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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."

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