Last week Brazilian soldiers were working to put out this year’s record number of fires in the Amazon rainforest. The irony is that they were there on the orders of their commander-in-chief, President Jair Bolsonaro – because he’s trying to put out another kind of fire.
Bolsonaro wants to develop the Amazon. But he’s facing worldwide condemnation because his policy encourages farmers and builders to burn and clear the rainforest – a practice he’s called a halt to at least for the next couple months thanks to international pressure. That pressure is growing in no small part because the deforestation not only destroys the Amazon; it also affects the climate the rest of the world experiences. Including South Florida.
That’s given a new urgency to protests by environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion, which has been demonstrating this summer in front of Brazilian consulates around the world, including Miami. Outside Brazil, the Save-the-Amazon movement used to have a more abstract feel – environmental chic, something rock stars like Sting championed, but not really something that affected you locally. Climate change has, well, changed all that.
“The Amazon rainforest crisis poses a near-term existential threat for Miami,” says Nicholas Vazquez, Extinction Rebellion’s Miami coordinator.
“The Amazon rainforest sequesters a quarter of global carbon emissions. So once that goes, we go, due to sea-level rise.”
The Amazon rainforest is called the earth’s lungs. If its epic foliage no longer sucks in all that carbon in the atmosphere, global warming will likely get worse – and so will the sea-level rise menacing South Florida.
As a result, groups like Extinction Rebellion want South Floridians and the rest of the world to stop buying Brazilian products like beef from cows grazing on the deforested Amazon. In other words, to forget the churrasco.
“We need to put pressure on the Brazilian government,” says Vazquez, “because it’s very dependent on export commodities, especially meat and soya.”
Whether or not any real boycott happens, scientists say South Florida and the rest of the world do need to appreciate how Amazon deforestation affects them.
“Just imagine a permanent alteration of the precipitation pattern all over the world,” says Roni Avissar, dean of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
For 25 years, Avissar has done ground-breaking research on how Amazon deforestation changes not just Amazon but global weather patterns.
“The effect of the deforestation of the Amazon changes atmospheric circulations in different places in the world,” says Avissar. “For instance: in the Midwest of the U.S. or California.”
Avissar says that as the rainforest vanishes, it sends less moisture into the atmosphere and more heat. That adds to the way climate change messes with the planet’s normal rain and storm cycles. He’s found it can mean less rain in the U.S. Midwest, for example, and more in California.
Amazon deforestation was a problem long before Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president this year. But Avissar fears an acceleration of deforestation could push things to a “tipping point.”
“If it becomes a policy at an uncontrolled pace,” he warns, “the impact that that will have on the weather and the climate around the globe is alarming.”
Alarming even to some of Bolsonaro’s staunchest supporters – including the large Brazilian community in South Florida. Expats here voted overwhelmingly for Bolsonaro and his anti-corruption, law-and-order agenda. But his Amazon attitude is a different matter.
“Now, when he says I’m gonna cut funds for the Amazon rainforest, then we say, ‘Nope,’” says Erika Faria, who hosts a talk show for Brazilian expats on Radio Florida Brazil, the online, Portuguese-language station she co-owns in Fort Lauderdale.
Faria says she understands Bolsonaro wants to free up resources to rebuild Brazil’s ailing economy. But she and listeners who call in to her show say Brazil’s president still has to protect the Amazon. Many want him to be less confrontational with the developed world – especially European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, who’s been especially critical of Bolsonaro and whom Bolsonaro has vilified in return.
Brazil needs to ally with those governments, says Faria, because they can donate the necessary Amazon aid.
“Bolsonaro, he’s very rough – like Trump – he says whatever he wants,” Faria says. “But he has the key to the biggest rainforest in the world. He should come up with a plan and go knocking on every country’s door asking for help.”
Faria says what’s at stake for expats like her is not only local threats like sea-level rise – but how the world sees them as Brazilians.