The End ?
Though Amazon is burning in Brazil, the responsibility to prioritise its conservation must be shouldered by the entire world – a majority of which, even today, considers the perils of climate change mere hoax
Potent with the firepower to dent a country's destiny, climate change today doesn't wear the same mask it did a decade ago – something Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is being forced to become familiar with since smacking himself headfirst into the disastrous burning of the Amazon rainforest. Given its political underpinnings, this incident could well force Brazil, and the world, to answer some difficult questions.
What, why, how — who?
The Amazon rainforest in South America was on fire this week, with multiple fires raging; nevertheless, that Amazon is being burnt with deliberation is neither new nor surprising. Nevertheless, the scale and frequency of the event now is alarming. Nearly 10,000 new fires have been reported in just the last week and smoke trails are visible even from space.
This casts a dark shadow on our existence as the ecological value of the rainforest, which is the largest of its kind in the world, remains unrivalled. While the forest's native biodiversity is expansive and important; centrally, Amazon is among the largest carbon sinks in the world, responsible for cleaning up nearly 20 per cent of the carbon dioxide released worldwide. The value of the rainforest in this essential task, especially in today's time, is so enormous that it has often been labelled as the lungs of our planet. For the South American continent, the value of this forest is even greater – through rain and its eponymous river, the forest provides water to areas that are responsible for approximately 70 per cent of the continent's GDP. The destruction of the forest, naturally, will carry far-reaching consequences.
Given the evident value of preserving the forest, how then did we arrive here? The answer lies, as is often the case, in politics that has been forcibly interwoven in the matter.
A decade ago, Brazil inspired many in its conservation commitments that thoroughly checked industrial exploitation of the Amazon rainforest. Around 2014, official figures recorded a nearly 80 per cent drop in deforestation as compared to the previous decade. All that was required was for successive administrations to keep the stone rolling. But almost as if to mock the saying "Cometh the hour, cometh the man", came along Jair Bolsonaro in 2019.
Bolsonaro assumed power as President of Brazil with a full platter of right-leaning promises. The most prominent of these was to roll back protection of the rainforest. As he sees it, the Amazon is a resource to exploit free from the prying eyes of the outside world. He also has relevant backers, most prominently, the agribusiness lobby which is rather powerful not just within the country but across the entire continent. He came through soon enough as he merged the forest department with the agricultural ministry, effectively handing over the Brazilian half of the Amazon to the agribusiness lobby. Fines were cut down and rarely applied, inspections became numbered and many veteran inspectors, including those with ties to the indigenous tribes of the region, were fired. Most importantly, he took on Ricardo Salles as his environmental minister, a man who allegedly in his role as Secretary of Environment for São Paulo had redrawn maps of protected areas in the region to benefit the mining industry. But Bolsonaro apparently still wishes to maintain Brazil's credentials as an environmentally-conscious country and has tried everything – from blaming NGOs for forest fires to discrediting reports from his own space agency about the enormous upswing of deforestation in the Amazon.
Incidentally, this very same agency was responsible for much of the imagery that appraised the world of the reality of the situation in the Amazon. In response, Bolsonaro fired the head of the agency. Since then, rumours hold that Salles is trying to sell the agency to a private corporation with vested interests. But in the age of viral content, such information is hard to conceal. And so, with domestic needs and political rhetoric clashing against global climate mandate, arrives the current situation.
At this point, it may seem easy to define this issue as a right-wing versus left-wing concern but it is hardly that simple. Bolsonaro only added more fuel to existing fire – man-made fires in the dry season aren't new and in fact, they aren't even unique to the country. Bolivia, a bastion of left-wing politics, has been responsible for destroying over 1.2 million hectares of the forest just this year – all without earning the condemnation of G7 nations or threats of trade sanctions by the EU.
Admittedly, Bolsonaro is just bad at appearing not guilty. Consider the fact that when confronted with the burning of the Amazon recently and its effects on global warming, he replied offhandedly that the situation could be resolved by everyone attending to nature's call on alternate days. Given his general apathy, it should be conceded that at best he can be blamed for accelerating a situation that would have inevitably unfolded. A lot of this concerns the powerful agribusiness lobby that can force favourable legislation – yet, there remains a more fundamental if not obvious factor.
The politics of fire
"Our house is burning. Literally," French PM Emmanuel Macron said. His assertion that it is our house that is burning, not Brazil's, not France's but our collective house that is on fire is rather telling. Macron followed this up by asking attendees at the recently-concluded G7 summit to discuss this situation urgently (in the absence of South American countries). Bolsonaro caught on to this fact, labelling Macron's comments as being neo-colonialist in trying to arbitrarily decide matters about another's sovereign territory. This has lent Bolsonaro the chance to label all international effort as attacks on
Brazil's right to govern its own territory. To sum up, the point of contention over the Amazon broadly circumscribes questions of whether an area of such global significance can be allowed to remain under the jurisdiction of one country with its own set of priorities and stakeholders.
In recent years, agricultural land is flagging severely in comparison to population rise. Despite more efficient methods of farming, more land is the need of the hour, especially in a country that sources over 23 per cent of its GDP from agriculture. With 5.5 million sq km of South America, roughly 40 per cent, covered by the Amazon, it is not hard to understand why the rainforest is perceived as land that carries potential for active exploitation irrespective of devastating long-term apocalyptic tradeoffs. Undoubtedly, given current legal understandings, the world at large, at best, has only indirect stake in the Amazon despite its global value. Consequently, an evolution in this understanding in imminent – condemnation and slapping sanctions is myopic, especially with Brazil's rigidity in conforming to national interests.
For now, Brazil has placed a 60-day ban on forest clearance fires and insists that the blaze is under control. The international community is predictably not quite convinced of the declared happy ending. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is considering calling a summit to discuss the crisis even as EU decides whether to go ahead with its punitive trade sanctions against Brazil. But is there really a way out of this cycle?
A way out?
It appears unreasonable to burden responsibility on one nation to maintain such essential areas, especially when it is contradicting the host's national interests. In the long-term, such areas must be designated as wider responsibilities of humanity as a whole, administered by an international body that is answerable to a different threshold of agreements. The Rio Earth Summit tried to facilitate this need in 1992 but the UN body for sustainable development that was formed as a result is seen as more of a paper tiger with optional membership and no real reinforcing power.
However, that such international effort will be controversial is unquestionable. Altruism isn't nearly reason enough for a country to surrender its rights over sovereign property. A stopgap measure towards a more sustainable future must incentivise nations to go green (and stay green). The current system favours negative reinforcement with nations being slapped with criticism and trade sanctions. This is questionable and its success, even if such sanctions are applied which is rare in itself, is doubtful.
Brazil may overtly comply with international mandate for the time being but other stakeholders within the nation may not be quite as compliant. More carrot and less stick then – whether as favourable trade agreements or direct investment. The continued existence of humanity is just not a good enough incentive, no matter how commonsensical it may seem. Empathy it seems is just as much a requirement as good sense in avoiding a repeat of the Amazon saga, especially for much-bereaved Bolsonaro. It is only proper that a crisis concerning all of humanity is not benchmarked upon making villains of a few most evident detractors.