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Climate Change: Fumes of hate now engulf Brazil’s burning forests

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By Florencia Costa

In the home of the world's biggest tropical rainforest, the air is poisoned like never before. In a few weeks, Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, will complete one year in office. All through 2019, Bolsonaro has given speeches full of aggression against NGOs, green activists and the indigenous people. He has spewed hate even against foreigners like Hollywood star Leonardo Dicaprio and Greta Thunberg, the 16-years-old climate activist.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro launched an attack against Thunberg, calling her a "brat", as she tweeted about the non-stop killings of indigenous people who "are defending the Amazon". After Bolsonaro's slur, the Swedish girl changed her Twitter bio to "brat".

During his presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro promised to "develop" the Amazon region and swore not to give an inch more of land to the local tribes. He accused the environmental policies of suffocating the country's economy. Now, he is suffocating the environment.

In the Amazon, July and August is the dry season when loggers and ranchers put fire to the forest and grab land to prepare the terrain for crops and pasture. This year, the fires have gone out of control, burning huge parts of the precious forest. As the blazes became an international crisis, Bolsonaro reacted by ignoring the fires and attacking foreign leaders like the French President Emmanuel Macron — and even his wife. After much delay, the army was sent to control the flames.

In one year of Bolsonaro’s rule, the Ministry of Environment has become an empty shell, with key positions lying vacant the main programmes crippled by poor budget. The National Climate Change Fund, for example, did not spend any of the 8 million reals (US$ 2 million) authorized by the federal government, according to a report in Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper. The Secretariat of Forests and Sustainable Development, which is responsible for managing programmes with the Amazon Fund has four of its 10 positions vacant. The government agencies are in no position to combat deforestation. The illegal loggers, ranchers and miners are having a field day.

For this government, the environment is not a priority.

Last week, Brazil's environment minister Ricardo Salles was in Madrid for the Climate Conference (COP-25), which Brazil had rejected to host. Salles claimed that Brazil has a number of positive results and it has met all the climate and deforestation targets for the Amazon. The minister spent less than 15 minutes at the conference and left before critical speeches by two former environment ministers from Brazil, Marina Silva and Izabella Teixeira.

Contrary to Salles' claim, Brazil is facing a huge deforestation challenge in the Amazon. According to a National Institute for Space Research (INPE) report, from August 1, 2018, to July 31, 2019, an area of 9,762 sq km was affected by deforestation. The figure represents a 29.5% increase over last year. It was the third-worst deforestation in history. This loss is clearer now because it is the rainy season. "It confirms the Amazon is completely lawless," Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist with the University of São Paulo, told the New York Times. Nobre became famous recently after warning that the Amazon is at the risk of crossing a tipping point.

But the government and ranchers seem least concerned. The ranchers are on a rampage as they need land for their cattle and to grow soya, and the government is keen to open the area for mining. Caught in the middle are the activists and indigenous people, who are trying to save the forest. Last month, the police in the state of Para arrested four volunteer firefighters with accusations that they were starting fires in the forest to receive money from foreign NGOs. They were released only after being paraded as criminals in front of TV cameras, even as federal prosecutors said there was no evidence of any wrongdoing against them.

Fighting for the Amazon is now fraught with risks.

This week, two leaders from Guajajara tribe, known as forest guardians, were shot dead and two others wounded in Maranhão state. The tribes are in the crosshairs of miners and loggers who have their eyes on their protected land. The number of tribal leaders killed has increased under Bolsonaro, according to a commission linked with the Catholic Church. In 2o19, seven indigenous leaders were killed in the rural areas, as compared to just two deaths in 2o18.

A human rights group and some jurists have accused Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity for "inciting genocide of indigenous peoples". On December 3, nine NGOs denounced the persecution of activists, academics and scientists by the Brazilian government. They published a paper in Global Change Biology, saying the blazes in the Amazon were not normal as claimed by Bolsonaro. But some specialists, fearing persecution, didn't sign the paper.

The climate of fear may not change next year. With the government turning a blind eye to its destruction, the fires in Amazon may continue as well.

(The author is a journalist based in Sao Paulo. She was a correspondent in India for O Globo newspaper of Brazil from 2006 to 2012. Views expressed are personal.)