Despite increasing global concern, Jair Bolsonaro is determined to expand his exploitation of Brazil’s crucial natural resources. His latest project, one of the most destructive yet, would rapidly deforest large areas of the Amazon.
Bolsonaro’s plan? To construct a 1,000km railway system extending right into the heart of the Amazon rainforest – with trains passing within 500 metres of 726 official environmentally protected areas. The new railway, called Ferrogrão, would also entail construction within 10km of another 18 priority conservation areas established by the ministry of the environment.
The pretext for Bolsonaro’s environment-destroying plan is a problem that, while real, could be easily addressed through far less harmful measures. Currently, soybeans and other grains grown in the Brazilian midwest must travel a considerable distance – 2,000km – to reach seaports in the states of São Paulo and Paraná. The proposed railway would reduce transport costs and increase the competitiveness of these products in the international or national market by roughly 8%.
This underscores a key point of tension between Brazil and the international community. One reason the Amazon, a massive carbon bank, is so crucial to global climate policy is that countries in the global north became rich by exploiting their own natural resources, including through massive deforestation. Now that western European and North American countries are economically developed, they demand that Brazilians not do what they did: exploit our environmental resources so that we, too, can thrive economically. Many Brazilians, understandably, resent the hypocrisy.
It is true that Ferrogrão, like so many of Bolsonaro’s projects, will result in serious environmental harm to the Amazon and thus the world. Yet it is not enough for western governments and environmental NGOs to lecture Brazil; they should compensate us for the economic costs of the environmental protection we must undertake on the whole planet’s behalf.
According to research by the Climate Policy Initiative and PUC-Rio, a Brazilian university, constructing Ferrogrão won’t just consume massive amounts of land; it will also encourage development on land around the railway. Under Bolsonaro’s current plan, this construction project will result in up to 2,043 sq meters of deforestation – about 285,000 soccer fields – which will increase carbon emissions by 75m tonnes. There are economic costs, too: according to World Bank projections, each tonne of emission costs US$25 – so Brazil would lose at least $1.9bn with this project. And that forecast is conservative.
Since Bolsonaro was inaugurated in 2019, deforestation has been the centerpiece of his environmental policies. In 2019, deforestation grew 85%, a record high in the past five years. In 2020 the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a federal agency relentlessly attacked by Bolsonaro, recorded new increases of 9.5% in devastated areas. And INPE has announced that deforestation rate in April was the worst for that month in the past six years.
Opponents of Ferrogrão may have the law on their side. By altering the territorial limits of the Jamanxim National Park, the project may violate the Brazilian constitution. My political party, the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), brought a constitutional challenge before the federal supreme court, which has temporarily suspended Ferrogrão pending further proceedings. Brazilian law also requires prior approval of the project by the federal audit court. Brazilian civil society and indigenous groups have mobilized against judicial approval.
Bolsonaro’s plan has completely excluded the indigenous tribes most affected. That is not only unethical but an added opportunity to induce a court to stop the project: an agreement signed by Brazil requires indigenous tribes be consulted on public policies that affect their lives and territories. This hasn’t happened.
Brazilian law also requires that environmental impact studies be prepared for any significant new project. The environmental impact study for Ferrogrão found that it would have a disastrous impact on the lives of indigenous peoples and on the environment. Environmental harms include interference in environmental protection areas, disturbance of fauna (the affected region includes at least 14 species at risk of extinction), fragmentation of habitats, destruction of native flora and contamination of water. The railroad would also increase the flow of cargo across the Xingu Indigenous Park, disrupting the lives of the Kayaopós people.
Standard environmental mitigation projects might be able to reduce some of these harms. But that is unimaginable in the current Brazilian political context: the Bolsonaro government has proved countless times its indifference to environmental issues and contempt for indigenous peoples. Bolsonaro governs according to the agribusiness interests that played a crucial role in financing his 2018 campaign and will no doubt help determine the success of his 2022 re-election bid.
Ironically, the titans of agribusiness should want to preserve forests. The rain that falls over the midwest of the country, up to the La Plata basin, is in part a product of the Amazon. Roughly 390 billion trees constantly pump water from the Atlantic into the atmosphere, creating so-called “flying rivers”. This moisture flows to the Andes, then forms rain, which supplies Brazil’s main hydrographic basins. Fewer trees mean less rain, and therefore less productivity and profit for agriculture.
Given the international interest in protecting the Amazon, it is not enough that only Brazilians fight the construction of Ferrogrão. Following a letter we sent US senator Bernie Sanders, members of the Progressive International are arriving in Brazil on 15 August. The Amazon forest affects the whole world’s climate. Brazil has the largest tropical forest in the world, and its trees constitute one of the largest carbon banks. The more deforestation that is permitted, the more carbon dioxide goes back into the atmosphere. And we know well the consequences: climate chaos.
Like the global climate itself, the Amazon is on the brink of disaster. The immensity of the Amazon rainforest – 5.5m sq kilometers, 1m sq kilometers larger than the total area of the European Union – makes it easy to believe that it is too large to be meaningfully harmed. But the same “flying rivers” that rain across South America also sustain the forest itself. Today, almost 15% of the Amazon rainforest has already been deforested. When this number reaches 20%, the entire Amazonian system will collapse, with a direct impact on the entire planet. There will be no return.