Brazil: The Day the Sky Went Out

Brian Mier Monday, August 19, I left my home on the North Side of São Paulo at 2 PM and headed towards the Tieté bus station, the brutalist structure erected by Paulo Maluf during the waning days of the dictatorship. It was a lousy day out. The temperature had dropped over night and it was darker than usual. I was picking up a friend arriving from Rio and his bus was late so, at around 3:15, I stepped out of the terminal to look for a cheaper cup of coffee and all the street lights were on. Was I dreaming? I immediately checked my watch. Sunset on that mid-winter day was scheduled for 5:51 PM. ‘There must be a massive thunderstorm rolling in,’ I thought to myself. There wasn’t. It drizzled but it appeared as if the sun had simply gone down 2.5 hours early, and there was a weird, clammy feeling in the air. As it turns out, it was a freak incident caused by smoke from out of control forest fires burning in thousands of points across the country and and satellite photos were showing that a lot of this was coming from the Amazon rainforest,  including a huge fire in the Margarida Alves nature reserve in Roraima that has been burning out of control for 20 days, which the MST says was set by illegal loggers and miners  connected to the international capitalist value chains who are trying to steal the land. In short, one more example of the kind of behavior that US backed right wing extremist President Jair Bolsonaro has been encouraging since he took office in January.

Every year during dry season, thousands of farmers and ranchers create controlled burns of their pastures. Despite many attempts to convince them to use more environmentally sound techniques to infuse the soil with nutrients, slashing and and burning brush remains one of the cheapest and most efficient ways to do it. It is hard to convince small farmers to adapt more modern techniques. As a result, every year there are tens of thousands of brush fires spreading up from the Midwest into deforested areas of what used to be Amazon rainforest, and when it is especially dry these can spread into areas of virgin forest. In the first 6 months of Bolsonaro’s presidency these numbers increased by 82% to over 70,000 but, as troubling as these numbers are, they mask something more sinister that is going on in Brazil.

President Bolsonaro has gutted all federal environmental protection agencies and the bureau of indigenous affairs and has given clear signals out to the loggers, miners and ranchers who provide raw materials to northern markets that he will not punish them for environmental crimes, even those committed in nature reserves and on indigenous reservations. As Alexander Zaitchek recently explained on the Real News, this has caused actors in the international agribusiness and mining supply chains to start hiring chainsaw crews.

If the Amazon rainforest loses another 20% of its volume, which could happen in less than 10 years if Bolsonaro’s rate of destruction holds up, a phenomenon called “dieback” could occur, in which the entire rainforest could dry off and burn down on its own. If that were to happen, planet earth would lose 20% of its oxygen. Standing on a São Paulo street in total darkness at 3:30 PM yesterday, it seemed like this is a reasonable possibility.

Photo: Jorge Araújo