On Sunday, millions of people across Brazil will vote in the final round of its presidential election. They'll choose between right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. To many, the future of the Amazon rainforest is on the ballot. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson has the story produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
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Amna Nawaz: This coming Sunday, millions of people across Brazil will vote in the final round of their presidential election. They will choose between right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and the man known as Lula, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
To many, the very few feature of the Amazon rain forest is on the ballot.
"NewsHour" special correspondent Jane Ferguson has this story, produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Jane Ferguson: There are many reasons to marvel at the Amazon rain forest. It is the world's most precious ecosystem, a natural wonder, regenerating water, absorbing carbon dioxide, home to untold species of the earth's creatures. And, from above, it is simply beautiful. But, from space, that beauty is obscured.
So the smoke clouds can effectively deal from space?
Alberto Setzer, Brazil National Institute for Space Research: Oh, yes. It's clear. This is a picture from the geostationary satellite. This is about 40,000 kilometers away.
So, you're not talking about something small. you're talking about something that can be seen from such a distance.
Jane Ferguson: Senior scientist Alberto Setzer examines these satellite images here at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research.
On any given day, there are 20,000 to 30,000 fires raging in the Amazon, humans encroaching deeper into the forest, clearing it for farming.
Alberto Setzer: If you look here, you see a new area being deforested. OK, this was a farm they already deforested. And, here, all the satellites detected the burning, and you can see the smoke plumes.
Jane Ferguson: In the last few decades, over 300,000 square miles have been illegally deforested, more than twice the size of Germany.
When Setzer began this work in the mid-'80s, deliberate forest fires were just being discovered by satellites. Gathering evidence of it and telling the world, says Setzer, was not enough. His whole career, and for 40 years, he has watched the Amazon burn.
Alberto Setzer: There was this tremendous outcry. And I thought at that time, well, OK, we show this is wrong. Everybody agrees is wrong. In about one or two years, the whole thing will be settled.
But it didn't happen and still going on.
Jane Ferguson: At the time, the Brazilian government began permitting some limited encroachment into the forest. Roads were built and trees cleared to build farms.
Alberto Setzer: The initial idea was quite good. People were supposed to leave a forest patch here, so the whole area would have very long stretches of forest connected one to another, allowing…(CROSSTALK)
Jane Ferguson: So, animals could move.
Alberto Setzer: Yes, everything was very well-planned. But the original plan was neglected. Nobody was punished for that, and nothing of that has been…
Jane Ferguson: Implemented.
Alberto Setzer: Implemented.
Take, for instance, this area that has already been deforested.
Jane Ferguson: How much time would have passed when this had been deforested?
Alberto Setzer: Some 10 to 15 years. So, you don't need to be an expert in satellite interpretation to say, well, wait a minute, it's not 80 percent that is left here.
Jane Ferguson: Where's the forest there? Yes.
Alberto Setzer: It's not even 50 percent left, maybe 10 percent or 5 percent left.
Jane Ferguson: That was Pará state, where the rate of forest fires this year has doubled.
We traveled there to see the destruction for ourselves, the smell of smoke in the air unmistakable. You really do not need to drive very far here in the Amazon before you see the burns brazenly taking place right in front of any traffic. Here by the side of the road, you can see this farmland being expanded deeper into the forest. You see these types of fires everywhere you go here.
The rain forest has never been in more peril, its future largely in the hands of politicians. Come November, either incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro or two-time former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known to everyone as Lula.
Brazil's influential agribusiness supports Bolsonaro, and his campaign promises double down on his policies of the last four years. Under his presidency, environmental laws have been crippled, and deforestation has spiked, up more than 70 percent over the past four years.
Last month, addressing the United Nations, President Bolsonaro argued that his policies benefited the world.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian President (through translator): Our agribusiness is a source of national pride. In the Brazilian Amazon region, an area as big as Western Europe, more than 88.0 percent of the rain forest remains untouched and pristine, contrary to what is often reported by the mainstream national and international media.
