed alliance between environmentalist NGOs and major agricultural producers — who together are calling for the Jair Bolsonaro administration to enforce deforestation controls in biomes such as the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands. In a document sent out this week to Vice President Hamilton Mourão, who presides over the Amazon Council, 230 institutions put forward a list of measures the government should immediately implement to curb deforestation rates.

The so-called Climate, Forest, and Agriculture Coalition unites entities as diverse as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Youth Climate Leaders, the World Resources Institute (WRI), alongside companies usually on the opposing side of the ring — for instance, meat giants JBS and Marfrig, food-processing firm Amaggi, and German fertilizers producer Bayer.[restricted]

“The coalition is at the government’s disposal to provide information, help with coordinating efforts with multiple sectors, or any action that could speed up a solution to this grave scenario,” the group said in the open letter.

This movement comes as, once again, Brazil faces a major international image crisis due to increasing levels of deforestation. In the first 14 days of September, almost 20,500 fires were registered in the Amazon region — already more than in the whole month of September 2019 (19,925). Meanwhile, the number of fires in the Pantanal wetlands has reached record-shattering levels in 2020.

Next week, the eyes of the world will be on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who will open the United Nations General Assembly debates. As Brasília correspondent Débora Álvares reports, he will try to spin the narrative by presenting the latest initiatives by the Environment Ministry to contain the flames, highlighting the government’s efforts to protect at-risk Amazon jaguars.

It is safe to say, however, that his pre-recorded speech will not address recent statements by his Environment Minister, who in April talked about taking advantage of the press’ undivided attention on the Covid-19 pandemic to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all of the rules and simplifying standards.” 

Proposed measures to contain forest destruction

pantanal fires
Pantanal fires. Photo: Mayke Toscano/Secom/MT

The list of proposals can be summarized into six core points. Some of them seem like obvious no-brainer moves, but, tellingly,  haven’t been put in place by the administration:

  • Resume and revamp environmental inspections in farms, holding transgressors accountable for infractions;
  • Suspend all exploitation permits within public forest areas, punishing illegal deforestation actions;
  • Destine 10 million hectares of land for sustainable land use and environmental protection;
  • Issue a credit line to local communities based on their environmental track record and socioeconomic indicators;
  • Guarantee that deforestation data will be gathered and published with transparency;
  • Suspend land permits in properties which have deforested land since June 2008.

Deforestation is a bad business move

The fact that meat giant JBS is trying to take the moral high ground on environmental issues speaks volumes about the Jair Bolsonaro administration. A recent report points out that JBS’ supply chain was responsible for the destruction of at least 1.7 million hectares of native vegetation in the Amazon and the savannah-like Cerrado biome since 2008.

But as ESG principles — environmental, social, and governance — become the norm among major investment firms, big players are forced to play by certain standards to avoid being blacklisted by markets. JBS, for example, was dropped from the portfolio of major European financial services firm Nordea Asset Management for its transgressions.


Moreover, European Union countries are using Brazil’s uncontrolled — and criminal — wildfires as a way out of the free-trade deal with Mercosur. As today’s Daily Briefing explains, a group of 30 NGOs asked French President Emmanuel Macron to “bury once and for all” the agreement. Meanwhile, eight European countries urged Brazil to take “real action” to protect the rainforest.

The Brazilian government, however, has offered little hope that it will change its stance. Mr. Bolsonaro called the outcry “disproportionate,” and Mr. Mourão has done little more than offering to take foreign ambassadors on a trip to the Amazon.[/restricted]

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Environment

Pantanal wildfires continue to rage out of control

The worst largest wetland region is experiencing its worst tragedy in decades. In 2020, almost 17 percent of the native vegetation in Brazil’s Pantanal biome has been destroyed by thousands of uncontrolled wildfires — an area bigger than the entire territory of Israel. Until Sunday, 14,500 fires had been recorded in the region this year alone — a 210-percent increase from 2019. The situation is so bad that the federal government has declared a state of emergency in the state of Mato Grosso.

The Pantanal region harbors over 2,000 plant species and 1,000 animal species — some of which are unique to the area. It is home to one of South America’s most important river basins and is a massive source of drinking water and humidity for animals and forests. “The region has an enormous capacity to absorb carbon‚ which makes it even more important in the context of climate change,” says Geraldo Damasceno Jr., a professor at the Biology Institute at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul.[restricted]

We first reported about the current crisis in July — and things have only worsened then, as a result of severe droughts combined with rampant deforestation and the rapid expansion of agriculture into forest areas. Areas that were supposed to be flooded are now covered by dried-out vegetation — which ends up becoming fuel for wildfires. 

dry pantanal
Photo: Lucas Ninno/TBR

In July (which is usually the peak of the wet season), water levels were at the lowest point in 47 years, according to authorities. Rainfall volume was down 40 percent from the average of the last decade. It remains uncertain whether this phenomenon is just an anomaly or if we are dealing with another example of the deep consequences of climate change — something experts thought would only be felt decades from now. 

Moreover, data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) shows that 2020 was the year with most wildfires dating back to the 1990s, when the institute developed the current platform to monitor forest fires.

The environmental crisis will be hard to contain for at least another month, as rainfall is only expected to begin in October. “This year, however, they could start later due to the weather conditions,” said biologist Carlos Padovani, of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa).


Have wildfires become the ‘new normal’?

Just one year after Brazil faced an international crisis caused by massive wildfires in the Amazon region, the country finds itself riddled with yet another environmental crisis. And experts fear these uncontrollable wildfires will become a  regular feature of Brazilian life, the result of decades of unregulated agricultural expansion, which have caused anomalies in rain cycles.

As a matter of fact, the Pantanal crisis has everything to do with Amazon deforestation. The destruction of the rainforest affects the “flying rivers” phenomenon, a movement of large quantities of water vapor transported in the atmosphere from the Amazon Basin to other parts of South America. 

We can say that the Amazon gives life to almost all biomes in the continent, but in H1 2020, over 3,000 square kilometers of rainforest were placed under deforestation alert — the largest in five years. 

While deforestation rates have increased over the past decades, the Jair Bolsonaro administration’s laissez-faire approach to environmental regulations has seriously increased the numbers. And things are unlikely to improve, as the government plans to reduce the budget for environmental protection agencies in 2021, a decision that will further hamper an already-feeble law enforcement framework.

pantanal
Photo: Lucas Ninno/TBR

Agriculture expands to the detriment of forests

Experts say agribusiness is the main culprit for deforestation in the Pantanal region. In 2019, Congress allowed landowners to exploit up to 80 percent of their properties — establishing preservation requirements of only 20 percent (in the Amazon region, on the other hand, 80 percent of farms must remain intact). 

Despite laxer regulations, a survey by state prosecutors in Mato Grosso do Sul showed that at least 40 percent of deforestation in the region is completely illegal. 

