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Unvaccinated Bolsonaro defies the pandemic and the environment at UN summit

Ignoring the mandatory requirement to be vaccinated, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro traveled to New York to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. There, he issued a defense of his administration, which is widely questioned domestically and internationally over its overall health and environmental policies. But his presentation was widely criticized as unrue.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Image credit: UN.

Bolsonaro said he wanted to present “a Brazil different from that published in a newspaper or seen on TV.” Facing falling popularity ahead of the presidential elections in Brazil next year, Bolsonaro raised expectations of a more moderate speech. But this didn’t happen, as he chose to distort facts in favor of his narrative.

He was the only G20 leader attending the UN General Assembly that hasn’t been vaccinated yet. When meeting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro said he “still” didn’t take the jab, while in Brazil he regularly says he won’t be immunized. “I had Covid. I have a very high immunization rate,” he told to reporters in New York.

You can’t make this up

In his speech, wearing a face mask (something he doesn´t do in Brazil) Bolsonaro said his government “supports vaccination” but rejects the obligation to get a vaccine. He once more supported “early treatment” drugs for Covid-19 such as hydroxychloroquine, which scientists have already dismissed as ineffective. 

He said he didn’t understand why “many countries along with much of the media” positioned themselves against early treatment of Covid-19, adding that “history and science will know how to hold all of them responsible.” He also highlighted the government’s “generous” Covid-19 welfare program that assisted Brazil’s poor. But the reality is far direr.

Brazil suffered the world’s largest Covid-19 death toll after the United States, with over 21 million confirmed cases and 590,000 deaths. The handling of the pandemic is now being discussed by the Brazilian Senate, where representatives from vaccine manufacturers said they offered vaccines that were rejected by the government. 

In New York, the Brazilian delegation was involved in several striking episodes. A group of protests shouted “genocide” in from of the residence of the Brazilian mission to the UN, to which the Brazilian Minister of Health Marcelo Queiroga replied by showing them the middle finger. Queiroga, unvaccinated, contracted Covid-19 in NYC.

To top it all off, Bolsonaro’s cruel defiance didn’t stop at the pandemic.

Growing deforestation

Bolsonaro also painted a rosy picture of his administration’s environmental record. He said deforestation dropped 32% in August compared to a year ago. This is technically true, but taken out of context: the figures are still higher than when Bolsonaro took office, and a total 918 square kilometers of forests were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon in August, Brazil official data showed. Much of this is burned by ranchers who want to grow cattle.

Aerial view of an area in the Amazon deforested for the expansion of livestock, in Porto Velho, Rondônia state. Image credit: Greenpeace.

In his speech, Bolsonaro ironically asked “which other country in the world has a policy of environmental protection” like the one of Brazil. This sparked rage among Brazilian environmental leaders, who over the past few years, have witnessed how Bolsonaro has allowed illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the Amazon since he took office in early 2019. 

While he was visiting New York, a group of environmental activists flew over the Amazon to show what’s actually happening in the rainforest. They captured images in two Amazon states between September 14 and 17. While the images don’t lie, “the same cannot be said of Bolsonaro’s speech” a press release from the activists reads. 

Aerial view of an area in the Amazon deforested for the expansion of livestock, in Lábrea, Amazonas state. Image credit: Greenpeace.

“What we saw from above was the forest covered in smoke and unchecked devastation on the ground. Setting fire to the forest is part of the deforestation cycle, which includes the initial removal of the most valuable trees, a financial benefit for those who invest in land grabbing,” Romulo Batista from Greenpeace Brazil said in a statement. 

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon only fell by 1.2% from January to August 2021 compared with the same period in 2020, according to government data. The decrease amounts to 6,026 square kilometers. Annual deforestation rates remain double what they wereduring January to August 2018, before Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental regulations. 

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon breaks 12-year record, as administration focuses on industry

Despite the pandemic, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil reached a dire record: a 12-year high. The news drew widespread condemnation of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his support of industrial and agricultural policies at the expense of the environment.

Deforestation in the Amazon is taking a turn for the worse. Image credit: Greenpeace

‘The Amazon is ours’, Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro famously said in 2019 — cautioning other countries to mind their own business. The overall attitude of the administration was clear: the environment is the least of concerns, and as many areas as possible must be opened for mining, agriculture, and logging. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Amazon is experiencing record deforestation.

A total of 4,281 square miles (11,088 square kilometers) of the forest were destroyed in Brazil’s share of the Amazon in the 12 months to August 2020, according to Brazil’s space agency PRODES monitoring program, which monitors deforestation. This was a 9.5% increase from the previous year, when deforestation also broke a record.