Jane Ferguson: But as lawlessness by developers has spread across the Amazon, conservationists have been murdered at record rates. Lula is banking on support from people who care about protecting the Amazon.
Currently the front-runner, he has pledged to support such stances in the past. Once in office, those policies have been weakened, watered down by business interests, political compromises, and criminal cartels controlling industries inside the Amazon.
Yet these efforts to save the forest may be the last chance. We are approaching a point of no return, once the forest is so degraded, it cannot sustain itself as an ecosystem, says leading climate scientist Carlos Nobre.
Carlos Nobre, Brazilian Climate Scientist: If we exceed the tipping point, even if we stop deforestation and degradation, and even if we have success in reaching the Paris agreement targets for climate change, the tipping point makes the degradation process to be self-reinforcing.
It will drive more degradation, because the degradation process increases the length of the dry season. It's impossible to maintain a forest with longer dry season.
Jane Ferguson: So, passing the tipping point effectively makes the situation terminal for the rain forest?
Carlos Nobre: Terminal for the rain forest, if we continue with the deforestation and degradation, and also with global warming.
Jane Ferguson: The problem is the degradation of the forest. As the it is burned and cleared, the thick canopy that creates its own climate and environment is breached.
This makes fires spread more quickly, worsening the threat; 35 percent of the entire forest is now degraded, says Nobre, roughly a quarter of the size of the United States. This matters for the entire planet.
Carlos Nobre: The Amazon forest, as most forests on the planet, does a very important environmental service, which is to remove carbon dioxide.
The Amazon forest removes more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. And the Amazon at one point 20, 30 years ago removed more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide. So this is a very important ecosystem service.
Jane Ferguson: While scientists continue to sound the alarm, people on the ground like Father Edilberto Sena have for years been a thorn in the side of agribusiness and, more recently, the Bolsonaro government.
Father Edilberto Sena, Archdiocese of Santarem: Amazonia is not agricultural land. It's forestland. So when you cut the forest to plant, in a few times, it's finished.
Logs. Did you just see? Full of logs.
Jane Ferguson:Those are logs from the forest?
Father Edilberto Sena: Yes. Yes.
Jane Ferguson: He is an outspoken critic of industries driving deforestation. He runs his own radio program near his hometown of Santarem in Pará state. He took us to see deforested areas.
We just drove by on the road there a huge trailer filled with logs. Where did that come from?
Father Edilberto Sena: Logs come from here; 70 kilometers from here, there's forest, so the logs. And it comes from all over the area, because the Amazon is rich in logs. To see the destruction of our territory is so shocking, shocking.
Jane Ferguson: But you are very outspoken. It's pretty dangerous that you're standing here talking to us. We're in this field. What are the risks?
Father Edilberto Sena: The risk, I'm crazy, because, in 2006, some two people were talking to each other by Internet, saying we needed to kill two priests in order to give peace to Santarem. One was Sena.
Jane Ferguson: You.
Father Edilberto Sena: At that moment I was scared.
Jane Ferguson: Father Sena is careful about which farms he goes near now. He knows the risks.
Carlos Nobre has a safer strategy, but a no less audacious one.
Carlos Nobre: We are planning to propose a restoration of more than 100 million hectares of forest.
The forest degraded mostly over Southern Amazon. If we succeed, zero deforestation, forest degradation, wildfires, and this large-scale forest restoration, this we will be removing between one billion and 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year for more than 30 years, a very important element to combat the climate emergency, but, more importantly, to prevent the tipping point to be crossed.
Jane Ferguson: After thriving on Earth for 10 million years, it took humans a mere five decades to bring the rain forest close to a tipping point. If the Amazon survives what humans have done to it, what they continue to do to it, it can heal.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Pará state, Brazil.
Amna Nawaz: And, tomorrow, Jane Ferguson will have another story from Brazil looking at how the rights of Indigenous people in the Amazon are also under threat.