According to NGO SOS Pantanal, 15 percent of the biome’s land has been converted into pastures by local landowners. In the past, cattle would occupy certain areas during the dry season, but ranchers would move them by the time the wet season began. However,  as rainfall decreases, producers are extending their use of land for the plantation of exotic pastures — something that severely impacts local biodiversity.

Back in 2006, NGO Conservação Internacional (CI-Brasil) published a study warning that the unchecked expansion of farming and ranching in the Pantanal would “destroy the biome in a 45-year period,” considering an average destruction rate of 2.3 percent a year.

Fourteen years have gone by — and the climate crisis seems only to have become more severe.[/restricted]

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Environment

In the Amazon, forest degradation is outpacing full deforestation

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased abruptly over the past two years, after decreasing for more than a decade. With President Jair Bolsonaro notoriously enthusiastic about expanding the economy at the expense of the rainforest, new deforestation data regularly makes global headlines.

But what fewer people realize is that even forests that have not been cleared, or fully “deforested,” are rarely untouched. Indeed, just 20 percent of the world’s tropical forests are classified as intact. The rest have been impacted by logging, mining, fires, or by the expansion of roads or other human activities. And all this can happen undetected by the satellites that monitor deforestation.


These [restricted]forests are known as “degraded,” and they make up an increasingly large fraction of the world’s remaining forest landscapes. Degradation is a major environmental and societal challenge. Disturbances associated with logging, fire, and habitat fragmentation are a significant source of carbon-dioxide emissions and can transform forests from carbon sinks to sources, where the carbon emitted when trees burn or decomposition outweighs the carbon taken from the atmosphere as they grow.

Forest degradation is also a major threat to biodiversity and has been shown to increase the risk of transmission of emerging infectious diseases. And yet despite all of this, we continue to lack appropriate tools to monitor forest degradation at the required scale.

The main reason forest degradation is so difficult to monitor is that it’s hard to see from space. The launch of Nasa’s Landsat programme in the 1970s revealed — perhaps for the first time — the true extent of the impact that humans have had on the world’s forests. Today, satellites allow us to track deforestation fronts in real time anywhere in the world. But while it’s easy enough to spot where forests are being cleared and converted to farms or plantations, capturing forest degradation is not as simple.

A degraded forest is still a forest, and as by definition it retains at least part of its canopy. So, while old-growth and logged forests may look very different on the ground, seen from above they can be hard to tell apart in a sea of green.

amazon deforestation
The Brazilian Amazon, shaded in grey, covers an area larger than the European Union. Image: Matricardi et al

Forest degradation detectives

New research published in the journal Science by a team of Brazilian and U.S. researchers led by Eraldo Matricardi has taken an important step towards tackling this challenge. By combining more than 20 years worth of satellite data with extensive field observations, they trained a computer algorithm to map changes in forest degradation over time across the entire Brazilian Amazon.

Their work reveals that 337,427 square kilometers of forest were degraded across the Brazilian Amazon between 1992 and 2014, an area larger than the entire territory of neighbouring Ecuador. During the same period, degradation actually outpaced deforestation, which contributed to a loss of a further 308,311 square kilometers of forest.

The researchers went a step further and used the data to tease apart the relative contribution of different drivers of forest degradation, including logging, fire, and forest fragmentation. What these maps reveal is that while overall rates of degradation across the Brazilian Amazon have declined since the 1990s — in line with decreases in deforestation and associated habitat fragmentation — rates of selective logging and forest fires have almost doubled. In particular, over the past 15 years logging has expanded west into a new frontier that up until recently was considered too remote to be at risk.

By putting forest degradation on the map, Mr. Matricardi and colleagues have not only revealed the true extent of the problem, but have also generated the baseline data needed to guide action. Restoring degraded forests is central to several ambitious international efforts to curb climate change and biodiversity loss, such as the United Nations scheme to pay developing countries to keep their forests intact. 

If allowed to recover, degraded forests, particularly those in the tropics, have the potential to sequester and store large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — even more so than their intact counterparts.

Simply allowing forests to naturally regenerate can be a very effective strategy, as biomass stocks often recover within decades. In other cases, active restoration may be a preferable option to speed up recovery. Another recent study, also published in the journal Science, showed how tree planting and cutting back lianas (large woody vines common in the tropics) can increase biomass recovery rates by as much as 50 percent in Southeast Asian rainforests

But active restoration comes at a cost, which in many cases exceeds the prices that are paid to offset carbon-dioxide emissions on the voluntary carbon market. If we are to successfully implement ecosystem restoration on a global scale, governments, companies, and even individuals need to think carefully about how they value nature.


the conversation brazil article
Originally published on
The Conversation
The Conversation

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Categories
Environment

Meat giant JBS once again linked to deforestation in Brazil

Back in June, Nordea Asset Management — the investment arm of northern Europe’s largest financial services group — dropped Brazilian meat giant JBS from its portfolio. The move was over JBS’ links to farms involved in Amazon deforestation, as well as its response to the coronavirus, and the sheer abundance of corruption scandals involving the firm over the past few years.

A new report by Chain Reaction Research, a think tank that conducts research related to deforestation and commodities, helps understand just how far the blame goes. JBS’s supply chain includes — directly and indirectly — farms that may have deforested at least 1.7 million hectares of native vegetation in the Amazon and the savannah-like Cerrado biome since 2008.[restricted]

That would be the equivalent of an area ten times the size of the city of São Paulo — and a whopping 8 percent of the total deforestation in both biomes, according to data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe). 

These figures, however, are more of an educated guess, as JBS’s supply chain is very difficult to trace.  “JBS’ beef operations in Brazil have an outsized deforestation risk exposure. [The company] operates 20 slaughterhouses within the Legal Amazon, [and its] monitoring of supplier compliance is limited to its direct supply. Its indirect supply chain risks remain unmitigated,” say researchers Tim Steinweg, Gerard Rijk, and Matt Piotrowski — who authored the 24-page report.

It is worth noting that deforestation is often — but not always — illegal, as the Brazilian Forest Code sets the rules for clearing space for pastures and crops. Within the region known as the “Legal Amazon,” landowners must leave 80 percent of their properties untouched.

However, the projection gives the dimension of how big is JBS’s glass ceiling is, a conglomerate that just 11 years ago made a public commitment to no longer buy cattle herded on deforested land.


Blind spots the rule rather than an exception

While Brazil’s meat industry has undeniably advanced in monitoring direct suppliers, the main players still have a huge blind spot: indirect suppliers — especially those who breed calves and resell them for fattening. The fragmentation of chains works to help transgressors, in a similar way that the fashion industry often relies on slave labor to cheaply produce garments.

As major investors and retail groups become more aware of ESG — Environmental, Social, and Governmental — principles, pressure has mounted on suppliers who are still incapable of tracing their entire chain. 

