A murder in Brazil, and the planetary peril it foretells

When vast areas that were once rainforest become tree-cleared grazing land, global weather is affected, from Brazil to the UAE. 

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You have probably never heard of Jose da Silva. Not many people have. Yet for decades, he and his wife Maria have quietly helped keep our planet alive.

Together, Jose and Maria led a 24-year campaign against illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. In the process, they saved millions of trees from getting chopped down, thus playing a small but important role in reducing the pollution in our atmosphere. On May 25, the elderly couple were ambushed near their home and murdered.

The next morning, after months of debate, the lower house of Brazil's Congress approved a controversial amendment to the forestry code. The new code makes it easier to clear land in the Amazon for farm products like soybean, coffee and beef.

Although the two events are not directly linked, they are part of the same story. "Brazil woke up to the news of the murders of two leading environmental activists, and it's going to bed with the murder of the forest code," ecologist Paulo Adario lamented.

Against a backdrop of soaring commodity prices, powerful land owners in the Amazon forest are clenching their fists and removing any obstacle, be it human or legislative, that prevents them from converting their land into profits. The land owners are part of a new wave of political movement that sees environmental conservation as a barrier to growth.

For them, the trees are like prison bars, standing between them and a shiny new car or a big flashy ranch.

In reality, the Amazon forest is anything but a prison. Equivalent to half the size of the United States, it is one of the planet's most important sources of atmospheric water vapour. As such, it has tremendous impact on weather patterns. It's also one of the planet's most important so-called carbon sinks - absorbing the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. As vast areas that were once rainforest become tree-cleared grazing land, carbon is released into the air, contributing to global warming and producing changes in weather patterns as far away as the UAE.

As commodity prices have gone up, so has the pattern of deforestation. From August 2010 to April 2011, deforestation in the Amazon rose 27 per cent to almost 1 million hectares, enough to build 700,000 football pitches.

Not surprisingly, the biggest rise in deforestation has been concentrated in the soy-growing western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Soy earnings in that region rose nearly 100 per cent during the past year. This represents annual profits of more than US$600,000 (Dh2.2million) for a 1,000-hectare farm. With these types of profits, could you blame them for wanting to cut down the trees?

Although understandable, the pattern is nevertheless alarming. As our population continues to grow, so does our demand for food, which pushes up food prices. This encourages more people to clear their land and develop it for farm products. In the process, more trees get chopped down, more greenhouse gas accumulates and potentially more serious weather disruptions are generated as a result. This in turn leads to droughts and floods which drive up food prices, thus encouraging even more deforestation. It's a vicious circle, one that effects us all.

If Brazil continues on this path, it will make it impossible for it to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets. As the country that is set to host the Earth Summit 2012, Brazil owes it to itself to adopt more sustainable practices. One step could involve adopting incentives for modern agricultural techniques that combine high yields with the conservation of natural resources. This would make the farmers happy and keep more trees alive.

Six months ago, while being interviewed by a local journalist, Jose da Silva had predicted his own murder.

"I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment," he said.

Unless we wake up to the alarming pattern taking place in the Amazon rainforest, Jose da Silva will not be the only one to perish at the hands of rapid deforestation.

Vahid Fotuhi is an energy and environment analyst based in Dubai