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Don’t let the blue skies fool you: in Brazil, the pandemic is bad news for climate and environment

Fires wreak havoc in the Amazon rainforest

As the novel coronavirus spreads throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, social media have been rife with reports touting some of the environmental and climate benefits of the pandemic. Lower levels of pollution due to falling industrial output and the ’comeback‘ of wildlife into urban areas are cited as evidence that the crisis may have an environmental silver lining, even if temporary. 

However, the pandemic also has highly negative impacts in the region. While there is a decrease in the amount of street trash in urban areas (about 55% in the city of São Paulo), households are producing more garbage. There has also been a boost in the disposal of toxic materials such as hospital waste—according to some estimates, this is expected to increase anywhere between 10 to 20 times during the pandemic. Likewise, there is an uptick in the consumption of household electricity and gas, even as industrial consumption falls

In addition, the pandemic has facilitated a trend that was already observed in 2019: the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon basin. According to satellite data from the Deter system of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the number of deforestation alerts in the Brazilian Amazon so far has increased by 51% in comparison to last year—the highest level during the entire data series, which started in 2016. There is a combination of factors driving this increase. 

First, the government of Jair Bolsonaro continues to press for de-regulation of protected lands, especially for mining purposes. Second, even before legal changes are implemented, groups in the Amazon feel emboldened by the government's official discourse to invade land, whether to farm, ranch or in search of wood and minerals. Local organisations in the Amazon state of Roraima, on the Brazil-Venezuela border, report a sharp increase in the number of illegal miners invading the Yanomami Indigenous Land, precisely as the first deaths due to COVID-19 occur among Brazilian indigenous groups. And third, as other countries turn inwards to tackle their own COVID-19 challenges, international pressure on the Amazon governments (as seen in the aftermath of the peak in forest fires in mid-2019) to protect the forest has eased. Compounding these factors are the further weakening of monitoring institutions and new budgetary pressures, including the limited available resources for military operations to curb deforestation.   

More broadly, yet just as pernicious, is the lack of attention being paid to climate change by leaderships within the region—and even by civil society and private sector actors, as they scramble to face the challenges of the pandemic. National and subnational governments are focusing heavily on obtaining protective equipment and other essential emergency supplies— sometimes clashing over these resources and other decisions related to the pandemic. This year’s Earth Day came and went with very little fanfare across the region. Even the limited amount of progress being made in poverty alleviation—for instance, the universal emergency basic income implemented in Brazil, or the support packages being offered to companies—are failing to take into account climate change.  

Yet, post-pandemic recovery in the region must incorporate climate action, lest Latin American and Caribbean populations remain as woefully unprepared for the next catastrophe as they have been for the COVID-19 pandemic.