ESG works based on the idea that companies must act in order to protect the environment and have high standards towards their stakeholders — which means taking care of customers, partners, and employees, as well as generating profits. Plus, corporate governance should follow all compliance regulations and treat all shareholders fairly.   

To reach their estimate, Chain Reaction Research located and monitored 983 direct JBS suppliers — as well as 1,874 indirect ones. These companies are located in six Brazilian states spread across the Amazon and the Cerrado region: Goiás, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso, Pará, and Tocantins.

Deforestation data in the sample was projected over the entire network of suppliers  — 9,730 direct and 56,241 indirect — across the monitored states, which came up with the eye-watering figures: 200,000 hectares of forest might have been scrapped by direct suppliers, and over 1.5 million by indirect ones.

The think tank identified a common practice of “cattle laundering” in their supply chains. Producers own neighboring properties — registered under different names — and transfer cattle between them. “Cattle are moved from non-compliant farms to compliant farms in order for farmers to maintain market access to slaughterhouses,” says the report.

How to estimate JBS’ environmental impact

The analysis was made possible through the so-called Guias de Transporte Animal (GTA), sanitary documents issued every time cattle change hands, dated from 2019 and crossed with rural property records and deforestation data.

The report claims the estimates are “conservative” due to methodological limitations. “In several cases, deforestation alerts transgress farm boundaries. CRR excluded all deforestation that took place outside of farm boundaries from our calculations, despite the likelihood that they are part of a single deforestation event,” it says.

Besides, the think tank projects the total deforestation footprint on the number of properties included in the 2019 GTA records. “As a result, it excludes JBS suppliers that did not supply the company in 2019, but did so in other years. It also excludes any suppliers with faulty, fraudulent, or absent GTA records.”

JBS officially refutes the methodology of the study, saying it “extrapolates a deforestation average associated with a sample of properties to the total number of (direct and indirect) suppliers of the company, considering that 100 percent of farms have deforestation.” 

JBS policies under scrutiny

JBS claims it has a zero-tolerance policy toward deforestation and claims it was “one of the first companies in the sector to invest in policies and technologies to fight, discourage, and eliminate [deforestation] from its entire supply chain.” However, recent efforts by JBS have been deemed “not yet successful” by independent auditors.

“The company told CRR that it is in active discussions with Brazil’s Agriculture Ministry to explore the possibility of creating so-called “Green GTAs” — animal transportation records that would include information about environmental and slave labor embargoes.”

In addition, JBS is piloting blockchain technologies and theoretical productivity indices as measures to address indirect supply chain exposure. The theoretical productivity index is intended to address the risk of “cattle laundering” by assessing the size of a property and the number of cattle it supplies.

Chain Reaction Research calls JBS’ exposure to deforestation practices a “fundamental business risk.”

“Divestments, exclusions, refusal to extend loans, and other actions from financial institutions would affect JBS’ cost structure, and thus its net profits. In particular, its cost of debt may rise if banks refuse to extend loans and the company is forced to seek new financiers during difficult circumstances.”

Of the company’s top 20 financiers, half of them — with USD 10 billion of exposure to JBS — have deforestation policies in place, or at least are gradually adapting themselves to zero-deforestation goals. These creditors include Barclays, JPMorgan, Rabobank, Santander, and Credit Suisse.

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Categories
Environment

New Sea Law could revolutionize protections in Brazil’s coastal areas

At over 8,000 kilometers long, Brazil has the second-largest coastline in Latin America. But its picturesque coastal landscapes are under threat from uncontrolled urban growth, pollution, deforestation, and a host of other problems. These factors, along with constantly creeping climate change, could profoundly change the way of life of the 42 million Brazilians who live in coastal regions.

It is in this troubling milieu that Brazil’s Congress is attempting to pass Bill 6,969 — the so-called ‘Sea Law‘ — which would establish the National Policy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Brazilian Marine Biome (PNCMar). After stalling for six years, the bill is slated for approval in September, which would make it the first proposal of the ‘green agenda’ to make it to a floor vote in the House of Representatives this year.[restricted]

In fact, this month is set to see a series of these so-called ‘green votes,’ with bills related to the carbon credit market, climate change, and, above all, fighting deforestation. The latter is seen as the most important legislative proposal for environmentalists and agribusiness sectors. 

This move toward approving environmental legislation is Congress’ message to the Jair Bolsonaro administration and the mounting criticism it has received for its perceived neglect of the Amazon Basin. In June, House Speaker Rodrigo Maia set up a working group among lawmakers to discuss green proposals.

Between August 2019 and July 2020, deforestation in the Amazon grew 34 percent in relation to the previous 12 months, according to data from the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe).

As The Brazilian Report has covered in the past, the Brazilian government is accused of doing nothing to avoid damage to the environment, and even encouraging deforestation and other criminal activities in the Amazon.


Expanded protections

The rapporteur of the Sea Law, federal lawmaker Túlio Gadelha, says that the bill includes “important principles” which can innovate management and instates the system of “marine space planning,” he tells The Brazilian Report.

Mr. Gadelha also drew attention to the fact that the law is the result of the efforts of civil society, based on technical and scientific studies. “The main legal framework for coastal management is from 1988, it came with the Constitution, when the level of information available about the sea was very different,” he says.

The Sea Law covers the Brazilian Marine Biome, which is defined as the ensemble of marine ecosystems in coastal zones, the continental shelf, islands, and the deep sea. If approved, the legislation would have legal mechanisms to protect environments such as Brazil’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, estuaries, coastal lakes, rivers and channels, mangroves, tidal marshes, dunes, and other similar areas.

The proposal involves the creation of indicators of quality and environmental health, as well as the Marine Space Plan to distribute the activities of the population in the biome. This policy will be financed by way of public and private funds, as well as environmental compensation paid by undertakings that cause damages to the sea.

International agreements

The proposed new legislation was the subject of an online debate organized by the Environmentalist Parliamentary Front. The Sea Law intends to be in sync with international accords to preserve the ecosystem, such as the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

However, Leandra Gonçalves, researcher of the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo, highlights that the legislative proposal could be improved. “When the bill was discussed, the oil spill in the Northeast had not happened. We can learn something from this situation to make this law something more innovative, up to date, and legitimate to allow us to have coastal governance in Brazil.”

