FP Guide

The Amazon Is on Fire

Who lit the match, and who can put out the blaze?

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Foreign Policy illustration/Ricardo Moraes/Paulo Amorim/Pablo Albarenga/Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket/Picture Alliance/NurPhoto/Getty Images

This week, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research announced that fires were burning in the Amazon at the highest rate since it had started measuring in 2013. According to reports, Brazil has seen 72,843 blazes this year—half of them in the Amazon—amounting to an 80 percent increase over the same period in 2018. Many observers attribute the poor state of the rainforest to the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, who has relaxed environmental legislations and has argued that “there aren’t the resources” to fight the fires.

As the Amazon continues to burn, we’ve collected our top reads on how Brazil got here—and what to do about it.

The recent turn of events in Brazil is all the more surprising given the progress it has made on climate change in recent years. As Bard College’s Omar G. Encarnación writes, “it is hard to think of a progressive cause not championed by Brazil on the global stage in the last three decades, starting with the environment.” In fact, “in 1992, just a few years after leaving military rule, the country put the international environment movement on the map when it hosted the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. One of the largest and most ambitious events ever sponsored by the United Nations, the Earth Summit encouraged the world’s community to reconsider economic development and to find ways to slow down the stress that humans are putting on the planet. Thousands of environmental activists, business leaders, and politicians made their way to Rio de Janeiro, alongside some 10,000 journalists, ensuring unprecedented attention to the environment and setting the stage for the advent of a ‘global green regime.’”

As a result of those efforts, note Lisa Viscidi and Nate Graham of the Inter-American Dialogue, “Brazil depends more on renewable energy sources (including biofuels) than any of the world’s other large energy consumers. And between 2005 and 2012, it also ran a successful campaign to reduce deforestation by about 80 percent.” But, they argue, the election of Bolsonaro last year “has thrown the country’s status as an environmental beacon into doubt.” The new president “believes that economic development is at odds with environmental protection and that considerations about the planet should not be allowed to inhibit industry, particularly Brazil’s huge agricultural sector.”

To that end, Bolsonaro has threatened to withdraw his country from the Paris climate agreement. He also started opening the Amazon to mining and agricultural development when he “shifted the power to regulate and create indigenous reserves—which account for about 13 percent of Brazil’s territory, including vast swaths of rainforest—from the National Indian Foundation agency to the agriculture ministry,” Viscidi and Graham write.

Economic development and environmental protections don’t necessarily have to be at odds. As Viscidi and Graham point out, “for now, wind power accounts for nearly 8 percent of electricity supply. Solar makes up just 0.5 percent but is growing at an impressive clip.” To that end, “Bolsonaro’s campaign website proposed speeding up environmental licensing for small-scale hydroelectric plants and developing a local industry to produce, install, and maintain solar panels in the country’s impoverished northeast, which is home to abundant solar and wind resources.” Although the president has scarcely addressed the issue since, the authors remind us that “now that he is at the helm,” Bolsonaro “has ample opportunity to promote policies that will benefit both the economy and the environment.” The question, they ask, is whether he’ll take it.

“On their own,” Kathryn Hochstetler, from the London School of Economics, writes, “Bolsonaro’s proposals might not have amounted to much. After all, his party will still control fewer seats than [its rival] in the National Congress.” But, she explains, overall, “right-wing parties have also increasingly punched above their weight thanks to the growing power of the ‘beef, bullets, and Bible’ caucuses (Bancadas do Boi, da Bala e da Bíblia).” Although the caucuses don’t agree on everything, they trade enough votes to protect their special interests.

Beyond that, Hochstetler argues, “beneath the national government, Brazil’s governors have broad powers, including in environmental affairs. Here, things have shifted even more favorably toward Bolsonaro. His [party] won three governorships, and at least 11 additional winning governors supported him in the first or second round of the presidential election.” And there, his “showing was strongest in precisely those regions that will feel his environmental policies most deeply.”

Almost eight months into Bolsonaro’s tenure, the effects seem clear. According to the Igarapé Institute’s Robert Muggah, deforestation rates in the Amazon “were almost 50 percent higher between August 2018 and July 2019 compared with the same period a year before.” And scientists have begun issuing dire warnings. As Muggah writes, “If 20-25 percent of its tree cover is cut down, scientists estimate, the basin’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide would be severely compromised, taking out of operation one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. Owing to accelerating rates of deforestation to make way for cattle, soy farming, and gold mining, this tipping point could be reached within a decade.”

The question is what to do about it. For Muggah, the key lies in working with the region’s businesses, rather than against them. “Take the case of the cattle industry,” he urges. “It might not seem like a likely candidate for progressive policy, but many international importers and sellers are increasingly sensitive to ‘greening’ their supply chains given global consumer backlash about the Amazon. Domestic meat producers in Brazil are particularly wary since the larger chains that sell their products in Brazil—Carrefour, Casino, Walmart, and others—are foreign-owned (and are committed to zero-carbon standards, in principle).”

Failing that, Foreign Policy’s Stephen M. Walt raises a more radical idea. He begins with a simple question: “What should (or must) the international community do to prevent a misguided Brazilian president (or political leaders in other countries) from taking actions that could harm all of us?” Given the seriousness of climate change, he points out that sanctions or threats of the use of force may be an option. “It might seem far-fetched to imagine states threatening military action to prevent this today, but it becomes more likely if worst-case estimates of our climate future turn out to be correct,” he argues. “Moreover, getting the Security Council to authorize the use of force against much weaker states is unlikely, because the permanent members wouldn’t want to establish this precedent and would almost certainly veto the proposal.”

Still, he writes, “This is what makes the Brazilian case more interesting. … Unlike Belize or Burundi, what Brazil does could have a big impact. But Brazil isn’t a true great power, and threatening it with either economic sanctions or even the use of force if it refused to protect the rainforest might be feasible.”

Whether such actions are recommendable—Walt thinks they aren’t—it is clear that what is happening in Brazil’s Amazon matters. As Muggah concludes, “a healthier Amazon is in the interest of not just the international community but also Brazilians, who could suffer greatly should deforestation rates cross a point of no return.”

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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