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“This story that the Amazon is on fire is a lie,” he said during the August 10 second Presidential Summit of the Leticia Pact for the Preservation of the Amazon. “And we must combat this with real numbers.”

But the real numbers reported by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) are damning: Since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, deforestation has surged nearly 30%, which is mostly caused by illegal logging and fires set by loggers and developers.
In July alone, INPE documented 6,803 fires in the Amazon, up from 5,318 a year ago. And in the first two weeks of August — the peak time for fires — the agency reported more than 15,000 fire spots in the Amazon, a worrying number but down 17% versus the same period last year
And the presence of fires has recently been documented by environmental NGO Greenpeace, which released photos from an Aug 16 flyover of southern Amazonas and in Rondônia — including protected areas which cannot legally be exploited for commercial purposes, showing flames and smoke.

Yet Bolsonaro’s government continues to reject concerns that fires in the area are out of control — on Wednesday, Vice President Hamilton Mourao insisted that the protected part of the forest “is not burning,” and lashed out at US actor Leonardo diCaprio for posting about the issue on social media.

“I would like to invite our most recent critic, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, to go with me here to São Gabriel da Cachoeira to do an eight-hour march through the jungle between São Gabriel airport and the Cucuí road. There he will better understand how things work in this immense region,” said Mourao, during a conference promoted by the Brazilian industry association (CNI).

Clearing the Amazon

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and an indispensable resource in the battle against global warming. When the rainforest is healthy, its trees and plants pull billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, and it is one of the planet’s best defenses against climate change.

Fires are often lit in the Amazon to clear vegetation from parts of the forest that have already been cut down — all in preparation for illegal pasture planting and cattle raising. Environmentalists have criticized Bolsonaro’s outspoken support for logging and development in the Amazon as signaling encouragment for illicit land-clearing operations.

Bolsonaro has faced pressure to take action to preserve the Amazon. Last summer’s fires were a huge black eye for the country and in June, a group of 34 international investors threatened to divest from Brazilian companies unless steps were taken to curb the destruction.

His government has taken some steps to do so. In mid-July, Bolsonaro signed a decree banning fires for 120 days. Brazil’s Defense Ministry also launched Green Brazil Operation 2, a military mission aimed at curbing destructive fires.

While fires increased in the Amazon in July, Bolsonaro pointed out in his August 10 address that total deforestation — which includes fires along with other methods of land-clearing — fell 28%, compared to last year’s record-breaking deforestation in the same month.

Nevertheless, the overall trend suggests bad news for the Amazon’s flora and fauna, with INPE data showing that overall deforestation in the Amazon has risen sharply in the first half of 2020.

For Greenpeace, the presence of fires proves Bolsonaro’s administration is not doing enough to enforce environmental protections “on paper.”

“In 2020, despite the prohibition of the use of fire and with the armed forces in the field since mid-May, the fires are still uncontrolled in the Amazon, proving once again the inefficiency of the government,” said Cristiane Mazzetti, spokesperson for the Greenpeace Amazon campaign.

“The figures show that the strategy adopted by the federal government is inefficient to contain the destruction of the most biodiverse forest on the planet,” Mazzetti said. “Prohibiting fires on paper does not work without efficient command and control operations by the designated agencies.”

The Leticia Pact was formed last September by seven of the nine countries that share the Amazon region — Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Guyana and Suriname. It requires collaboration tackling the causes of deforestation, the creation of forest restoration initiatives, the sustainable use of natural resources, actions to strengthen women and indigenous peoples, and the creation of educational campaigns on the importance of that region.

Bolsonaro told last week’s gathering that Brazil had been unfairly criticized. “Our policy is zero-tolerance. Not only for the common crime but also for the environmental issue. Fighting illicit activities is essential for the preservation of our Amazon rainforest.”

But then he went on to urge the kind of activity in the Amazon that conservationists say ultimately signals tolerance for illegal deforestation and burning. “But that is not all. We must also develop sustainable development in the region,” he said.

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Delhi sees deadliest month amid raging pandemic

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India has the second highest number of Covid cases in the world. November was the deadliest month for the capital Delhi, which has been struggling to contain the virus, with more than 100 deaths on some days.

The death toll has overwhelmed the Indian capital’s crematoriums, where many families say goodbye to their loved ones in ancient rituals.

A lack of social distancing at the city’s markets has been blamed for the recent uptick. Some hospitals have run out of ICU beds – with pollution and cold weather adding to the burden.

Cases are starting to fall, but doctors warn that if people don’t take care, the situation could get worse again, as the BBC’s South Asia correspondent Rajini Vaidyanathan reports.

Produced by Kunal Sehgal, Shalu Yadav and Greg Brosnan.

Filmed and edited by Varun Nayar.

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India farmers protests: Thousands swarm Delhi against deregulation rules

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Farmers from the nearby states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh began arriving by tractors and on foot at the outskirts of New Delhi last week, where they blocked roads and set up makeshift camps, according to protest leaders. Some slept on the road or in their tractors, and several places of worship offered protesters food.

Police attempted to block demonstrators from entering the city. They fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday and Friday after protesters pelted police officers with stones and damaged public property, according to Manoj Yadav, a senior police official from Haryana.

The farmers are protesting laws passed in September, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says will give farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to private businesses, such as supermarket chains.

But the move has infuriated India’s farmers, who say that the new rules will leave them worse off by making it easier for corporates to exploit agricultural workers who make up more than half of India’s 480 million-strong workforce, according to India’s most recent Census in 2011.

