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To Stop Amazon Deforestation, Brazilian Groups Take Bolsonaro to Court
By Ajit Niranjan
Civil society groups and public prosecutors in Brazil are taking President Jair Bolsonaro's government to court for failing to protect the Amazon rainforest, adding pressure to an administration already under fire for mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawsuits filed last week challenge the government on two fronts: reducing inspections of exported timber — while demoting the environment agency expert whose team advised against it — and freezing climate funds to preserve forests that other countries also rely on to offset their carbon emissions.
They are among a series of legal challenges that have been launched in Brazil after a tumultuous year-and-a-half of Bolsonaro rule. His administration has overseen a rise in deforestation, attacked the rights of people indigenous to the Amazon and relaxed rules to prevent illegal logging, ranching and mining.
Bolsonaro is a climate change denier who considers the environment to be a kind of enemy, said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of Brazil-based think tank Climate Observatory, which provided the legal analysis behind the lawsuits. "It's very hard to believe Bolsonaro will change his behavior or mindset. What we really need to do is neutralize the attacks on the environment."
In recent weeks, the Brazilian government has been rebuked by foreign governments, investors and businesses for enabling deforestation — and by courts and protestors at home for political interference and its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Brazil's supreme court ordered the government on Monday to resume publishing coronavirus statistics after it purged the health ministry website of COVID-19 case numbers and death tolls. The virus has killed more than 37,000 people in Brazil, which has the second-most coronavirus cases in the world behind only the U.S. "The manipulation of statistics is a maneuver of totalitarian regimes," said supreme court judge Gilmar Mendes. "The trick will not exempt responsibility for the eventual genocide."
Deforestation, meanwhile, had already last year hit its highest level since 2008. On Tuesday the country's space research agency INPE revised its estimates, saying it they were higher than previously thought. Using satellite data, the scientists calculated that year-on-year deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rose by 34 percent between August 2018 and July 2019, felling an area of forest about as big as Jamaica.
Georg Witschel, Germany's ambassador to Brazil, told Brazilian news outlet G1 on Thursday that deforestation makes it "increasingly difficult" to ratify the free trade agreement between the EU and South American trade bloc Mercosur.
Coronavirus and Deforestation
Brazil's environmental and health crises are closely linked. The coronavirus pandemic had given fresh impetus to land grabbers razing swathes of forests as lockdowns have kept law enforcement officers at home.
Now, the fires that typically follow the felling of trees could further strain health systems.
Blazing wildfires, like the ones that devastated the Amazon last year, spout pollutants that lower air quality and work their way into people's lungs, exacerbating the same breathing diseases that leave people more vulnerable to the coronavirus. A joint peak in forest fires and COVID-19 cases could overwhelm hospitals without "incisive intervention by the State to curb illegal acts," according to a report published in May by INPE.
That could collapse health systems in several Amazonian states that are already operating at the limit, the authors wrote. "If the turning point of the epidemiological curve of COVID-19 does not occur immediately, in May 2020, there will certainly be an overlap of fires with the pandemic."
This could spell disaster for indigenous peoples and uncontacted tribes, said Sarah Shenker, a campaigner with Survival International. "In Brazil, there are more than 100 uncontacted tribes and they could be wiped out if invaders are not removed from their territory."
Even before the current coronavirus crisis, scientists warned that forest loss makes pandemics more likely by increasing the chance that diseases jump from animals to humans. A study published in the journal PNAS in October found that deforestation of the Amazon significantly increases transmission of malaria, a different type of disease.
Preserving the Climate
The Amazon rainforest — 60 percent of which lies in Brazil — is one of the world's great carbon sinks. Preserving its trees and plants is crucial to meeting international targets that limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Lawsuits that take years to complete are not going to produce results fast enough, said Ricardo Galvao, a former director of INPE who was fired by Bolsonaro in August.
To curb deforestation in the Amazon, said Galvao, the best tools are "positive actions that show [that] exploring the forest, rather than destroying it, gives economic returns." For instance, international organizations like the UN could certify products from sustainably managed forests and countries could lower import taxes on such "green-stamped" goods.
Brazil has a legal commitment to reduce deforestation in the Amazon to a rate equivalent to about 3,900 square kilometers per year from 2020 onwards. In 2012, measures to protect the Amazon had brought deforestation down to 4,600 square kilometers, close to the target, but by 2019, it had rebounded to 9,800 square kilometers.
The Brazilian government, which in May brought in the military to protect the forest, has disputed its image as an environmental pariah. "We are the country that most preserves the environment in the world," said Bolsonaro on World Environment Day last week. "Unjustly, [we are] the most attacked."
Data from Brazil's Institute of Socioeconomic Studies show government spending on forest inspection dropped from R$17.4 million (US$3.5 million, €3.1 million) to R$5.3 million from the first five months of 2019 to the same period in 2020, while funding for activities under Brazil's national climate change plan were cut from R$436 million last year to R$247 million this year.
Ibama, the Brazilian environment agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
Big tracts of the rainforest have no recorded owner, making it easier to illegally grab land, and a lack of law enforcement can even mean that farmers who comply with regulations struggle to compete with those who don't.
Working with sustainable farmers and fixing land ownership structures could help Brazil slow deforestation during the coronavirus pandemic and recession, said Monica De Los Rios, Brazil coordinator at the nonprofit Earth Innovation Institute. "This is the most critical moment in the history of the Amazon."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that she will attempt to dismantle the National Rifle Association (NRA), arguing that years of corruption and mismanagement warrant the dissolution of the activist organization, as CNN reported.
<div id="7eb49" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="83819841e380a7072ec66d3186c160e8"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1291705003984510977" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨RESPONSE to #Mauritius #OILSpill 🚨 “Once again we see the risks in oil: aggravating the #ClimateCrisis, as well as… https://t.co/PBLioZat6X</div> — Greenpeace Africa (@Greenpeace Africa)<a href="https://twitter.com/Greenpeaceafric/statuses/1291705003984510977">1596801446.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"There is no guaranteed safe way to extract, transport and store fossil fuel products. This oil leak is not a twist of fate, but the choice of our twisted addiction to fossil fuels. We must react by accelerating our withdrawal from fossil fuels," Greenpeace Africa Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager Happy Khambule said in a <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/africa/en/press/11864/greenpeace-africa-response-to-mauritius-oil-spill/?utm_campaign=oil&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=post&utm_content=single-image&utm_term=mauritius-oil-spill-reactive" target="_blank">statement Friday</a>. "Once again we see the risks in oil: aggravating the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis" target="_self">climate crisis</a>, as well as devastating oceans and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/biodiversity" target="_self">biodiversity</a> and threatening local livelihoods around some of Africa's most precious lagoons."</p>
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