Brazil is experiencing convergence of wrong choices, says ecologist


Mercedes Bustamante, one of Brazil’s leading authorities on ecology and deforestation of the cerrado and the Amazon rainforest, is alarmed at the loss of credibility of the Brazilian government at COP26, a summit on the climate crisis taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. Not enough, however, to lose optimism.

One of more than 200 authors of the Scientific Panel’s report on the Amazon, she points out as priorities to zero deforestation, legal or illegal, “without adjectives”.

She also sees it as essential to inclusively organize bioeconomy activities, based on the partnership of science with traditional knowledge, and to improve the regulation of access to genetic resources that actually serve both industry and local populations.

For this, however, it would be urgent to undo the country’s series of mistaken choices, raised to levels never seen in the Bolsonaro government. “It is not possible to build an inclusive bioeconomy in the Amazon competing with an illegal economy as we have today.”

The report of the Scientific Panel for the Amazon (SPA) was finalized for release at COP26. What are the main recommendations in the text? One of the first important points is to stop deforestation. And we don’t put an adjective there, legal or illegal deforestation, it is to stop deforestation and the process of forest degradation.

The second step is to organize sustainable activities in the Amazon. There are now a series of activities, some already gaining scale, based on the use of biological resources that would make up the bioeconomy in a broader sense. But there is a huge gap in what could be done from the integration of different knowledge systems: science, technology and innovation and indigenous and traditional knowledge.

What is missing for the construction of this so-called Amazonian bioeconomy? The concept of bioeconomy must be comprehensive enough for us to look at forest peoples, land resources, aquatic resources, family farming and larger scale activities.

Brazil has not achieved a satisfactory implementation of the mechanisms that allow access to genetic resources or clarity regarding the sharing of benefits associated with traditional knowledge. Today the country does not adequately protect traditional knowledge, and I believe that it does not satisfactorily serve either industry or academia either.

Another bottleneck for a solid and inclusive bioeconomy is that it demands inspection and elimination of illegal activities. Policies that are premised on the standing forest, healthy rivers. It demands clear actions that the misappropriation of public lands, conservation units, indigenous territories will not be tolerated.

Finally, investment in science, technology and innovation is still far short of what is needed. In the Amazon, we describe a new species every two days, which indicates the huge gap in knowledge about diversity.

In addition, Brazil is once again facing the problem of brain drain. We see the convergence of a series of wrong choices for the country. I would add the issue of climate change to the picture. One of Brazil’s major concerns should be how climate change will affect biodiversity and the functioning of natural systems, which are our competitive advantage in the world.

We have been organizing or disorganizing the system with our eyes in the rearview mirror, towards an economy that will no longer exist, failing to realize where the possibilities are that are rapidly emerging as a result of the climate crisis. You cannot build a legal economy in the Amazon competing with an illegal economy like we have today.

What would be most urgent for us to reverse the current situation and ensure a moratorium on deforestation? I welcome the movement of governors, local institutions, because they are beginning to fill the void left by the federal government. Now, a large part of the Amazon territory is the responsibility of the Union.

We already notice markets that are closing to Brazil. This climate of instability that we live has economic consequences.

When we talk about climate change in Brazil, we usually think of the Amazon, but the cerrado is the second largest biome. What protective measures are urgently needed for the Brazilian savannah? The sustainability criteria that we have been discussing for the Amazon apply to all Brazilian biomes.

The situation in the cerrado is a matter of great concern because the advance of deforestation occurred very quickly.

When we say that 50% of the cerrado has already been converted, people have this impression that 50% are intact, but they are very fragmented and many of them are in a state of degradation.

Although the Forest Code states that it has to conserve at least 20% in the cerrado, today most deforestation is not authorized by environmental agencies. Again, there is the problem of law enforcement. This makes it impossible for you to manage this occupation process, looking at the landscape and not the property, which is one of our biggest problems.

The second point is that we have huge areas of pasture, which continue to be the priority use of land in the cerrado. Pastures that are degraded, abandoned, especially in the oldest portion of occupation, in the center-south.

What could be done in these areas? Many of them can be used for agriculture, holding deforestation in the northern portion, or for restoration, to connect important fragments that are of biodiversity conservation.

The third point regarding the cerrado is the change in large-scale agricultural practices. In the future, an extensive area of ​​monoculture will no longer have a place, because it does not sustain itself. And she only makes a profit if she has this occupation on a large scale.

This large-scale occupation in Matopiba [Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, Bahia] faces a very large climate risk. And it will increase if we do not manage to maintain the temperature limit at 1.5ºC, which is the target of the Paris Agreement.

This is starting to make agriculture in these areas unfeasible and means that they have to return to the center-south. But the center-south is already occupied, so we are going to find ourselves in a dilemma of competition by area, if there is no planning.

What is your opinion about Brazil’s participation in COP26? We arrive at COP26 with a very damaged, weakened reputation.

The Brazilian government can bring a beautiful proposal, which is not being widely discussed with society or academia. The actions are so forceful in the opposite direction that a goal that does not have the clarity of steps, how it will be reached, has little effect.

Brazil is wasting precious time. We discuss a lot the issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially because this emission comes from deforestation, but we have not been adequately discussing adaptation actions, in a country where the poorest social strata are increasingly vulnerable.


Mercedes Bustamante, 58

Professor of ecology at the University of Brasília since 1993. Member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Science. He participated in the fifth report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). He focuses his research on land use changes in Brazil and their impacts on ecosystems.


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