“Because of such deforestation, Brazil is probably the only major greenhouse gas emitter that managed to increase its emissions in the year the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the global economy,” said the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental groups, in a statement.

But while most of the Amazon is indeed in Brazil, the rainforest affects all of us. Rainforests like the Amazon play a key role in controlling climate as they absorb carbon, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, when they die or burn, trees release carbon back into the environment. This and its valuable biodiversity made world leaders call for the protection of the Amazon.

While the new figures are preliminary and will be confirmed early next year, they clash against Brazil’s goal to slow the speed of deforestation to 3,900 square kilometers per year by 2020. The figures came just as Vice President Hamilton Mourao presented the figures in a press conference and assured the government is fighting deforestation.

“The message I bring in the name of President Bolsonaro is that we will continue working with science and technology to support the work of environmental protection agencies,” said Mourao in a press conference, a retired army general who heads Bolsonaro’s Amazon task force against deforestation.

But many aren’t buying it. Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian environmentalist at Germany’s Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, told The Guardian that the numbers were a clear sign of the damage being done to the environment since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. The area deforested this year is a third the size of Belgium, he estimated.

Bolsonaro came to power last year promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA, recently replacing its managers and coordinators.

Back in May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles claiming the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video was disclosed as part of a Supreme Court investigation.

Environmental groups have called the government to better penalize the major loggers in order to truly protect the Amazon, using not only sanctions but also blocking bank accounts, for example — because fines just won’t cut it. A study by InfoAmazonia showed that as of 2019, only 3% of the fines imposed since 1980 were actually paid, and the government isn’t taking any real measures to enforce the fines.

International pressure has mounted on Brazil so far this year to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

French President Emmanuel Macron has fiercely questioned Brazil, claiming it’s not doing enough to protect the forest. At the same time, United States president-elect Joe Biden said in the presidential debate this year that the world should offer Brazil money to fund efforts to stop deforestation. Macron is just one of many international voices criticizing Brazil’s current administration for their lack of environmental policies.

Burning in the Amazon is already reaching the record levels seen in 2019

Despite pressure from civil society and foreign investors, forest fires seem to be unstoppable in the Brazilian Amazon. The number of fires last month was the second-highest for August in a decade. This nears the crisis level that led to a global outrage last year against the Jair Bolsonaro administration.

Credit CIFOR Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Satellite images gathered by Brazilian space agency INPE showed a record number of 29,307 fires in August, the second highest number in a decade and only 5.2% lower than the absolute highest, in August 2019. The number might have even been larger than reported as one of the satellites had technical problems, INPE said.

Last year the number of forest fires in Brazil rose 200% in August compared to the same month in 2018, reaching 30,900 and sending smoke all across the country. This created a global alarm regarding the devastation of the world’s largest rainforest, highly important as a carbon source and for its biodiversity.

But that’s just the environmental costs. A recent report by a group of health and environmental organizations highlighted the health costs of the fires, estimating they caused 2,195 hospitalizations due to respiratory illness last year. This includes 500 infants under one year old and more than 1,000 over 60.

“The data confirm the failure of the costly and badly planned operation by the Brazilian armed forces in the Amazon, which the Bolsonaro government has tried to substitute for a real plan to fight deforestation,” said in a press release the Climate Observatory, a group of Brazilian environmental NGOs.

Slash and burn

August is usually the beginning of the fire season in the Amazon, as farmers and ranchers who have felled trees on their land take advantage of the dryer weather to set them on fire. While this is the common practice, its extension suggests deforestation is ramping up in several areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

Environmentalists link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazon.

The Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. He came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon, even asking Congress to change environmental protection laws and to cut the budget and staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA.

Under growing pressure from global leaders, Bolsonaro recently deployed the army to the Amazon to crack down on deforestation and fires, and decreed a ban on all agricultural burning. But environmentalists remain critical of the far-right leader, asking for further action to better protect the country’s natural resources.

“Last year, images of the Amazon in flames made headlines around the world. This year, the tragedy is repeating itself. Yet the government wants to cut the (environment ministry’s) budget next year,” Romulo Batista, spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace, said in a statement, accusing Bolsonaro of “dismantling” Brazil’s environmental protection agencies.

While Bolsonaro dismisses any sense of urgency, international pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

Environmentalists argue there’s no time to lose. The tropical forest is close to a tipping point as deforestation could alter the entire forest’s ecology and turn large areas into an arid savanna, with devastating consequences not only for the Amazon but for the entire planet’s climate.