The destruction of the Amazon, explained

“And in South America tonight, an environmental problem of a much greater magnitude.” “The destruction of the Amazon rainforest.” “A worldwide disaster.” In the 1980s, the world learned that the Amazon was in danger. “Trees are falling at a startling rate…” “77,000 square miles…” “… an area twice the size of Belgium…” “…the size of New York State…” “…the size of California, disappears.” And why it was so important to save it. “One-fifth of the oxygen we breathe.” “20% of the world’s fresh water.” “Half of the species of life on earth is in these forests.” “…An ecosystem the entire world needs for its survival.” By the 1990s, it seemed like it was too late. “The destruction accelerates.” “More than twice as fast as previously believed.” “Virtually impossible to control.” “Once it is gone, it is gone forever.” Then, something changed: “The annual destruction rate of the Amazon rainforest has dropped… …by 70%.” “The lowest rate of deforestation since records began.” “The Amazon could achieve the end of deforestation. A huge accomplishment.” But in order to keep it safe, there
was one condition: “Protecting the forest is a continual process.” “Brazil will need to stay vigilant.” But it didn’t. “The Amazon is burning.” “Consumed by fire.” “Fires have been raging.” “Thousands of fires are blazing…” “…as more and more trees are cut down.” “Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest hit its highest rate in a decade.” Today, the Amazon is being destroyed, all over again. The question is: Can it be saved this time? The first wave of deforestation started in
the 1970s. That’s when Brazil’s military regime saw
the potential for profit deep in the Amazon. There were almost 5 million square kilometers
of rainforest filled with natural resources. “Amazonia’s ores and minerals, food, fiber, and forest resources are vast.” But most of it was inaccessible. So the government started building the Trans-Amazonian Highway an ambitious project that would run for 3200 kilometers connecting remote
parts of the rainforest. At the time, most of Brazil’s population lived in the southeast; in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. And the government wanted to move people out
here – to cultivate the land and grow the economy. So they offered free land along the highway
and paid Brazilians to settle deeper in the rainforest. And they sparked a land rush. As the road advanced, settlers followed, rapidly clearing the forest around it. Most of them turned the land into pasture,
where they raised cows to sell as beef. And when these ranchers needed more land,
they seized another plot, cleared it, and moved their cattle in. This expansion deeper into the Amazon drove up deforestation. Between 1978 and 1988, an average of over 20,000
square kilometers were cut down each year. Over time this area became known as the Arc
of Deforestation. And soon, a different product pushed this
even further. People around the world were eating more meat, decade after decade. That trend raised the need for more soybeans; which served as high-protein feed for farmed animals. This created a huge opportunity
for countries most suitable for growing soybeans, and Brazil cashed in. Soybean exports from Brazil shot up in the
mid ’90s, boosting the economy. By the early 2000s, farmers took over these
pastures and turned them into massive soy farms. Like this one, in Acre state. And the ranchers who sold their pastures,
moved their cattle further into the rainforest, clearing more of the Amazon, often illegally. This aggressive expansion created a profitable
pattern in the Amazon. But it came at the cost of the rainforest. By the early 2000s, Brazil’s beef and soy
industries were driving a booming economy, as well as unprecedented rates of deforestation… Which caused this arc to expand further north. The staggering deforestation in the Amazon
attracted fierce resistance from environmental groups. “An area of ancient forest, the size of a football field is destroyed every two seconds.” The Brazilian government, under president
Lula da Silva, finally stepped in. This is Marina Silva. She was Brazil’s Environment Minister in 2003,
when she helped craft a plan to stop deforestation. It started with the government expanding the amount of rainforest under protection. At the time, only about 28% was protected, and there was very little oversight. But this new plan added more reserves, where business activities were strictly banned, and also created more sustainable-use reserves,
where some businesses, like Brazillian nut harvesting and rubber-tapping, which didn’t destroy the rainforest, were allowed. More land was also demarcated for indigenous
people, who preserved the forest. Over time, hundreds of new protected lands
were added, transforming the Amazon into a shared and sustainable space. Eventually, almost half the Amazon would be
put under some form of protection, while the rest of it remained a mix of pasture,
farms and rainforest. To prevent further deforestation here, the government strengthened the Forest Code: which said landowners could
only clear 20% of their private land. This law was monitored by the Forest Service,
which was part of the Environmental Ministry, which had jurisdiction over all of these protected lands. And the key to enforcing this entire plan
was strengthening IBAMA: a police agency that would track and fine people for illegal deforestation. And the plan showed results: with deforestation rates falling by more than half in 2006. At the same time, an activist movement was
forcing the agricultural industry to make a change. Major food companies started feeling pressure
from consumers for participating in deforestation. So several got together, and in 2006, signed a Soy Moratorium: which meant they could continue to operate within existing farms, but they wouldn’t buy
soy from any newly deforested land in the Amazon. Three years later, beef companies signed a
similar agreement. Other countries also gave Brazil money to
help it protect the Amazon. Under all this protection, deforestation rates
plummeted to historic lows. And yet, Brazil’s soy and beef industries
continued to grow, thanks to more efficient techniques: Ranchers started growing crops on their existing
pastures. And farmers planted two crops a year on their
land instead of one. Brazil had found a way make to Amazon both
productive, and protected. But there were some who still wanted it to
be a more profitable place. The ruralistas, a group of conservative politicians who represent the interests of the agricultural industry, including farmers and ranchers, started gaining influence in Brazil. In the early 2000s they had about 17% of the
seats in congress. But by 2012 they had about 30%… Enough power to push President Dilma Rousseff
to weaken the Forest Code, which allowed landowners to get away with clearing more land. In 2016, they pushed President Michel Temer
to slash IBAMA’s budget. They also helped him pass a law that made
it easier for people who illegally seized land in the Amazon, to keep it. These changes emboldened some people to seize and clear the rainforest again. And that led to a rise in deforestation rates. In 2018, as the ruralistas controlled 44%
of Congress, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman and ally to the ruralistas, was elected president. On his second day in office, he transferred
the forest service, which monitors the forest code, to the agricultural ministry
– led by a ruralista. He’s also worked to systematically weaken
the Environmental Ministry. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation has increased
significantly in 2019, most of it taking place in these protected
areas. Setting fires is a common way to clear land… And in August 2019, over 30,000 fires were
burning in the Amazon: Three times as many as in August 2018. Many set illegally by ranchers, farmers, and
landowners, emboldened by the government’s new stance on the Amazon. But this time, the Amazon is unlikely to survive
another wave of deforestation. In the last 50 years, it’s estimated that about 17% of the Amazon has been deforested. A 2018 report estimated that, if it reaches
20-25%, the whole rainforest could start to collapse. It wouldn’t be enough to cycle all the
water it needs, causing trees to die. And that would release a huge amount of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere, further warming the planet. But in Brazil, many politicians and agricultural
businesses continue to ignore the science for the sake of profit. Clearing the Amazon for short-term gains overlooks the fact that the planet as we know it wouldn’t exist without this rainforest. It’s why this place was saved
once before. Thanks for watching this special edition of Vox Atlas. This is one of three that we produced on the Amazon. And this one was about the drivers of deforestation and and some of the Brazilian politics surrounding the current crisis today. In the next one we’re going to take a step back in the history We’re going to meet a man named Chico Mendes who led the original fight to save the Amazon, back in the 1980s. His story is super interesting and very relevant to today. So make sure to come back and watch more Vox Atlas in the Amazon.

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