Marcia Hirota, executive director of environmentalist NGO SOS Mata Atlântica, adds that the involvement of states and municipalities is of utmost importance. “The country developed with its back to the sea. It’s not possible for us to fail to reconcile the agenda of conservation and the uses [of the biome], and above all, to make it so that the people who live in these regions or adore the sea may also work toward the development of the country in these regions.”[/restricted]

Categories
Environment

The never-ending oil spill crisis remains a mystery

The crisis began on August 30, 2019. That morning, the first oil stain was spotted on a beach in the northeastern state of Paraíba. Soon, more crude oil splotches would be found in other coastal areas — in a mystery that quickly became the most widespread environmental disaster in Brazilian history. Over 1,000 beaches, mangroves, and rivers in hundreds of municipalities — stretching over 2,000 kilometers of Brazil’s coastline — were swallowed up by at least 5,000 tons of thick fragments of crude oil sludge. The local tourism industry was wrecked, while hundreds of thousands of fishermen lost most of their income.

One year later, Brazilian authorities still have no idea of who was responsible for the spill.[restricted]

The Brazilian Navy concluded its investigation on the case this week, with its final verdict limited to affirming that the oil traveled from an area roughly 700 kilometers out to sea before eaching the Brazilian coast. Investigators have also determined that the oil came from Venezuela, but the spill wasn’t necessarily the responsibility of a ship or company from Brazil’s northern neighbor.

“This is a highly complex, unprecedented case in Brazilian history. Many hypotheses are considered, including a shipwreck or an accidental spill. At the moment, the possibilities of petrol leaks from Brazilian waters and pollution caused by the cleaning of tanks of vessels in our waters are remote, due to the volume of material collected,” said the Navy, in a statement that provides no detail whatsoever about its findings (or lack thereof).

In the months following the spill, Brazilian authorities voiced many theories, but were unable to prove any of them.

Back in November 2020, the Federal Police attributed the disaster to a leak suffered by Greek oil tanker Bouboulina. Marshals believed the leak started between July 28 and 29, somewhere around 730 kilometers from the coast of Paraíba state. After reportedly analyzing 826 satellite images, they said Bouboulina was the only ship that crossed the suspected area at the believed time of the spill. Just a month later, however, the Brazilian Environmental Agency (Ibama) said the federal police had based their analysis on a misleading report.

At the time, researchers from the Federal University of Alagoas suggested the spill was linked to a “ghost ship,” that is, a vessel sailing with its transponder switched off.

A bungled response from the federal government

During the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the federal government faces much criticism for not coordinating efforts to contain the spread and offset the economic effects of the crisis. States and municipalities were left to their own devices, and each local government chose its own solution — usually quite different from neighboring cities, which undermines the response.

The same thing happened after the oil crisis. President Jair Bolsonaro only ordered an investigation into the spill on October 5, over a month after the first stains appeared. On September 26, The Brazilian Report showed the oil had already reached 99 beaches.

Moreover, the Environment Ministry never coordinated with states and municipalities — as it should, according to the National Contingency Plan, a set of guidelines dictating the response to an unexpected oil disaster in Brazilian waters. Each city was responsible for removing and storing the oil, often done in an improvised, amateurish way. Many locals did so at their own risk, without any protective gear.

In smaller cities, environmental activists identified incidences of irregular disposal and improper storage. One municipality in Bahia, for instance, used an abandoned school as storage for the toxic sludge — while another dumped it in an open-air landfill.

President Jair Bolsonaro and Vice President Hamilton Mourão also vented their own unproven theories. The former said Venezuelan authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro purposely spilled the oil, hoping to cause problems for his administration. Meanwhile, Mr. Mourão said the spill was probably an intentional move to help the vessel regain its balance.

The bungled response was notwithstanding an expensive one. Brazil’s state-owned oil giant Petrobras helped authorities to remove the stains from large stretches of the coast — and the government owes BRL 43 million (USD 8 million) as a result.

Long-lasting impacts

The massive oil spill disrupted the lives of at least 350,000 local fishermen, according to a study by the Federal University of Pernambuco. The report mentions a “collapse” of the fishing economy, with sales dropping 95 percent in some locations. Fishing is the only source of income for over half of the families in the coastal cities affected by the spill, and they observed a 40-percent drop in their income.

Another study published on Friday shows just how badly the spill impacted the tourism industry. Seafood restaurants reported losses of 30 percent in revenue — while other establishments saw a 10-percent drop. 

And that doesn’t even factor in the impacts of the pandemic, with social isolation halting the in-person economy for months in 2020.

The crisis, however, is still not over. Just a week ago, authorities said new oil stains appeared in the south of Pernambuco state. According to the local environmental agency, preliminary studies suggest the material is consistent with the 2019 spill. “The material could be sedimented in sea soil or reefs, and is reaching beaches again due to a series of meteorological factors,” said the agency, in a statement.[/restricted]

Categories
Environment

Brazil’s Pantanal wetland in flames during harsh drought

Brazil’s Pantanal region is the world’s largest floodplain, home to vast biodiversity that includes endangered animal species such as the jaguar and the blue macaw. Blessed with some of the country’s most picturesque landscapes, it is traditionally a major draw for tourists from within Brazil and abroad. But this expansive wetland is burning, suffering from more forest fires than it has seen in the last 22 years, during an exceptional drought. 

Between January 1 and July 21, the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) recorded 3,415 fires in the region, an increase of 189 percent compared to the same period in 2019. In fact, it is the most devastating fire season since 1998, when Inpe began monitoring blazes in the Pantanal.[restricted]

A major contributing factor to this huge uptick in fires has been a significant drop in rainfall. Throughout the biome, Inpe measured rain volume as being 50 percent below normal levels for the first five months of the year, leaving much of the vegetation dry, scorched, and highly susceptible to catch fire. 

Corumbá, a town situated on the Brazilian border with Bolivia, has recorded more fires than any other municipality in the country, and respiratory disease is on the rise with smoke from the blazes permeating into urban areas. In the last seven days alone, the equivalent of 34,000 football pitches were destroyed by flames in Corumbá. 

“We had to give priority to the places that have done the most harm to the population when fighting the fires. The smoke that covers the city and makes breathing difficult has been very bad for public health, even more so with the Covid-19 [pandemic],” said Lieutenant Colonel Luciano Lopes de Alencar, commander of the Corumbá fire department.

droughts pantanal
Dry riverbed. Photo: Lucas Ninno/TBR

Armed Forces send aircraft

Though they are visible, some of the Pantanal fires are in inaccessible areas, where firefighters need to reach locations by boat and by foot. On Monday, the fire brigade was given reinforcements from the military, which sent helicopters and a C-130 Hercules aircraft, equipped with an Airborne Fire Fighting System.

The Secretary of Environment of Mato Grosso do Sul, Jaime Verruck, said that the majority of these fires were caused by humans. “We are in the middle of the worst situation in terms of drought, so the fires are likely to continue and the big problem we have is that most of the fires are caused by human action,” said Mr. Verruck.

As a consequence, the state has requested federal support to help fight the blazes. “We are working with [Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency] Ibama, a group of about 35 firefighters, the Fire Department with two helicopters with water and also taking troops to fight the flames. As of Monday, we will have the support of C-130 airplanes from the Air Force, which have a capacity of 2,000 liters of water each,” he said.


