A Modern Exodus: Climate Induced Migration in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest

By Alexandria Virginski

Amazonian deforestation has given rise to climate-induced migration and displacement, threatening the cultural and spiritual habitat of indigenous peoples and rural producers residing in Brazil. In 2006, the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA, “Instituto Nacional de Colnização e Reforma Agrária” in Portuguese), reached an agreement on an agrarian reform settlement with Brazilian families living in the Santarém region of the state of Pará known as the Sustainable Development Project Terra Nossa (Projeto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Terra Nossa). Terra Nossa exists in an area spanning 149,842 hectares (529 square miles) within the municipalities of Novo Progresso and Altamira. These municipalities are among those with the highest rate of deforestation in Brazil. The intention behind Terra Nossa (“our land” in Portuguese) was to combat illegal deforestation by offering underprivileged farmers small plots of land for sustainable agriculture. Under the settlement, farmers face certain restrictions, such as mandatory INCRA authorization to sell their plots, in an effort to prevent land grabs. Though these efforts are designed to safeguard the local Terra Nossa community, which consists largely of indigenous peoples and small rural producers, their livelihood remains under attack by criminal networks often referred to as “ipê mafias.” Ipê mafias are named after the ipê tree, whose wood is one of the most valuable on the market.

According to Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, ipê mafias are responsible for 90% of all Amazonian deforestation. Climate-related events like droughts, soil erosion, rampant forest fires, land degradation, and competition over natural resources have severely disrupted the livelihood of inhabitants, especially indigenous peoples whose entire identity relies on the collective use of common resources. Those who stand up to the ipê mafias—like the women of the Guajajara ethnicity who periodically fly drones to catch illegal logging—confront formidable challenges: agrarian conflicts, death threats, and even cases of arson. This has made the Terra Nossa project one of the most politically contentious issues facing Brazil, and even the world. The project has received international media coverage for the more than 300 environmental advocates killed there in the last decade. Maria Marcia Elpídia de Melo, President of the Rural Producer’s Association of Nova Vitória (Associação de Produtores e Produtoras Rurais de Nova Vitória) is among those fortunate enough to have escaped an attempted assassination. She is an avid defender of environmental rights who has taken center stage in the plight against Amazonian deforestation. Despite the risks associated with her work, she continues to fight for the rights of Terra Nossa.

In the wake of COVID-19, economic inequality and violence against marginalized groups such as women, children, rural farmers, and indigenous populations within the Amazon have significantly escalated. For many, the only protection from climate and security risks in the region is migration. Climate migration refers to “the movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominately for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border.” The reasons behind climate migration are multifaceted and involve not only environmental factors, but also the compounding effects of ineffective governance. Without proper environmental regulation and enforcement, organized crime syndicates like the ipê mafias deplete natural resources, disrupting the Amazonian ecosystem.

In 2019, under former President Jair Bolsonaro, the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil passed (PL) 3729/2004 , reducing the size of several protected areas in the Amazon rainforest and opening this land to mining, agriculture, and commercial development. During his tenure, Bolsonaro passed several laws including Bill 2633/2020 and Bill 510/2021 which weakened existing laws governing the use of pesticides and mining controls in traditional Indigenous peoples land (IWGIA). The enforcement of anti-logging in Brazil was effectively suspended under Bolsonaro’s No. 9,760administrative decree whereby federal enforcement agents working under the Environment Ministry—which typically fines thousands of illegal loggers—were told they could bring no more than five cases a year. As a result of these changes, deforestation in the Amazon region increased by 53% compared to deforestation rates from the previous year. The cases that were brought forward went through a different review process: “conciliation hearings” where plea agreements took the form of discounts or complete eliminations of fines altogether. These actions have sparked widespread criticism and have resulted in direct and irreparable effects such as deforestation, land grabs, human rights abuses targeting minority communities, and the aforementioned IWGIA.

Brazil’s 2023 presidential election was a tight race between then-president and right wing candidate Bolsonaro, who acquired the nickname “captain chainsaw” for surpassing historic records of deforestation, and left wing candidate Luiz Inácio da Silva (known as Lula), who had previously served as Brazil’s president from 2003 until 2010 before spending almost two years in jail for money laundering and corruption. Lula came back to politics strong, with a presidential campaign promising to “ban the invasion of Indigenous land and illegal mining.” This promise won over municipalities in the northwest and northeast of Brazil, where the population is more than a quarter Indigenous. Ultimately, Lula’s victory over Bolsonaro was a slim one, but one that may be attributed to this campaign promise.

There is hope that Lula will follow through on his campaign promise, and support stronger legislation aimed at curbing clandestine operations like those of the ipê mafia deep in the Amazon rainforest. In fact, there is no other option going forward, given the consequences of deforestation and climate change in the region. Lula has already made history, creating the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples to combat 500 years of inequality, and setting a goal of zero deforestation in the Amazon region. However, despite efforts during Lula’s previous presidency such as setting up the Amazon Fund which supports sustainable forest management practices and the recovery of deforested areas, the Amazon witnessed a 10% migration rate or the equivalent of 1.5 million people migrating out of Amazonian municipalities between 2005 to 2010 alone. While Lula’s domestic changes are important measures for curbing migration cycles, Brazil’s presidential terms only last four years, and eight consecutive years at most if the incumbent is reelected for another term. Thus, achieving order and progress is a laborious process which frequently retrogresses from one presidential term to another. This is apparent in the changes that took place between Lula’s first presidential term in 2003 through the end of his two terms in 2011: beginning with a deforestation rate as high as 49,240 sq. km per year of forest loss to a low of 17,674 sq. km per year forest loss by the end. Since his removal from power, deforestation rates have once again reached unprecedented levels with Bolsonaro’s presidential term from 2018 until 2022 seeing a 75.5% increase in deforestation rates compared to the previous decade under Lula. Back in office, Lula once again faces the Amazonian deforestation crisis head on, pledging to eliminate deforestation in the Amazon by 2030 through law enforcement tactics targeting environmental crimes.

While there remains much to be done on a domestic level, it is time for the international community to address climate migration. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” and UN treaties and agreements such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights implicate but do not directly address climate migration. With forecasts of climate migration predicting 200 million to one billion climate migrants by 2050, there is a need to create international protections that re-envision climate migrants as global actors and which establish legal duties of protection beyond national borders, recognizing the impact of climate change as grounds for asylum claims, or even creating special visas for those displaced by climate migration.  Given Brazil’s rising geopolitical power, Lula has a unique opportunity to advocate for comprehensive international frameworks that address the needs of climate migrants in Brazil and beyond.

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