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Brazil Using Pandemic as Smokescreen for New Attacks on the Amazon, Activists Warn

Brazil Using Pandemic as Smokescreen for New Attacks on the Amazon, Activists Warn
Deforestation and river pollution in the Amazon rainforest near Menkragnoti Indigenous Land, Pará, Brazil. Marcio Isensee e Sa / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Activists warn that the far-right government in Brazil is using the coronavirus pandemic as a smokescreen to undermine protections for the Amazon rainforest.

With the world sheltered in place, the government assembled a "historic assault" on the Amazon and the indigenous tribes who live there, entities it is meant to protect, reported ABC news. The controversial legislation regarding indigenous lands potentially compounds tribes' vulnerability to invasion and infection, the news report said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters are sacking key environmental officials and quickly and discreetly dismantling rules shielding protected reserves of rainforest, reported The Guardian. The moves are the latest in the regime's development-friendly policy changes that have accelerated deforestation in the world's largest rainforest.

Preliminary satellite data shows that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose more than 50 percent in the first three months of 2020, compared to the same three-month period last year, reported ABC news.

"Our territory keeps being invaded by loggers and hunters," Laercio Guajajara, a member of the Guajajara tribe, told ABC News. Despite the global health crisis, there were "still a lot of invasions," he said.

Bolsonaro is "notorious" for racist remarks against indigenous people, distrust of environmentalists and nationalist justifications for developing the Amazon, reported The Guardian.

Bolsonaro told foreign journalists, "The Amazon is ours, not yours," reported The New York Times.

This approach makes him popular with farmers, wildcat miners, loggers and land-grabbers and dangerous for environmentalists and indigenous tribes, The Guardian noted.

"The government has a project and it is advancing over the forest, over indigenous peoples, to benefit those who want the forest cut down," said Mariana Mota, a public policy specialist at Greenpeace Brazil, the news report said.

The mass deforestation that has increased under Bolsonaro has likely pushed the Amazon beyond the point of no return, scientists said. The entire ecosystem could collapse within 50 years, and that critical tipping point could be reached as early as next year, researchers said. If and when that happens, the rainforest would become a carbon source rather than a global sink, exacerbating the effects of climate change.

The situation has only worsened since the coronavirus outbreak, with the covert passage of new rules that further undermine the Amazon and the tribes that live there.

At the disease's outbreak, The Guardian reported that Brazil's environmental agency scaled back enforcement measures, leaving indigenous tribes and the lands they protect more vulnerable to loggers' attacks. In April, Bolsonaro's indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, passed a new rule that prevents certain long-held indigenous lands awaiting official designation from being labeled and protected as "indigenous" under the law while they wait, ABC News said.

The seemingly-obscure rule IN 09 could open up nearly one third of indigenous lands currently awaiting designation to illegal occupation and deforestation, the news report said.

Bolsonaro first announced another controversial presidential decree, Provisional Measure (MP) 910, in December 2019. The rule is now being fast-tracked towards becoming permanent law, ABC News said. MP 910 allows people who illegally logged or squatted on protected federal lands before December 2018 to purchase such lands at reduced prices.

This effectively legalizes "land-grabbing" in protected forests and indigenous reserves, The Guardian noted. Farmers illegally squatting could each purchase up to 2,500 hectares of rainforest for cheap. According to the news report, land grabbing, a common practice in the Amazon, involves deforesting, burning the dead trees and putting cattle on the cleared lands to consolidate possession.

Imazon, a non-profit environmentalist group, found that the measure could lead to deforestation of an additional 16,000 square kilometers of rainforest by 2027, ABC News added.

In a rare move, 49 federal prosecutors across Brazil called for the rule to be annulled for its "unconstitutionality, unconventionality and illegality," The Guardian said, agreeing it would lead to a land-grab.

The decree has until May 19 to be approved by Congress, but lawmakers from the agricultural lobby are pushing for an immediate virtual vote in the midst of the pandemic and without standard scrutiny, reported both ABC News and The Guardian.

Farmers supporting the rule argue it will regularize the Amazon's chaotic land ownership and allow them to hold title to land where they've squatted. This, they argue, will provide access to credit, improve productivity and therefore reduce the need to further expand into the forest, reported The Guardian.

Reducing protections encourages land invasions, which bring violence and disease. Indigenous leaders and activists fear that history will repeat itself.

"Five centuries ago, these ethnic groups were decimated by diseases brought by European colonisers … Now, with this new scourge spreading rapidly across Brazil … [they] may disappear completely since they have no means of combating Covid-19," an open letter to Bolsonaro warned, reported The Guardian.

"We are on the eve of a genocide," said Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, who organized the petition and who has spent nearly four decades documenting the Amazon and its inhabitants, The Guardian reported.

Alessandra Munduruku, an indigenous leader from Pará state, told The Guardian, "The indigenous peoples are alone and we have to fight against the virus, the loggers and the wildcat miners. We don't know which is worse."

Since the rollbacks, indigenous tribes have also reported increased logging and violent attacks. Seven indigenous leaders, many who were outspoken against illegal logging, have been murdered in the past six months, reported The Guardian.

"The invaders think they can enter the indigenous reserve because of the government agenda," said Ivaneide Bandeira, of the non-profit group Kanindé, reported The Guardian. "Covid is the cover and the excuse."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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