Burning bans have been flouted

The situation is also worrying in the neighboring state of Mato Grosso, the other Brazilian state covered by the Pantanal. From January to June 2020, 6,747 fires were recorded in Mato Grosso, almost 300 more than in 2019 (6,450) and a significant increase compared to 2018, which registered 4,383.

This data was obtained from an interactive tool launched on July 23 by sustainability NGO Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV) to monitor blazes in the state during a state-imposed fire ban. With the increase in blazes recorded before May, the Mato Grosso state government decided to bring forward its annual ban on fires — which in previous years had begun on July 15 — and kept it in place between July 1 and September 30.

According to the law, landowners may only burn vegetation in rural areas in order to clean and manage soil after obtaining a controlled burning permit from the state’s environmental authorities.

The yearly ban is aimed at preventing forest fires caused by vulnerable vegetation during the dry season, and preventing respiratory problems in the population — a much more pressing concern this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the ICV’s data, bringing the prohibition period forward did little to prevent a 12 percent increase in fires compared to the first 15 days of July 2019, when burning was permitted.

With the situation also causing concern in the Amazon rainforest, on July 16 Brazil’s federal government decreed a 120-day nationwide ban on fires, in order to contain environmental and health damage.

In Mato Grosso, the situation is most serious in the region of Poconé, 103 kilometers from state capital Cuiabá, where a large proportion of the fires were identified during a flyover by the Pantanal Fire Department. Due to the difficulty in accessing these areas, it has not yet been possible to fully identify just how much of the region has already been destroyed by the flames. According to the firefighters, the area has several isolated blazes which are difficult to reach — even for aircraft, as there are no runways or landing spots.[/restricted]

Categories
Environment

A Brasília animal trafficking ring to rival Netflix’s Tiger King

A worldwide hit during Covid-19 isolation, Netflix series Tiger King is a bizarre and immersive depiction of the world of exotic animal enthusiasts in the U.S. The eponymous big cat monarch at the center of the show is Joe Exotic, the eccentric 50-something zoo owner with a love for all things feline. Behind the dramatic — and often ludicrous — twists and turns of the seven-part series, light is cast on the shady illegal market of buying and selling exotic animals. And in Brazil, soon after the Tiger King zeitgeist faded, news of a man being bitten by a cobra in capital city Brasília ended up shedding light on an animal trafficking ring worthy of its own television series.[restricted]

The story began on July 7, when 22-year-old vet student Pedro Lehmkul was bitten by a venomous monocled cobra. The following day, the snake was found inside a box outside a shopping mall in the Lago Sul region of Brasília, 14 kilometers from Mr. Lehmkul’s home. Since then, by way of investigations and anonymous tip-offs, police in the capital have found a series of wild animals being kept in apartments, houses, and ranches of people linked to Mr. Lehmkul, who was left in a coma after the cobra bite and left hospital last week, seeing his role switch from victim to prime suspect.

The investigation began as soon as the Civil Police was informed that a young man had been treated in a Brasilia hospital for a cobra bite. As the species in question is highly venomous and not endemic to Brazil — being native to Asia and Africa — law enforcement suspected there could be more to the story than first thought. Detectives visited Mr. Lehmkul’s apartment, finding objects indicating that other serpents were being bred illegally. The following day, after an anonymous tip-off, Environmental Police officers rescued 10 exotic snakes — all originating from other countries — and another six wild Brazilian cobras in a horse stud farm 40 kilometers from Brasilia city center.

The Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama) promptly fined Pedro Lehmkul BRL 2,000 for breeding the animal without authorization. He would then receive a subsequent BRL 61,000 penalty for mistreatment and harboring native and exotic serpents in captivity without authorization. Members of his family will also receive BRL 8,500 fines each, for having impeded the rescue of the animal. On the same day, a man surrendered two juvenile snakes to Ibama, apparently having been convinced to do so after hearing of Mr. Lehmkul’s bite. According to the agency, the man purchased the snakes on social media. One of the animals was a Trimeresurus pit viper, whose lethal venom has no antidote in Brazil.

Meanwhile, on the same day, civil police officers in Brasilia rescued three sharks being raised in a ranch outside the capital. Seven snakes were also found at the residence, along with a moray eel and a tegu lizard. The owner of the property — a friend of Pedro Lehmkul — was issued a notice of environmental violation at the scene and will be fined by Ibama. 

Friend helped hide snakes

The following day, police made a further discovery. In another apartment close to Pedro Lehmkul’s residence, officers found another serpent, this time a rainbow boa constrictor. They also found the shed skin of a surucucu pit viper, several rats — presumably being bred to feed the snakes — an armadillo carcass and macaw feathers. The apartment belonged to Gabriel Ribeiro de Moura, a classmate of Mr. Lehmkul’s. The investigation concluded that Mr. Moura was responsible for hiding the serpents while his friend was in the hospital. With this discovery, the number of snakes rescued in the space of just three days rose to 25. All were taken to Brasília Zoo.

The police operation progressed on July 16, with search and seizure actions carried out at three addresses around the capital. The first was the home of military policeman Eduardo Condi, the stepfather of Pedro Lehmkul. He was taken in for questioning and had his cell phone seized. At another location, police seized documents, veterinary drugs, and equipment used for the illegal breeding of wild and exotic animals — and another cobra. The property had been emptied, under the responsibility of a public servant of the justice system, whose identity was not revealed.  

On Wednesday morning, Gabriel de Moura was arrested after being considered a prime suspect in taking the serpents to the horse farm and hiding the monocled cobra outside the Brasilia shopping mall. His lawyer, Amanda Vieira, said she will request habeas corpus so that her client may answer the charges at liberty. Meanwhile, Mr. Lehmkul has yet to be questioned by the Civil Police for medical reasons.

The criminal scheme in question is not restricted to vet students, however. Police believe they were assisted by Ibama employees. On July 17, the agency dismissed one employee from the Wild Animal Triage Center (Cetas) in Brasilia under suspicion of involvement in the trafficking ring. Said employee is alleged to have illegally issued transport licenses for the serpents. Ibama fired another public servant on Thursday for the same reason, after a license issued bearing her name in 2019 was found during searches of Gabriel de Moura’s home.

Animal trafficking: a lucrative criminal business

Brasilia’s Civil Police force is working with a number of lines of investigation in order to tie up the case. Among them is the hypothesis that the vet students were involved in an international animal trafficking scheme and clandestine research on exotic animals. “If the cobra is the result of a cross that occurred in Brazil, it is very likely that there are others around the country,” said police chief Willian Ricardo, who leads the case. “Even if these boys had these animals for their own collections, there is an organized trafficking group behind this, which will be brought to light,” he added.

