Amazon Rainforest and Indigenous Rights Under Attack: Bolsonaro's Decrees

President Bolsonaro's decrees are summarised and their impact on the rights of Indigenous groups and the Amazon Rainforest.

Killian Duvivier
18th May 2022
Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. Image credit: flickr.
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is well-known for controversial opinions and actions, notably refusing to get a Covid-19 vaccine and suggesting the vaccine's side-effects turns people into crocodiles. One of his more recent courses of action has involved planning to issue two decrees to make gold mining in Indigenous territories legal.

The first decree contains a program to develop work in the Amazon forest, specifically a small-scale mining programme. The second decree would modify current policy making it easier to get access to mining zones. Bolsonaro argues that this new project will stimulate the economy and create new opportunities in a poor region few career opportunities. The new law provoked great animosity in the Brazilian public sphere as many environmental and human rights activists gathered outside of Congress to protest against the new bill.

The new law provoked great animosity in the Brazilian public sphere

Unfortunately, this situation isn’t new. In 2019, the Amazon forest suffered great damage as the equivalent of seven times the size of Greater London was destroyed. Deforestation hitting a 12-year high under the far-right president, and it is only speeding up. Such deforestation is worrisome considering the great importance of the Amazon forest for stabilising climate: according to Earth systems scientist Michael Coe for National Geographic, the Amazon forest could be compared to a giant air conditioner that keeps cooling the planet. The Amazon Rainforest is one of our best chances at fighting climate change, and its gradual destruction puts the whole planet in danger. The consequences could be irreversible.

On the other side of the coin is the issue of the Indigenous rights being undermined by these decrees. Theoretically, indigenous people are protected under the 1988 Brazilian Consitution, granting them recognition as well as protection of their land. In reality, it’s a completely different landscape. Lobbyists have argued only people occupying the lands at the time of the Constitution’s creation (1988) could claim their land. Considering the indigenous population has been there before the creation of Brazil itself, it is fair to say they have a legitimate claim to their land.

Deforestation hitting a 12-year high under the far-right president, and it is only speeding up

Their claims are left ignored, however, as reflected by the 20,000 illegal miners discovered in the Yanomami reserve back in 2021. Things have only worsened for indigenous groups under Bolsonaro's tenure: since his election in 2019, murders against Indigenous people reached a 11-year high and there were at least 256 cases of property damage, or illegal occupation and exploitation against Indigenous territory. These statistics have only increased on past years.

What are Bolsonaro's motives? Brazil, as one of the world’s top food producers, is in desperate need of potash, an essential component to the creation of pesticides, of which Brazil imports a quarter of from Russia. Since the Ukraine-Russia war however, Russia has stopped its shipments. Bolsonaro has since declared the war "a good opportunity for us" as it encourages Brazil to source their own potash from the Amazon. But, suspicions are that the president is using the Ukrainian war pretext to rush the bill, allowing not just mining but also oil research and the construction of hydroelectric dams on these same Indigenous lands. As for now, there are already nine global mining businesses such as Brazil’s Vale, Britain’s Anglo American, or Canada’s Belo Sun that have filed applications to authorise mining on Indigenous territories (although Anglo American has claimed they have withdrawn their application).

These decrees are not law - yet - as Brazil's congress needs to vote on the matter. Some suspect that the bill will not be voted on as it is an election year; Leonardo di Caprio has already encouraged the young to vote, reminding them of their importance in "driving change for a healthy planet". Clearly, Bolsonaro's environmental policies are a talking-point although their overall significance in the election can only be speculated upon until the Brazilian Presidential elections in October.

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