Brazil is the guardian of the planet’s largest tropical rainforest, where most of the Earth's biodiversity and forest carbon stocks are concentrated, and which possesses the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water. Its natural patrimony extends over other five unique biomes. Even though, recently elected President Jair Bolsonaro, with 55 percent of valid votes, had made clear during his campaign that the environmental agenda was not a priority.
Bolsonaro’s first moves after the election showed signs that he was going to merge the Ministry of the Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture. However, in response to initial critiques from academics, NGOs, conservationists, and part of the agribusiness sector—such a merger had been called an “extinction” by conservationists, anthropologists, and activists—Bolsonaro is backing down. But Bolsonaro has promised other actions that could negatively affect the environmental, such as allowing mining inside Protected Areas; ending he calls an “industry" of fines designed to enforce the environmental regulation; and making environmental licensing for infrastructure development and the use of pesticides more flexible.
Collateral effects of his promises during the presidential campaign to loosen environmental regulations have already begun. Deforestation in the Amazon region has risen, according to existing forest monitoring alerts (see SAD data from Imazon and DETER data from Inpe.), and more invasions of Protected Areas. This represents a worsening of an era of hard times for the environmental sector that began 2015 Dilma Russef and continued during the current administration of Michel Temer.
Our country is relatively young, having been in existence for only a little over 500 years. But the Amazon and the other biomes were there long before that, and home to several million indigenous people. In the past 100 years, we have reduced Brazil’s Atlantic Forest to less than 10 percent of its original extent; cleared 50 percent of the Cerrado savannah and almost 20 percent of the Amazon. Today more than 3,000 species are under threat of extinction. When I spoke with a Colombian IT entrepreneur about how to use data visualization and storytelling to engage more Brazilian citizens to support Protected Areas and nature, he said “you Brazilians should be proud of having inherited this immense natural patrimony.” And that is absolutely true.
I know that our country has other big social and economic challenges. The crime rate, with more than 60 thousand murders in 2016, is unacceptable. Corruption is entrenched in our society. The quality of public healthcare is low. And investment for education and science has drastically declined. Unemployment affects more than 13 million people, and the economy has been shrinking since 2014.
With his promise to vanish corruption, improve domestic security and rebuild the country’s economy (but without concrete proposals], Bolsonaro won the presidential election. Voters either didn’t mind or didn’t notice the dangers to the environment that were part his campaign. (Among these was a threat to leave the Paris Climate Accord during his campaign, although he seems to be backing away from that).
But I don’t believe that this is a sign that we Brazilian don’t care about the environment. In fact, a recent poll of more than a million voters revealed that 51 percent thought we should have more environmental protections, not less. Now is the right time for Brazilians to send a clear message to the new president and his ministers that the environmental agenda must be taken seriously.
So how can we do that? Our country has shown signs of extreme polarization and intolerance as a result of this election. Hence, the first step we must take is to reunite and restore our capacity to engage in dialogue and respect each other’s ideas. We must refuse to take a path toward intolerance, discrimination, racism or any sort of violence, and say no to the path of destroying our immense nature patrimony.
Secondly, we need to accelerate our environmental literacy. Most Brazilians people do not know that the Amazon rainforest is responsible for transporting water vapor to other regions in the country, which contributes to rainfall for agriculture production, hydroelectric energy, water use, and maintenance of aquatic biodiversity for food production. Most people do not know that reducing deforestation can slow down climate change and its negative impacts. And people don’t know that a large percentage of cleared lands are currently unproductive, which means we do not need to destroy even more of our forests to expand agriculture and cattle ranching.
Environmental literacy can also connect us with nature and improve our well-being. In 2017, 10 million people visited national parks in Brazil, an increase of 20 percent relative to 2016—and research has shown the psychological benefits of more engagement with nature. It reduces stress, strengthens our immune system, and makes us happier (see, for example the results of the 30 Days Wild challenge).
The third step is for the agribusiness sector in Brazil to recognize that nature is their best ally. Better soil management and maintenance of the forest to protect rivers, small streams and steep hillsides improves land productivity and makes land use sustainable in the long run. Several studies have shown that rainfall decreases in highly deforested landscapes, while CO2 emissions increase, leading to extreme weather conditions, such as longer, more intense droughts, along changes to rainfall and an increase in wildfires. Expanding agriculture at the expense of forests will also tarnish the image of companies that pursue such practices. In fact, a number of international agribusinesses and corporations in the finance sector have signed agreements to develop a deforestation-free market.
I am not going to answer the question of whether we Brazilians care about the environment. Certainly, many of us do, including many of Bolsonaro’s voters. Many others do not understand the implications of policies that harm the environment. And a minority simply do not take environmental protection. seriously. Bolsonaro has demonstrated that he does not fall into the first group, but he can change.
But Brazilian citizens must embrace and take pride in the natural capital that we have inherited, and not forget our immense responsibility to our people, our planet and future generations. We must send the right signals to Bolsonaro about the importance of protecting our national patrimony.