What happens in Brazil doesn’t stay in Brazil. Whether you live in South America’s largest country or half a world away, what happens there impacts your life, from the coffee you drink to the hardwood floors in your home to the air you breathe.
In some ways, the world’s seventh-richest country has made remarkable environmental progress in recent years. In the past decade, Brazil reduced its CO2 emissions by more than any other country, largely by curtailing deforestation in the Amazon basin. In June 2015, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a joint effort to address climate change, in which both countries pledged to increase their power generation from renewable energy to 20 percent by 2030 — a powerful statement ahead of the U.N. climate change summit in Paris later this year.
Yet despite these achievements, the country’s resources — and the benefits they bring to people near and far — are by no means secure, and the forces that threaten them are inextricably connected.
Brazil is at a crossroads, and the path its leaders choose will be felt beyond the country’s borders. Here are three ways Brazil’s environmental decisions will affect the world.
By 2010, Brazil had reduced deforestation in the Amazon by 67% compared with the rate between 1996 and 2005. However, in March 2015, the Brazilian government confirmed that the past year has seen a sharp uptick. Many factors have likely contributed to this rise, including revisions to Brazil’s Forest Code that relaxed regulations on forest clearing for many landowners. Also, as the global economic downturn hit Brazil, people began to turn to crops destined for export (soybeans, cattle) that would earn them more profits — and which led to more forest being cleared.
In addition, Greenpeace found that more than half the wood from the two largest timber-producing regions probably comes from illegal sources. Amid all these pressures, another hotly debated one looms: a proposal to build a railway through the Amazon, which would not only cut through some of the forest’s least disturbed regions — potentially leading to more forest destruction and fragmentation —but could also pave the way for accelerated exploitation of their resources.
Continued conversion of Brazil’s tropical forests to farmland and urban sprawl won’t just make things difficult for the Brazilians who depend on the forest; it will also limit the Amazon’s ability to function as the “lungs of the Earth” that help regulate the Earth’s climate.
But it’s not all bad news. Under the Brazil-U.S. climate plan, Brazil has committed to restoring 12 million hectares (almost 30 million acres — about half the size of Uganda) of lost forest. Conservation International (CI) is supporting a number of initiatives focused on reducing deforestation in Brazil, including the Kayapó Fund, which helps provide one of the country’s largest indigenous groups with economic alternatives to logging, enabling them to continue to be the stewards of their homeland.
2. Food production
Brazil is one of the greatest food producers in the world, ranking among the top three in commodities such as soybeans, coffee, meat and sugar. These ample harvests were built upon a combination of technological innovation and vast land conversion; half of the Cerrado wooded grasslands have already been turned into farms.
But current food production will not be enough; the United Nations estimates that to feed a population estimated to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050, humanity will have to increase agricultural outputs by 60%. Brazil is expected to play a significant role in this effort, but environmentalists fear that it will put further pressure on already-stressed ecosystems.
Although scientists claim that through agricultural intensification, the country could double its already impressive production without cutting down another tree, it is still disputed whether Brazil has the proper policies in place to assure that outcome in the long term.
Aware of this challenge, CI is engaging with companies, governments and other organizations to develop a path for sustainable agricultural landscapes in Matopiba, a province on the frontier of agricultural expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado — and probably our last chance to do it right.
Intertwined with forest and agriculture issues are cities, which are now home to more than 85 percent of Brazil’s population. São Paulo is currently facing its worst drought in more than 50 years; the city is relying on emergency water supplies, and limited access is bringing many class tensions to the surface. In addition, the drought is making hydroelectric generation more difficult, causing price surges for power users. Currently about 70 percent of the country’s electricity comes from dams.
While droughts are a natural occurrence, this one may have surprising roots. Urban sprawl in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is encroaching on the Atlantic Forest, a diverse rainforest that once stretched along much of the Brazilian coast and now exists only in fragments. The clearing of the Atlantic Forest for development removed a key driver of rainfall in that region, exacerbating conditions that favor drought and potentially affecting precipitation patterns far inland into the Amazon, including where the Amazon watershed touches neighboring Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.
São Paulo’s dire situation is a reminder that removing large swaths of forest can have far-reaching effects for local climates as well as global ones — and that securing water supplies in urban areas is essential. Through the Water and Cities Initiative, CI is supporting the governments of Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Bogotá in restoring their respective watersheds to ensure that residents have access to water and will be more resilient to shortages exacerbated by climate change.
In order for Brazil to sustainably grow its economy, it must listen to nature. Under CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign (known as A Natureza está Falando in Brazil, we’ve produced Portuguese-language versions of seven of our films, voiced by some of Brazil’s biggest names. We also plan to produce additional films about some of Brazil’s unique ecosystems in the coming months — stay tuned.
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.