Investigators estimate that the monocled cobra that bit Pedro Lehmkul would be worth up to BRL 20,000 on the parallel market. This criminal business is worth around USD 20 billion per year around the world, with Brazil making up around 10 to 15 percent of the market. In terms of profitability, only drugs and arms trafficking are more lucrative than dealing in exotic animals. United Nations data estimates that 38 million animals are removed from Brazilian forests every year, and only one in ten survives capture and transport. 

The National Network to Fight Wild Animal Trafficking (Renctas) — a Brazilian NGO working to combat the illegal sale of animals — says it has monitored 250 groups on social media linked to the criminal practice over the course of five months. In that time, 3.5 million messages related to the purchase and sale of exotic animals were found, including cobras, spiders, macaws, parrots, and even venomous toads. The majority of these groups are maintained by Facebook communities with over 100,000 members. Renctas concluded that the import of venomous animals has become more and more common, drawing attention to the increasing number of young people involved in illegal negotiations.

Prosecutors in Brasilia declared on Friday that they have opened a case to investigate the sale of wild and exotic animals on social media. The Cybercrime Division will examine whether there is a connection between illegal commerce of animals online and the case of the cobra that bit Pedro Lehmkul.

Meanwhile, the monocled cobra is moving on to a career in show business. ‘Owner’ of a Twitter account with over 41,000 followers, the elegant Asian serpent starred in a live broadcast organized by Brasília Zoo on Friday afternoon.[/restricted]

Categories
Environment

The Brazilian biome suffering more than the Amazon

Early in June, the Environment and Sustainability Agency of the Center-West state of Goiás launched a major clampdown operation in the municipality of Cavalcante — a tourism hotspot in the Chapada dos Veadeiros national park. In a single day, agents identified 24 spots of deforestation and illegal mining, among them a previously untouched area of savannah transformed into cattle pasture by Cavalcante Mayor Josemar Saraiva Freire — who was fined BRL 169,000 (USD 31,500) and saw two of the City Hall’s own diggers seized, which he had used to carry out the crime. 

During the same operation, inspectors witnessed the destruction of 500 hectares of native savannah land within the Kalunga quilombo, which are traditional communities founded by runaway slaves throughout Brazil’s long-running slave trade.

While the eyes of the world are trained on the Amazon rainforest — with good reason — it is Brazil’s savannah-like Cerrado region which is suffering the most from deforestation.[restricted] While around 70 percent of the Amazon is public land, and rural producers must keep 80 percent of their properties intact, the Cerrado is mostly in the hands of private landowners. The area is Brazil’s agricultural engine and houses riverbeds that serve as the sources of three of South America’s biggest river basins. But it has already lost half of its original vegetation coverage to pastures and crops such as soy, corn, and cotton. The other half is highly fragmented, which compromises the biome’s ability to preserve its biodiversity.

Spanning 11 states, the Cerrado occupies around 22 percent of Brazil. According to the latest Annual Deforestation Report by NGO MapBiomas, there were 7,400 deforestation alerts in the Cerrado area — against 47,200 in the Amazon. But the discrepancy is much narrower when it comes to actual deforested area: while 770,100 hectares of forest were destroyed in the Amazon — an average of 16 ha per alert — around 408,600 ha were lost in the Cerrado, over three times more on average per deforestation alert.

While destruction of native vegetation is less common in the Cerrado, when it does happen it is far more extensive.

Combined, the Amazon and Cerrado comprised 96 percent of all deforestation alerts and 96.7 percent of the total deforested area in 2019. These are the two best-monitored biomes in Brazil, presenting continuous deforestation monitoring systems with methodological approaches adapted for each respective regions.


Current laws don’t prevent deforestation

Unlike the Amazon region, the agrarian issues in the Cerrado are fairly uncontroversial, as most of the land is already under private ownership. According to the current Forest Code, landowners are only required to keep 20 percent of their property untouched — against the 80 percent minimum in the Amazon. Still, most deforestation in the biome bears all the signs of illegality — either because producers jump the gun and cut down natural vegetation before gaining permission, or because they are simply trespassing onto protected areas, according to MapBiomas.

“It is testament to the state’s lack of management capacity — and political will — to make this system work. There was this theory that land rectification would be enough to curb illegal deforestation — but we have proof that this alone doesn’t work,” says researcher Mercedes Bustamante, an expert on the Cerrado at the Biological Sciences Institute of the University of Brasília.

Satellite data shows that deforestation in the Cerrado has decreased in recent years — but that doesn’t mean the biome is not under immense pressure from private interests. Ms. Bustamante says landowners commonly deforest large expanses of land over a single year, when conditions are favorable — and then gradually occupy this territory in subsequent years according to their needs.


deforestation mapbiomas
Image: MapBiomas

Brazilian agricultural exports tainted by Cerrado and Amazon deforestation

A study entitled “The rotten apples of Brazil’s agribusiness,” published in the latest issue of Science magazine, shows that up to 22 percent of Brazilian soybean exports — and 17 percent of beef exports — which leave the Amazon and Cerrado biomes and head to the European Union may have been produced on illegally deforested land. Last week, the government finally made a commitment to preserve the rainforest.

Based on data from 2008 to 2019, the study identified 2.4 million hectares illegally deforested both in the Amazon and Cerrado — an area 16 times the size of the city of São Paulo, and bigger than the country of Slovenia. Interestingly, two-thirds of the deforestation in these biomes occurred on just 2 percent of rural properties, precisely those which produce soybeans and rear cattle.

Brazil’s lack of control over its land use has turned the country into an international pariah — with investors, big agricultural corporations, and other governments ganging up on the country. Some European Union nations are using the rising deforestation as justification for blocking the Mercosur-EU free-trade agreement. Last week, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said the administration “has lost control of the narrative” and is on the “defensive” when it comes to environmental issues. However, no concrete measure has been proposed.[/restricted]

Categories
Environment

Mariana disaster: will justice finally be served?

Five years after the collapse of a tailings dam operated by mining company Samarco caused untold environmental damage to the town of Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais, a case filed by international law firm PGMBM against miner BHP will be opened in Manchester, England today. The plaintiffs request GBP 5 billion (USD 6.36 billion) in compensation for the losses caused by the tragedy in 2015, which resulted in 19 deaths and widespread environmental devastation caused by the spill of toxic sludge.

The collective complaint includes 240,000 individuals, 24 municipalities, 11,000 businesses, and the Krenak indigenous community. In addition to the deaths and the total destruction of Bento Rodrigues, a small village 35 kilometers from Mariana, some 39 million cubic meters of tailings were released into the surrounding area, reaching the Rio Doce basin and causing the biggest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history. Even now, there is no telling exactly how many people were affected by the dam collapse, provoking serious damage along the 700 km Rio Doce.[restricted]

Based in Liverpool, the firm is suing BHP in England and Wales as the Anglo-Australian mining company controls Samarco, alongside major Brazilian miner Vale, which was blamed for a subsequent dam collapse in Brumadinho in 2019, killing almost 300 people.

