Bolsonaro’s moral myopia threatening Amazon rainforest
Less than a year after Brazil made headlines globally for electing the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro as its new president, the country is in the news again for all the wrong reasons — and arguably as a consequence of the electorate’s unfortunate decision. Over the last week, devastating forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, the world’s most precious reserve of biodiversity and a giant carbon sink that forms an essential bulwark in the fight against climate change, have escalated beyond all historical levels.
Natural causes alone cannot be responsible for such a steep increase in forest fires; clearly they are a result of human intervention. And it takes no great genius to connect the crisis to Bolsonaro’s links, and those of his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, to Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobbies, or “ruralistas,” who seek to clear the Amazon for cattle ranches and soya farms. Also heard on his campaign was a pledge to dismantle environmental protections for natural reserves and legal safeguards for the indigenous communities of Brazil, who occupy about 13 percent of its land, mostly in the Amazon.
The most revealing evidence for culpability in this crisis was supplied last weekend by Bolsonaro himself, who last month fired the head of Brazil’s space agency after it released data showing a steep escalation of deforestation in the Amazon. What the world sees as an ecological crisis is, for the current Brazilian administration and its president, only a public relations crisis, to be met with rhetorical bluster about international conspiracies to undermine Brazil’s economy and progress as a world power. After widespread condemnation from the international community — most eye-catchingly the French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 meeting last week — Bolsonaro posted a series of videos on his Twitter account arguing, evasively, that “forest fires exist worldwide and this cannot serve as a pretext for international sanctions,” and that his responsibility was to bring the standard of living of the million or so Brazilians who live in the Amazon up to that of the rest of the country.
Thankfully, the pressure seems to have worked: This week, Brazil sent thousands of troops to fight the fires. But, like a family trying to restrain a profligate son, the world must prepare for repeats of such episodes. Bolsonaro’s attempt to frame the crisis in the Amazon as essentially a matter of the Brazilian government’s sovereignty and its right to determine its own economic interests is a predictable one, which is commonly used by states in disputes with international ramifications and leaders with a nationalist and hyper-populist agenda.
But the problem is actually both more international and more local than Bolsonaro makes out. Climate change knows no boundaries; the world is warming without regard for national borders (even if the citizens of some countries stand to be more badly affected by climate change). In this scenario, the Amazon (60 percent of which is in Brazil) is part of the patrimony of every human being. It is the single richest source of flora and fauna on the planet (three-quarters of its plant species are unique to the Amazon) and is vital to the mitigation of the global climate crisis because of the amount of atmospheric carbon absorbed by its trees.
Over the last 50 years, the Amazon has been shrinking under pressure from a growing population, and cleared for agriculture and pasture (while also being fragmented into smaller “islands” that impact the ability of species to survive). According to a 2010 World Bank report, if about 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is lost to deforestation, the entire ecosystem could reach a tipping point and turn into a much drier, more arid landscape that would render hundreds of species extinct and have tumultuous impacts on the climate and rainfall.
We have now reached 18 percent and, after several years of slowdown, the speed of deforestation has picked up greatly since Bolsonaro came to power. What happens today in the Amazon will affect the lives of our children and their descendants, and so we must all involve ourselves in demanding a more responsible attitude to the problem than the showmanship, empty rhetoric and moral myopia of Brazil’s president. We must also change some of our behaviors, such as reining in our consumption of beef, the most environmentally damaging of all food, or demanding that it is sustainably produced (Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of beef).
What the world sees as an ecological crisis is, for the current Brazilian administration and its president, only a public relations crisis.
But, just as the crisis has an international dimension, so it also has a very local one that the international community must work to highlight. The Amazon is home to many of the indigenous people of Brazil — people whose longstanding way of life is adapted to the rainforest and who stand in the way of its economic exploitation. Bolsonaro pretends to speak in their interest as a cover for his reckless agenda, but they are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and it is clear they do not want what he wants.
One such voice is that of Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of the National Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. “In Brazil, the government is weakening environmental protections and undermining the rights of indigenous peoples and other rural communities,” she wrote in a letter to the public last week. “We are putting our bodies and our lives on the line. If we disappear, so will the world’s tropical forests, since, where there is indigenous life, there is standing forest, despite the constant and growing attacks that our territories suffer every day.”
Two years ago, I had the good fortune to spend five days in the Amazon rainforest and witnessed the incredible expanse and density of the vegetation; the brooding, snaking rivers; the sense of a world full of life in which human beings were almost marginal; the spectacle at night of thousands of stars in a sky not affected by ambient light from human civilization. I understood what the great conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy meant when he said that, when he went to the Amazon for the first time, “it was like I had died and had gone to heaven.” For Brazil to fritter away the planet’s most unique habitat at the altar of crude, shortsighted gains in the commodities market would be outrageously callous and mindless. International vigilance and resistance, of the kind seen this last week, are what is required to keep the threats to the Amazon at bay until a more mature government replaces that of Bolsonaro.