-OpEd-

SÃO PAULO — Any Catholic who has attended mass since Ash Wednesday will have noticed that the Church in Brazil is very concerned about the country's environment.

For the second year in a row, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil is using its annual pre-Easter fraternity campaign to sound alarm bells over the state of the planet and the destruction, in particular, of Brazil's biomass. And with good reason: After leveling off between 2005 and 2010, the rate at which the rainforest is being destroyed has once again soared.

The relative respite in rainforest destruction served Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) well in her first campaign for president, in 2010. Later though, when the numbers started telling a different story, she went so far as to prevent the National Institute For Space Research, or INPE, from publishing its deforestation data. Rousseff won reelection in 2014 but was impeached and removed from office in 2016. To this day, no one has been punished for the forced omission of official statistics.

As I've written in several articles over the past six years, journalists have consistently failed to convey the urgency of the threat. With all eyes are turned to and focused on the so-called "Operation Car Wash" corruption probe, Brazil's agribusiness continues to ruin our most precious natural heritage "like never before in the history of this country."

In past centuries, human incursion into the Amazon did of course hurt the environment. But because of its size, the rainforest still showed signs of resilience. Over the past few years, however, the Amazon's climate system is showing signs of failure, as INPE scientist Antonio Nobre warned in one of his most important research papers, published in 2014. By then, more than 40% of the Amazon rainforest had already been irreversibly destroyed.

Among other things, the rainforest's capacity for retaining water and distributing it through the air in the form of rain has been seriously hampered. That explains the unprecedented drought episodes in the region, in 2005 and 2010. Also under threat are the so-called "flying rivers," air currents that carry precipitation to Brazil's southeast. This is what caused the long-lasting water shortage crisis that part of the country has been facing for many years and will continue to face.

rainforest farming land brazil deforestation

A piece of the rainforest in Brazil — Photo: Frans Lanting/Mint Images/ZUMA

Industrial-scale farming is only part of the problem. Huge infrastructure projects pushed through by Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), are also to blame. The massive Belo Monte hydroelectric complex, under construction since 2011, is the most obvious example. But there are many others. Dozens of other dams are also being planned.

The result of all this is clear to see in the official figures: The rainforest has already lost an area equivalent to five times the size of São Paulo, one of the world's largest and sprawling cities. And the curve is pointing upwards, with rainforest destruction advancing faster now than at any point since 2000.

The INPE reports also make it clear that the only areas resisting the devastation are those inhabited by indigenous tribes. But that could soon change. Current President Michel Temer, after all, named a justice minister who — besides criticizing the anti-corruption investigation — attacked the rights of the indigenous peoples he's supposed to be protecting.

Given how the press, the public and politicians have so clearly failed to revert this suicidal destruction, it's little wonder that the Church is trying to do something, anything to help. What's at stake is nothing less than the fate of Brazil, and of the world as a whole — God's miraculous creation, in the eyes of the Church.