Brazil’s Economic Crisis, Prolonged By COVID-19, Poses An Enormous Challenge To The Amazon

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro confirmed his country’s participation in a virtual climate summit convened by the U.S. for April 22 and 23, vowing in a recent letter to U.S. President Joe Biden to end illegal deforestation in Brazil by 2030 – a striking about-face from a longtime adversary to the country’s environmental policies.

But Bolsonaro warned that Brazil will need “massive resources”, including considerable financial help, to protect the Amazon. Brazil is currently in the midst of a deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its economy shrunk by a record 5.8% last year. The Biden administration, meanwhile, is considering paying Brazil to protect its environment.

But not so long ago, both Brazil’s economy and its Amazon were prospering.

In 2014, Brazil was closing out nearly a decade of continuous economic growth. Per capita GDP – the total value of the economy divided among the population – had grown by 400% in just 10 years and economic inequality was falling to record lows in a country that long had the world’s largest gap between rich and poor. Between 2004 and 2014, some 35 million Brazilians joined the ranks of the middle class.

As Brazil’s economy thrived, deforestation in the Amazon slowed. Deforestation levels in 2012 were one-sixth of what they were in 2004. Back then, falling deforestation rates were hailed as a testament to the country’s prowess in environmental policymaking.

But after nearly a decade of researching and writing about Amazon forest loss, I’ve become convinced that Brazil’s successes in reducing deforestation a decade earlier likely had just as much to do with basic economics as environmental policy.

Photo by Raphael Nogueira on Unsplash

Rise and fall of deforestation

Forest loss in the Amazon has long reflected Brazil’s economic health.

For much of the late 20th century, when Brazil’s economy boomed, the federal government redirected public investment to the Amazon. Many of these investments – the massive land distribution programs of the 1980s, road projects and the enormous public subsidies for farming and ranching – were closely associated with forest loss.

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Disclosure: This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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