The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the global economy, but deforestation in the Amazon is speeding up. While most of Brazil’s major businesses remain shuttered under lockdowns and quarantine measures, many believe illegal loggers and miners continue to operate in the area with little to no regulation.
Deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest increased by nearly 64% in April this year, compared to the same month last year, shows data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Last month alone, more than 156 square miles (405.6 square kilometers) of rainforest were destroyed – a vast swath more than double the size of Washington, DC.
The first trimester of 2020 had already seen a more than 50% increase in deforestation compared to last year, according to INPE data.
More than 3,000 soldiers from the Brazilian Armed Forces have been deployed to the Amazon, along with environmental officials, to help curb illegal logging and other criminal activities that could impact the rainforest, according to the Defense Ministry.
President Jair Bolsonaro has previously faced global criticism and condemnation for the deforestation occurring under his watch. The far-right and pro-business president has vowed to explore the rainforest’s economic potential.
Last year, after mass fires consumed large swaths of the rainforest, Bolsonaro was accused of incentivizing the activity of illegal ranchers, miners and loggers, many of whom use fire as a quick way to cut down trees to clear room for crops and cattle grazing. By November 2019, the deforestation rate in the Amazon had risen to its highest level in more than a decade.
“We are well on track for another record year for deforestation and fires in the Amazon,” Adriana Charoux, an Amazon campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil said in a recent press statement. “In the midst of the pandemic, Bolsonaro is doubling down on actions that would effectively disintegrate indigenous territories and lead to more deforestation for meat production.
One of the measures Bolsonaro is pushing for now is Provisional Measure 910 (MP 910), a law which could allow so-called “land grabbers” who illegally invaded public land from 2011 to 2018 to establish legal ownership. The measure was scheduled to be voted in Congress on Wednesday, but didn’t have a quorum.
The hashtag #NoMP910 trended in Brazil Wednesday, with environmentalists and Brazilians in general protesting the vote. “It’s our land, territory, place. Our environment is not a political-electoral bargaining chip,” indigenous activist Mayalú Txucarramãe Tweeted on her personal account. “Stop the genocide and ecocide.”
Bolsonaro has frequently criticized the amount of Amazon land officially demarcated as indigenous territory as excessive. During an event at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia last February, Bolsonaro said it was “abusive” for such a large portion of territory to be occupied by the regional tribes leaving “its goods hidden forever.”
Coronavirus deaths among Brazil’s indigenous people
About 13% of Brazil is indigenous land, mostly in the Amazon. That land is officially reserved for the country’s 900,000 indigenous people, which represents less than 0.5% of the country’s population.
Activists worry that increasing commercial activity in the Amazon also carries a higher risk that outsiders will carry contagious diseases into indigenous communities – including the coronavirus.
“The indigenous people in the Amazon don’t have the antibodies for the diseases that come from outside of the rainforest,” Brazilian activist and photographer Sebastião Salgado told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour during a recent interview. “There is a huge danger that the coronavirus could come inside indigenous territory and become a real genocide.”
Salgado, who currently lives in Paris, has spent several decades photographing Brazil’s indigenous communities. He told Amanpour that when he has photographed in the Amazon in the past, he had to undergo a 10-day quarantine but said he fears that now “the door is open” for anyone to trespass on indigenous land potentially exposing them to diseases like coronavirus.
At least 277 cases and 19 deaths linked to the coronavirus have been confirmed so far among Brazil’s indigenous tribes, according to SESAI, a specialized branch of the Brazilian Health Ministry that deals with health issues among indigenous populations. Many of these have been registered in the Alto Rio Solimões, in the state of Amazonas.
SESAI said it has sent hundreds of N95 masks, gloves and disposable goggle to dozens of tribes throughout the country. It has also launched a vaccination campaign against influenza and information campaign about Covid-19, according to a recent report.
But environmental groups like Survival International believe the only way to help the indigenous people – especially uncontacted groups – is to keep illegal loggers and miners out of their territory.
“If their lands are properly protected from outsiders, uncontacted tribes should be relatively safe from the coronavirus pandemic. But many of their territories are being invaded and stolen for logging, mining and agribusiness, with the encouragement of President Bolsonaro,” Survival International’s Uncontacted Tribes campaigner Sarah Shenker said in a recent press statement.
“Where invaders are present, coronavirus could wipe out whole peoples. It’s a matter of life and death.”
This story has been updated to correct the relative size of the rainforest destroyed last month.