Brazil Is Affected by A Convergence of Wrong Decisions, Says Scientist

Mercedes Bustamante believes that Brazil's failure to control deforestation or invest in climate adaptation is putting the country's economy at risk

Cristiane Fontes Marcelo Leite
São Paulo and Oxford

Mercedes Bustamante is one of Brazil's leading authorities on ecology and deforestation in the Cerrado and the Amazon. She is alarmed at the Brazilian government’s loss of credibility observed at Glasgow’s climate summit COP26. In spite of that, she remains optimistic.

Bustamante is one of the more than 200 authors of the Scientific Panel on the Amazon report. For her, our topmost priority is achieving zero deforestation — both legal and illegal. "Adjectives do not matter here".

She also believes it is critical to make bioeconomy activities more inclusive, bringing together scientific and traditional knowledge; and to better regulate access to genetic resources so as to benefit both industry and local populations.

However, this would require us to urgently undo an unprecedented series of mistaken decisions taken by the Bolsonaro government. "We cannot build an inclusive bioeconomy in the Amazon while competing with the kind of illegal economy we have today."

The report of the Scientific Panel for the Amazon (SPA) was finalized for release at COP26. What are its key recommendations?

One of the first priorities is to stop deforestation — no need for an adjective here. Whether it is legal or illegal deforestation, we must stop it, together with forest degradation.

The second step is to organize sustainable activities in the Amazon. A number of activities are already gaining scale in the region. They are based on the use of biological resources, and form what we understand as bioeconomy in a wider sense. But there is still a huge gap when we consider what could be achieved through the integration of different knowledge systems: science, technology and innovation, and indigenous and traditional knowledge.

What is missing for the development of such Amazon bioeconomy?

The concept of bioeconomy must be comprehensive enough to include forest peoples, land resources, aquatic resources, small-scale farming, and larger-scale enterprises.

Brazil has not yet implemented proper mechanisms regulating access to genetic resources, neither does it provide clarity on how to share benefits associated with traditional knowledge. Today, Brazil does not adequately protect traditional knowledge, and I believe that it fails both industry and academia in this regard.

Another bottleneck toward creating a solid and inclusive bioeconomy is related to enforcement and the elimination of illegal activities. Standing forests and healthy rivers must be basic assumptions in all our policies. And we must not tolerate any misappropriation of public lands, conservation units, or indigenous territories.

Finally, we need more investment in science, technology, and innovation. In the Amazon, a new species is described every two days, which is evidence of our huge knowledge gap regarding biodiversity.

In addition, Brazil is once again facing a brain drain.

We all see the convergence of a number of wrong choices for the country, and I would add climate change to the picture. One of Brazil's greatest concerns should be how climate change will affect biodiversity and the functioning of natural systems — our competitive advantage in the world.

We have been organizing (or disorganizing) our system with our focus on the rear-view mirror, working towards an economy that will no longer exist, and missing a number of opportunities that are rapidly emerging as a result of the climate crisis. You cannot build a legal economy in the Amazon while competing with the kind of illegal economy that we have today.

What would be the most urgent step to reverse the current situation and ensure a moratorium on deforestation?

I welcome the engagement of all Amazon state governors and local institutions because they are starting to fill the void left by the federal government. However, a large part of the Amazon is still under the federal government’s responsibility.

Some markets are already shutting their doors to Brazil. The current instability has its economic consequences.

When we talk about climate change in Brazil, we usually think of the Amazon, but the Cerrado is Brazil’s second largest biome. What urgent measures are needed to protect 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 deforestation is advancing very quickly.

When we say that 50% of the Cerrado has already been converted [into agricultural areas], people mistakenly understand that 50% is intact. But actually, we are talking about highly fragmented areas, many of which are in a state of degradation.

Although the Forest Code states that landowners must conserve at least 20 per cent of their lands in the Cerrado, most deforestation activities that take place today are not authorised by our environmental agencies. Once again, the key issue here is enforcement. As a result, it is almost impossible to manage this occupation process with a focus on the landscape and not the properties, which is one of our biggest problems.

In addition, there are huge pasture areas in the Cerrado — indeed, this is the main land use in the biome. Many of these pastures are degraded or have been abandoned, especially in the central-southern areas, where occupation started.

What could be done in these areas?

Many of them could be used for agriculture, thus preventing further deforestation in the northern region; or for restoration, connecting land fragments that are important for biodiversity conservation.

A third important point regarding the Cerrado is the need to change large-scale agricultural practices. Extensive single-crop areas should have no place in the future, as they are not sustainable. However, large-scale agriculture still relies on this type of occupation to remain profitable.

This large-scale occupation in Matopiba [a region covering the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia] faces very high climate risks, which will increase if we do not manage to meet the 1.5 ºC target set under the Paris Agreement.

This is beginning to make agriculture in these areas unfeasible, which means that they will have to return to the central-southern areas. The problem is that these areas have already been occupied; therefore, if there is no proper planning, we will find ourselves competing for space.

What is your opinion about Brazil's participation in COP26?

Brazil has come to COP26 with a very weakened and damaged reputation.

The Brazilian government’s proposal may even sound nice, but it was never discussed with society or academia. In addition, the government’s actions in the opposite direction are so blunt that its beautiful words will have little effect — especially when they provide no clarity on how they expect to achieve them.

Brazil is wasting precious time. We talk a lot about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially because such emissions come from deforestation, but we have not been discussing proper adaptation actions in a country where the poorest groups 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. She took part in drafting the fifth report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Her research is focused on land-use changes in Brazil and their impacts on ecosystems.