According to Ashutosh Mishra, the media coordinator of protest organizer All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee, which represents around 200 farming unions, tens of thousands of demonstrators have gathered at each of New Delhi’s three borders — a line of protesters at one of the borders stretches for 30 kilometers (19 miles), he said.

Police have put up barriers and dug up roads to prevent protesters from coming into the city center to hold sit-ins. Mishra expects more farmers from around the country to join the protests in the coming days.

That’s despite New Delhi being a hotspot for Covid-19 in a country that has already reported more than 9.4 million reported cases, the most in any country bar the United States.

“We are trying to be weary of Covid but we don’t have an option — it is a question of life and death,” said Mukut Singh, the president of a farmers union in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, who is leading thousands in protest in his home state, and says he will join the protesters in Delhi later this week.

“We are the ones who have provided food, milk, vegetables when the whole country was in lockdown — we were still toiling in the fields,” he said. “It is the government who has put us at risk by introducing these laws during Covid.”

What the protests are about

For decades, the Indian government has offered guaranteed prices to farmers for certain crops, providing long-term certainty that allows them to make investments for the next crop cycle.

Under the previous laws, farmers had to sell their goods at auction at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, where they were guaranteed to get at least the government-agreed minimum price. There were restrictions on who could purchase at auction and prices were capped for essential commodities.

Modi’s new laws dismantle the committee structure, allowing farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price. Farmers have more freedom to do things such as sell direct to buyers and sell to other states.

Modi said increasing market competition would be a good thing as it fulfills farmers’ demands for higher income and gives them new rights and opportunities.

“The farmers should get the advantage of a big and comprehensive market which opens our country to global markets,” Modi said on Monday, as farmers protested in the capital. He hopes it will attract private investment into the agricultural industry, which has lagged as other parts of the country’s economy have modernized.

But farmers argue that the rules could help big companies drive down prices. While farmers could sell crops at elevated prices if the demand is there, conversely, they could struggle to meet the minimum price in years when there is too much supply in the market.

Singh, the Uttar Pradesh farmer, said that removing the price guarantees will make life tougher for farmers.

“There is a lot of anger among farmers,” he said. “We don’t get even the minimum support price that is presently declared — removing these protections and making it easier for corporates to enter will completely buy us out.”

Why it’s such a hot political issues

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion population, meaning farmers are the biggest voter block in the country.

That’s made farming a central political issue, with farmers arguing for years to get the minimum guaranteed prices increased.

Security personnel deployed to stop farmers from entering the national capital during a protest against the Centre's new farm laws at Singhu border near Delhi, India on November 30, 2020.
In a bid to win over farmers, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said in its 2014 general election manifesto that all crop prices should be fixed at a minimum of 50% higher than the production costs. In 2016, Modi promised to boost the country’s agriculture sector with a target of doubling the income of farmers by 2022.

Modi and his government continue to insist that they are supporting farmers.

He hailed the new laws as a “watershed moment” which will ensure a complete transformation of the agriculture sector. But besides calling the move long overdue, Modi has not said why he opted to introduce these measures during the pandemic, which has caused India to suffer its first recession in decades.

“The Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has always stood in full commitment to resolving the problems faced by farmers and will continue to stand by them,” said Narendra Singh Tomar, the Minister of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare.

Tomar urged farmers to abandon their protests and instead discuss their issues with the government — although so far, Modi has shown no sign of capitulating to protesters’ demands.



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House steering panel backs DeLauro for Appropriations chair

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While the full caucus typically backs the Steering Committee’s pick, an upset has occurred as recently as 2014.

Lawmakers and aides watching the race expect it will be decided on a second round of voting for DeLauro and Wasserman Schultz, with allies of the Florida Democrat hopeful she can eke out a win with the help of Kaptur supporters forced to throw their support behind another candidate. The Ohio Democrat is not expected to secure enough support on the first ballot.

Kaptur, 74, the most senior Democrat on the spending panel and the longest-serving woman in Congress, has won support from many members of the Congressional Black Caucus — a powerful bloc that typically respects seniority in leadership elections. Supporters of Wasserman Schultz say she could win if she can secure even some of those votes.

DeLauro’s supporters, however, are confident that the close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and long-time champion of the public health and education communities will be confirmed as chair.

Pelosi typically doesn’t get involved in steering races after she publicly backed Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) in 2014, who won the steering panel’s nod to become the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2014, only to lose the spot in a stunning caucus-wide vote. The caucus instead chose Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who went on to become Energy and Commerce chair.

DeLauro — the second-most senior contender for the gavel who controls the largest chunk of nondefense spending as the head of the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee — has long been expected to lead the appropriations panel and has a reputation for working with senior Republican appropriators like Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

DeLauro, 77, is a “work horse” and a “force of nature,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who’s pushing her colleagues to vote for the Connecticut Democrat, in an interview last month. “Her appeal is that she has integrity, that she has wisdom, that she’s such a hard worker and a strong fighter for the issues that she cares about.“

Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Military Construction-VA spending panel, has been expected to pick up support from freshmen, moderates and some members of the CBC. Supporters point to her robust fundraising for Democrats — particularly for vulnerable members that will be crucial to keeping the House majority in 2022.

Some Democrats said a disappointing Election Day that cost the party more than a half-dozen House seats underscores the need for change, including a more moderate candidate that could bring generational diversity to the leadership ranks.

“I think that in the aftermath of the election, it makes clear that the old ways of doing things just aren’t going to work anymore,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats who supports Wasserman Schultz, said last month.

The three Democrats are vying to succeed retiring Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the first woman ever to lead the spending panel. All three have vowed to make the appropriations process more transparent and accessible to members, while supporting the return of earmarked spending to help Democrats secure cash for pet projects at home.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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