Don’t Scapegoat Brazil Over the Environment

International threats to forcibly protect the Amazon betray ignorance about the subtle art of diplomacy.

Brazilian soccer team fan, Giovanna Selena, from Brazil, flies her countries flag as she enjoys Copacabana beach while waiting for the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 11, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Brazilian soccer team fan, Giovanna Selena, from Brazil, flies her countries flag as she enjoys Copacabana beach while waiting for the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 11, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Foreign Policy magazine recently published an article by Stephen M. Walt originally titled “Who Will Invade Brazil to Save the Amazon?” As the headline suggests, the article essentially proposes that other states (referred to in the subheadline as “major powers”) may one day consider taking military action against my country to “protect” the Amazon rainforest from deforestation and from policies of the Brazilian government with which its author does not agree.

Unfortunately, the author frames the issues he seeks to address in a completely inadequate manner, including by mischaracterizing Brazil’s management of the rainforest within its borders as a threat to humanity. Naive military fantasies are hardly a proper basis for serious policymaking.

The causes and effects of climate change are a matter for science to address. Even if one accepts the basic premise that anthropogenic climate change constitutes a major threat to humanity, emissions of greenhouse gases as a result of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest are peanuts compared to the level of emissions in other countries. As a matter of diplomatic courtesy, I will refrain from naming any. Available data, however, indicate that Brazil is responsible for only around 2.9% of current global emissions (including emissions from land use and land use change) and, historically, has contributed to only around 1 percent of global emissions since the advent of the industrial age in the late 18th century.

Globally, land use and land use change are responsible for only about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and this percentage has been dropping, largely as a result of successes in curbing illegal deforestation, both in Brazil and in other countries. On the other hand, the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial processes are responsible for 65 percent of global greenhouse emissions, and in recent years this percentage has been increasing. As far as the burning of fossil fuels is concerned, Brazil is undoubtedly an example to be followed by other countries. Over 83 percent of our electric power grid is based on renewable energy sources (hydropower, wind, biomass, and solar), a percentage that is certainly much higher than the OECD average of 24 percent.

Furthermore, the article’s assertions regarding the importance of the Amazon rainforest as a global carbon sink are simply wrong. Accounting for nearly half of global biogeochemical carbon absorption, the oceans, not forests, constitute the world’s largest carbon sink. Mature tropical rainforests such as the Amazon can play a role as important carbon stocks. Their significance as major sinks, however, has been greatly exaggerated, given that the carbon sequestered by plants is quickly recycled in biological processes. If the concern of this author is to save humanity against climate change, he is clearly barking up the wrong tree.

The article in question, in fact, contributes to the spinning of a distorted and unfair narrative about the issue of climate change. Even as anthropogenic global warming is portrayed as a major problem with which governments should be greatly concerned—an “existential threat” to humanity—there have been continued attempts to deflect attention away from the historical and current responsibilities of the main emitters of greenhouse gases by placing ever higher demands for increased mitigation ambition on the backs of countries that bear comparatively little responsibility for the problem. Continued attempts by some to hijack the cause of environmental protection to justify trade protectionism are similarly of concern and may undermine the credibility of the international agenda on the protection of the environment.

In addition to framing the issue of climate change in a completely inappropriate manner, the article disregards basic facts about Brazil’s handling of the Amazon rainforest. Historically, Brazil has been one of the most successful countries in the world in preserving the primeval forests within its borders. At least 60 percent of Brazil’s continent-sized territory of 3.3 million square miles is covered by native vegetation. Agricultural activity covers only 30 percent of our national territory, a percentage significantly lower than in other countries with large agricultural sectors—many of which used to have very large forests within their own borders as well. Our environmental legislation is one of the most rigorous in the world. Among the countries with the 10 largest land masses, Brazil is by far the one with the largest share of its territory (24.2 percent) placed under environmental protection.

There is a clear long-term, downward trend in deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest. In fact, the annual deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon decreased from 10,700 square miles in 2004 to 2,900 in 2018, representing a 72 percent reduction. The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has made it clear in public announcements that it is committed to fighting illegal deforestation, a fact that the article’s author prefers to ignore. Recent forest fires in the Amazon region in the month of August are seasonal in character. Their number is barely above the historical average of the last 20 years.

Apart from the article’s mishandling of basic environmental facts, its suggestion that environmental problems, including deforestation and climate change, could be amenable to military solutions by outsiders is clearly irresponsible. A corollary of this reasoning appears to be that countries that may come under threat from others as a result of a perceived mishandling of environmental issues within their borders should consider the option of investing heavily in the development of weaponry and effective military deterrents in order to adequately protect themselves and their sovereign rights. It betrays, moreover, an antiquated form of neocolonial bias, which presumes that developing countries are ultimately incapable of managing their resources and domestic affairs on their own and require some form of international tutelage in order to do so.

Despite its continent-sized territory, its population of 210 million people, and the borders it shares with 10 other countries in South America, Brazil has always prided itself on being a peaceful country, both within its region and globally. It has always sought to find negotiated solutions to international problems, in strict observance of international law, rather than resort to the use of force. In the environmental area, it has been an active participant in international negotiations, having hosted two major conferences in 1992 and 2012. As a result of its peaceful conduct in international affairs, Brazil may have in fact invested less in the military field in the past than other countries of similar size.

Naturally, this style of diplomatic practice is incomprehensible to advocates of a coarse form of realism, which believes that ultimately states interact merely on the basis of military threats and bullying. Apparently, this crude realism is incapable of understanding the subtleties of diplomatic parlance and activity.

One should be under no illusion, however. Despite its historical record of peaceful conduct, Brazil is not at all vulnerable to threats of any kind, be they military or not, in respect to how it manages its natural resources, including the rainforest. To those fantasizing about military interventions, one could assert that Brazil will always stand ready to defend its sovereign rights over the rainforest within its borders by any means necessary. But academics should know better: Good diplomats would never say such things.

Leonardo Cleaver de Athayde is the director of the environmental department at Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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