The trial begins today and is expected to last for a week, deciding whether the courts of England and Wales have the jurisdiction to rule on the matter, as even though the incident occurred in Brazil, the local justice system has yet to satisfactorily guarantee compensation, reparations and responses to all those affected. BHP’s attorneys claim that hearing the case in Manchester would duplicate the already existing lawsuits, which are dragging on in Brazilian courts.

Samarco ignored warnings in Mariana

In the case to be analyzed in England and Wales, the over 200,000 claimants state that BHP ignored the warnings about the capacity of the Fundão dam in Bento Rodrigues. According to the lawyers, the Anglo-Australian miner was ‘ultimately’ responsible for the structure’s collapse.

In a statement, PGMBM said it has assembled a “wide range of documents claiming that it is legitimate for the clients to bring an case before the courts of England and Wales.” This documentation includes legal opinions, statements from victims and Brazilian lawyers working on behalf of those affected, and populations affected by the dam collapse.

In November 2018, The Brazilian Report showed that the disaster could have been avoided if Samarco, the mining company responsible for the dam, had spent a mere USD 1.5 million in safety measures. In 2009, the company refused to implement an emergency plan to monitor safety at the Fundão Dam. The money would have used to install a telemetric system to identify structural risks, and would have allowed the company to develop a contingency plan to rescue neighboring communities in case of an accident. That’s what Randal Fonseca, owner of RTI Consulting, told reporter Karla Mendes (Mr. Fonseca is also the author of an emergency plan that Samarco declined to implement).

The claimants are unable to attend the hearings in Manchester, due to the closure of European borders to Brazilians as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Mayor of Mariana, Duarte Júnior, traveled to England to closely follow the case and represent the interests of the municipality. “We are very confident,” he said. He noted that he said the city has not received any compensation to date. The only compensatory action, he said, was the construction of a mental health treatment unit. The city hall demands BRL 1.2 million (USD 1.2 million) in reparatory and compensatory damages in the case.

Mariana: 19 people killed and entire towns buried under an avalanche of mud
Mariana: 19 people killed and entire towns buried under an avalanche of mud. Photo: Renan Martelli da Rosa/Shutterstock

Brazilian court orders payment of damages

Meanwhile, in Brazil, a federal court has ordered Samarco to pay compensation to those affected by the Fundão dam collapse. The decision was taken by the 12th federal court of Minas Gerais, in sentences rendered on July 1 and 9 and published on Tuesday. 

The amounts of compensation vary between BRL 23,980 and BRL 94,585. Fishermen, artisans, farmers and washerwomen — who were demonstrably dependent on the Rio Doce — and residents of the cities of Naque and Baixo Guandu, along the river’s course, will be entitled to payments.

The sentences also ordered that the Renova Foundation, Samarco, Vale, and BHP pay out lost profits and financial and emergency aid to those affected. The Renova Foundation must develop a specific online platform for the registration of beneficiaries in order to comply with the decision.

Other professions, such as fish traders, sand and clay sellers, hotels, inns, restaurants and bars, farmers, and rural producers are still awaiting similar decisions.

Murder charges dropped

Four companies and 22 people became defendants in Brazilian courts in 2016 as a result of the Mariana tragedy. Twenty-one of them were accused of murder and bodily injury, among other crimes. Thirteen were excluded by court orders and will not be held liable for any crimes, according to the Federal Prosecution Service.

In April 2019, the charges of murder and bodily injury were dropped from the criminal case. As a result, the defendants will no longer was a public jury for the 19 deaths caused by the incident, as jury trials in Brazil are reserved for homicide cases alone. Instead they will only answer charges of “aggravated flooding,” as the dam collapse resulted in deaths, landslides, and 12 environmental crimes.

Samarco, Vale and BHP have been charged with the same 12 environmental crimes. Meanwhile, civil engineering company VogBr is held liable for issuing false or misleading reports. The crime of flooding holds a penalty of six to 12 years in prison when it is aggravated, as in the case of resulting in death.

In a statement, BHP “reaffirms its position that the case is not within the jurisdiction of the British courts.” According to the company, the Brazilian justice system and the Renova Foundation (created to assist those affected by the tragedy) “are in a better position to deal with requests that arise from events that have occurred in Brazil and are subject to Brazilian law, and already have considerable experience in dealing with these requests.”

Furthermore, the statement says BHP is “fully committed to the reparation actions related to the rupture of the Fundão dam, through the remediation programs executed by the Renova Foundation which, until May 31, 2020, has paid BRL 2.7 billion in damages and financial aid to those affected. In addition, BHP also supports Samarco in its process of resuming operations.”[/restricted]

Categories
Environment

Massive blaze in São Paulo mountains rages for five days

A blaze is tearing its way through the landscape of the Serra da Mantiqueira mountain range in Brazil’s Southeast, burning for five straight days and destroying 490 hectares of forest, an area equivalent to 530 football pitches. The region destroyed by the blaze lies close to the triple border between the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro — Brazil’s most populous and wealthiest. The flames have even reached the Pedra da Mina mountain, the fourth highest in the country.

Fire brigades from São Paulo and Minas Gerais have struggled to combat the blaze due to the topography of the region, with its steep rock faces and dense forest. On Tuesday afternoon, crews are attempting to put out flames on the southern face of Pedra da Mina, where fighting fire on land is unfeasible.[restricted]

fires serra mantiqueira blaze brazil
Military firefighter at the Pedra da Mina mountain. Photo: CBMMG

The firefighters are relying on aircraft from the Army, Navy and State Forestry Institute of Minas Gerais. “Ground combat is impossible. There’s no way our military can go up there. That’s why we have to use helicopters and airplanes,” said Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Alberto de Camargo Junior, the commander of the operation.

Weather conditions have helped the fire to spread. Besides low levels of humidity, the Serra da Mantiqueira is undergoing a drought, which is very common at this time of year. Furthermore, firefighters have had to contend with subzero temperatures. On both Monday and Tuesday, thermometers fell to -3°C at dawn. One of the main centers of the blaze was extinguished on Monday night. 

A major operation in the mountains

fires mantiqueira
Photo: Still from MGTV

The operation in the Serra da Mantiqueira involves 107 firefighters and 37 trucks, as well as the two helicopters and one personnel transport aircraft, totalling 116 people working to battle the flames in the mountains. The Armed Forces provided four aircraft, including a Hercules-130 equipped with firefighting equipment, dousing large quantities of water on the blaze.

Almost 500 kilometers long, the Serra da Mantiqueira is one of Brazil’s most important mountain ranges, originally covered by native Atlantic Forest. Due to its natural beauty and cold climate, the mountain region is a much sought-after tourist attraction, with popular getaways such as Campos do Jordão, in São Paulo, and Monte Verde, in Minas Gerais.

