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Brazil's presidential election will determine the fate of deforestation in the Amazon

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon has skyrocketed. But there's a presidential election in October and leading the polls is former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who says he will fight deforestation, and now activists say they fear loggers, ranchers and miners are racing to illegally clear new sections of forests before Lula could take office. Joining us from Sao Paulo to discuss is Gustavo Faleiros, a journalist with the Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network. Welcome to the program.

GUSTAVO FALEIROS: Thank you, Ayesha. It's a pleasure to be here.

RASCOE: A huge portion of the Amazon rainforest has been razed since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Remind us the role that he played in allowing that to happen.

FALEIROS: Yeah. So certainly the government of Bolsonaro has total responsibility for this. One reason is that he himself has been incentivizing not-sustainable activities in the Amazon saying that the vocation of the Amazon is actually to mine and to produce commodities like soybeans and beef, and the way some of these producers are doing is by destroying the forests. And then comes the main factor that is helping these bad producers, so to speak, to work unchecked which is the reduction of any kind of enforcement on the ground. So there was a very little budget for the environmental agencies of Brazil to enforce the environmental legislation.

RASCOE: What evidence are you seeing that deforestation has been escalating this year?

FALEIROS: So one important consideration is that, historically, electoral years in Brazil represent more deforestation. But the case this year is a bit different because the deforestation start much earlier. What we saw in the deforestation alerts - every month, the National Institute of Space Research in Brazil release the deforestations alerts, and we've been seeing since the beginning of the year the spikes of deforestation happening since January, and the importance of looking at this evidence is that in January, February, March, deforestations are usually low because of the rain in the Amazon region. And our analysis and what we are hearing from journalists on the ground and people who are working with NGO is that the producers take every opportunity to establish new land. That's what actually is the drive for deforestation.

RASCOE: Lula has said he'll take action to curb deforestation if he's elected. What challenges would he face for that?

FALEIROS: I think he will face a lot of challenge. There is structural problems in the Amazon and the main one is not having another generative of - an economic activity that is not linked to destruction. Mining, cattle ranching and agriculture in general in the Amazon is done with deforestation. So the biggest challenge for Lula is proposing something that is different, alternative - but apart from that, Brazil is suffering an economic crisis as well, so putting budget to these environmental agencies to enforce things on the ground is going to be a challenge.

RASCOE: Can you remind us what the stakes are when it comes to this deforestation of the Amazon, you know, both for local indigenous groups but also for the wider planet?

FALEIROS: Yeah. For the past 20 years, the conservation movement or even the government were very successful, one, reserving protected areas and Indigenous territories. So what is happening now that's so damaging for the local population is that the areas outside of these reserves are getting exhausted. And to consolidate this new land, you have to take trees down and burn, and while doing this, you are emitting carbon. That's how the Amazon is contributing so much for climate change at this point. And at same time, you losing a lot of other environmental services, as we say. You lose the capacity of generating moisture in rain which is a key element in South America, so by destroying Amazon and other rainforests, it should be said we are basically damaging our lives.

RASCOE: That's Gustavo Faleiros, environment investigations editor for the Pulitzer Center. Thank you so much for joining us.

FALEIROS: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jeongyoon Han
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