Amazon Deforestation, Already Rising, May Spike Under Bolsonaro
By Robert T. Walker
Over the past 25 years that I have been conducting environmental research in the Amazon, I have witnessed the the ongoing destruction of the world's biggest rainforest. Twenty percent of it has been deforested by now—an area larger than Texas.
I therefore grew hopeful when environmental policies began to take effect at the turn of the millennium, and the rate of deforestation dropped from nearly 11,000 square miles per year to less than 2,000 over the decade following 2004.
But a new political climate in Brazil, which set in even before President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, has led to a recent increase in the pace of rainforest felling. And Bolsonaro, a former army officer, made Amazonian development a core campaign pledge.
Damming the Tapajós
At stake is what becomes of the region around the Tapajós River, one of the Amazon's largest tributaries and home to about 14,000 Munduruku tribal people. The Munduruku have until now successfully slowed down and seemingly halted many efforts to turn the Tapajós into the "Mississippi of Brazil."
The Tapajós River is the Amazon's last undammed clearwater tributary. The basin that surrounds it is roughly equal to 15 percent of the Brazilian Amazon region and about the size of France. This remote area has a great deal of biodiversity, and its trees store large quantities of carbon.
Because the Amazon rainforest absorbs a lot of the carbon emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, climate scientists consider its preservation key to preventing an uptick in the pace of global warming.
Brazil is planning to build a series of big new hydroelectric dams and webs of waterways, rail lines, ports and roads that can overcome logistical obstacles standing in the way of exporting commodities and other goods.
The government did suspend plans to build an 8,000-megawatt dam at the heart of this sprawling project in 2016. At the time, it cited the "unviability of the project given the indigenous component" and stated it would stop building big dams in 2018, before Bolsanaro took office.
Yet many observers remain very concerned about how Bolsonaro's presidency will affect the Munduruku and the rainforest they protect. Groups like International Rivers—a nonprofit dedicated to the "protection of rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them"—are not about to declare victory.
South American Gambit
Brazil's Amazon development plans are part of a broader gambit that includes all the South American nations. First conceived in 2000, the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America is designed to build a continental economy through new infrastructure that provides electricity for industrialization and facilitates trade and transportation.
Known widely by its Spanish and Portuguese abbreviations as IIRSA, this initiative is turning the Amazon, 60 percent of which is located on Brazilian territory, into a source of hydropower and a transportation hub connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It will become easier to ship Brazilian soybeans to global markets, and manufacturing will expand, stimulating population growth in the Amazon.
The blueprint for this bid to develop the Amazon, which also includes portions of Peru, Bolivia and six other countries, calls for building more than 600 dams, 12,400 miles of waterways, about 1.2 million miles of roads, a transcontinental railway and a system of ports, much of it in the tropical wilderness.
New Wave of Development
A complex of dams, roads and commercial waterways could turn the remote Tapajos River basin into a South American trading hub in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Michael P. Waylen / University of Florida, CC BY-SA
Bolsonaro has not yet confronted the Munduruku or taken concrete actions to keep his promises about developing the Amazon. But he has taken steps that point in this direction with the officials he has selected for key posts. He has also transferred responsibilities for demarcating indigenous lands from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture, which an agricultural lobbyist is running.
The new Brazilian president's plans for the Amazon come on the heels of decades of deforestation following the construction of roads and hydropower facilities during the 1960s and 1970s. This initial wave of construction opened the sparsely populated region to an influx of newcomers, and contributed to the destruction of about a fifth of the forest over four decades.
Then came a wave of stronger environmental policies—such as the stricter enforcement of logging laws, the expansion of protected areas and the voluntary decision by soybean farmers to refrain from clearing the forest—which lowered Brazil's Amazon deforestation rate after 2000. It seemed to me and others that a new era of Amazonian conservation had dawned.
But that was before I understood the full implications of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America.
This plan is far more ambitious than earlier infrastructure projects which were completed by the end of the 1970s, and I believe that it could wreak even more destruction.
Should all of its components be built, the new transportation and energy infrastructure would be likely to spark a new wave of deforestation that I fear could have disastrous impacts on the indigenous communities living in the region. The new projects need only to repeat what the earlier projects did. This would bring total deforestation to 40 percent.
Climate scientists such as Carlos Nobre worry that this magnitude of forest loss would push the Amazon to a "tipping point" and undermine the process of rainfall recycling, which replenishes the Amazon's supply of water. The outcome would be a drier climate in the Amazon, which has already begun to experience droughts, and the transformation of the forest into savanna. Indigenous people would suffer, and the Amazon's biodiversity would disappear.
A massive increase in the pace of Amazonian deforestation could bring about climatic changes in both South and North America. Scientists predict that precipitation would decline in many areas of the Americas, including the southeastern part of South America and the Mississippi River Valley. The whole world would suffer from reduced agricultural production in these two regions, which are important global suppliers of agricultural commodities like corn and soybeans.
The Conversation, CC-BY-NDNational Institute for Space Research of Brazil
Attacking the Amazon
To be sure, some of this construction is already underway in Brazil, particularly for hydropower. So far, 140 dams have either been built or are under construction, notably the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River and the Santo Antônio and Jirau dams on the Madeira Rivers. And Bolsonaro's predecessors had downsized some of the Amazon's protected areas to facilitate development.
When Bolsonaro addressed world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland for the first time, he promised to protect the environment in his country—which he called "a paradise."
I remain skeptical, however, given that he seems to be staffing his government in preparation for construction projects that could devastate the Amazon, reducing its biodiversity and destroying its ecological and cultural treasures.
‘There will be an increase in deforestation’: Brazil’s new president signs order endangering amazon and Indigenous… https://t.co/pK7smZHeru— Earth Alliance (@Earth Alliance)1547080047.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.