In the state of São Paulo alone, the fire brigade has recorded almost 17,500 forest fires so far this year. The majority are caused by humans, often by littering of cigarette ends, metallic objects, and glass bottles tossed at the side of highways. The origins of the fire in the Serra da Mantiqueira, however, remain unclear.[/restricted]

Categories
Coronavirus Environment

Indigenous community displaced by dam collapse now fears Covid-19

First, they lost the river, their source of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, and of fish, which formed the cornerstone of their diet. Then, they lost their land, where they planted crops and followed their traditional customs. And now, they run the risk of losing their lives from Covid-19. This is the story of the Pataxó-hã-hã-hães indigenous community, ran out of their homes after the collapse of the Córrego do Feijão tailings dam in January 2019, in the town of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais. 

Before the tragedy, which resulted in the death of almost 300 people, the destruction of entire communities, and the contamination of several sources of freshwater, 18 families lived in the Pataxó-hã-hã-hã-hãe Naô Xohã village, in São Joaquim de Bicas, a small municipality in the Paraopeba River valley. Most had only lived there for two years, after leaving their homeland in southern Bahia due to lack of water. Naô Xohã means “warrior spirit” in Patxohã, the traditional language still spoken by some members of the indigenous community.[restricted]

Of this group, 122 people from 13 families left the region of Brumadinho at the beginning of 2020, as they no longer saw any sense in living in an area contaminated by mining waste, which made it impossible for them to survive according to their culture. The community divided, with some migrating from the forest in the interior of Minas Gerais toward the state capital of Belo Horizonte, and others moving back to southern Bahia.

Those who remained in Minas Gerais moved to the town of Ibirité, on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte. Unlike the relative quiet of Brumadinho, Ibirité is overpopulated, poor, and often violent. However, this was where they were able to subsist on monthly damages payments from mining company Vale, the firm responsible for the collapsed dam in 2019. They recieve one BRL 1,045 (USD 199) minimum wage per adult, BRL 500 per adolescent family member, and BRL 250 per child. 

In Belo Horizonte, the families pay rents ranging from BRL 600 to BRL 800 a month. They live in shacks without front yards, commonplace in Brazilian favelas, where basic sanitation, water, and electricity infrastructure are lacking, as are services such as health and education. What’s more, the monetary aid Vale began paying in April 2019 will only run until October.

By choosing Belo Horizonte, these families wanted to put pressure on Vale and the local government to make reparations to the indigenous peoples affected by the disaster that killed 270 people. Vale has an office in the capital of Minas Gerais, beside the headquarters of the Public Prosecution Service and the state courthouse.

Pataxó-hã-hã-hães protest in front of Congress. Photo: José Cruz/ABr.
Pataxó-hã-hã-hães protest in front of the Congress building. Photo: José Cruz/ABr.

The situation of these families worsened with the arrival of the coronavirus. By July 20, eight members of the indigenous community had tested positive for Covid-19. All of them belong to the six Pataxó families who live in the neighborhood of Taquaril, where more than 200 cases of Covid-19 have been reported. 

Among those who have been infected are community elder Geovais and his daughter Quiçá, who have been hospitalized for two weeks in the Santa Casa facility in Belo Horizonte. Her husband, who also has the disease, is recovering at home. Indigenous chief Hayó and his wife, Ãgohó, a Pataxó leader, were also infected. A 2-year-old indigenous boy has also been diagnosed with the disease. These other patients also spent time in the hospital but have since returned home. 

Hayó and Ãgohó have been living with the symptoms of the disease and both complain of having breathing difficulties, spending most of the day lying down. In addition to western medicine, both are using natural remedies such as ginger, avocado seeds, pitanga, tobacco leaf, rosemary and amburana to attempt to treat the fever and malaise.

Concerned about the future of their families, Ãgohó refers to what has happened to their community as “extermination.”

“We were forced to change because we could no longer live in the village. We lost our source of water and food. We even lost our culture, our rituals. Here in the city we live imprisoned. There are shacks with up to eight indigenous people, who, for fear of violence and the coronavirus, don’t go outside. This is death,” complains the Pataxó leader.

Indeed, the plight of indigenous communities in the Americas during the Covid-19 pandemic was raised by World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a briefing on Monday.

“Though Covid-19 is a risk for all indigenous peoples globally, the WHO is deeply concerned about the impact of the virus on groups in the Americas, which remains the current epicenter of the pandemic,” he said.

“We do not have to wait for a vaccine. We have to save lives now.”

Health Ministry not treating indigenous patients

One week ago, the Federal Prosecution Service (MPF) recommended that the Health Ministry’s indigenous health secretariat (Sesai) should adopt effective measures to guarantee the right to health of members of the Pataxó indigenous community, affected by the rupture of the Córrego do Feijão dam in Brumadinho.

In November 2019, Sesai told the MPF that it could not provide care for the Pataxó people as the community’s lands are not in the process of being demarcated. That statement was reiterated again on June 22 of this year, when the MPF once again questioned discrepancies in healthcare.

However, on July 8, Supreme Court Justice Roberto Barroso ordered the services of indigenous health be immediately extended to communities living on not-yet protected lands, as is the case of the Pataxó people.

According to the justice, “the federal government’s attitude towards indigenous peoples located on non-demarcated lands is unacceptable. The identity of a group as an indigenous people is, primordially a matter of self-recognition by the members of the group itself. It does not depend on the homologation of the right to land. On the contrary, it precedes the recognition of such a right.”

Citing the decision, the MPF recommended that Sesai must effectively and actively participate in the entire process of reparation for the damage suffered by the indigenous people, coordinating the measures to be taken and ensuring the presence of multidisciplinary indigenous health teams in the village, contracted by public authorities and funded by Vale.

The Health Ministry has not yet responded to these demands.

Emergency Plan

In a statement, Vale reported that a multidisciplinary health team was hired for diagnosis and emergency care for indigenous groups. The plan includes guidance on how to confront the disease, remote psychological care, daily monitoring of symptoms through virtual platforms and telephone contacts, and support in contacting municipal and state health services at the appearance of any suspicious cases.

The company also said a health team hired in partnership with the São Joaquim de Bicas Municipal Health Secretariat carried out a flu vaccination campaign with the group, in order to protect the indigenous community and ward off symptoms that could be confused with Covid-19.

With regard to land issues, the mining company said that after an agreement with the MPF, the Indigenous Affairs Agency (Funai), and indigenous leaders of the community, the firm will hire an independent consultancy firm which will be responsible for the socio-economic diagnosis and evaluation of the impacts of the dam collapse on the community, in order to create an effective plan of reparation. The hiring of the consultancy is in progress, under the leadership of MPF and Funai.[/restricted]