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Brazil’s far-right president has fueled the blaze that’s sweeping Amazon forest

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Guardian, Britain: As Donald Trump’s America retreats from global leadership, coalitions of like-minded nations are attempting to limit the damage. One such grouping at last weekend’s G7 summit in France managed a breakthrough over one of the globe’s most pressing problems: the accelerating deforestation in the Amazon. Conserving rainforests is necessary if there is to be any chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It’s not just humanity at stake – the Amazon contains at least 10 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity. So it was good to see France’s Emmanuel Macron take Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro to task for encouraging the wanton destruction of the world’s biggest tropical forest.

The rules-based order worked though Trumpish pre-emptive tweets: “Our house is burning. Literally,” wrote Mr. Macron last week; “It is an international crisis,” added Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister. Mr. Bolsonaro attempted to brazen it out. However, his opposition melted away as the heat was turned up over 24 hours. Mr. Macron, along with Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, threatened to veto a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, the South American economic bloc in which Brazil is the biggest player.

Armed forces

Both European nations’ trading interests aligned with concern for the Amazon, but the pressure worked. By Friday Mr. Bolsonaro had ordered the armed forces to fight a worrying spate of forest fires. Even the White House offered to help with saving the rainforest.

This is a tactical victory for the planet – and one shamefully not won by the UK, which appears to be more fixated on securing its own post-Brexit trade arrangements than standing up for what is right. Much more will have to be done to change Mr. Bolsonaro’s mind over the threat posed by the climate crisis. The Brazilian president, who took power in January, has appointed climate deniers to prominent roles. When the country’s National Institute for Space Research revealed increasing deforestation in the Amazon in July – a result of the rollback of environmental protections and enforcement – the president said the numbers were fake. He then sacked the head of the institute, shooting the messenger rather than acting on the message.

The rate of destruction has brought the Amazon close to a dangerous threshold – where it becomes too small to generate its own clouds. As the trees disappear, rainfall declines and deforestation begins to feed on itself; this could push it to a point of no return, where the vast basin would end up resembling a savannah more than a rainforest. Mr Bolsonaro sees the Amazon as a “virgin” that should be “exploited” by big business.

Loss of tree cover

With the Brazilian economy still struggling to pull out of a long slump, he is looking for ways to turbocharge economic growth, but at least some of the world’s leaders have signalled – and rightly so – that this cannot be at any price for the planet. A small number of nations hold the world’s rainforests, with Brazil home to one-third and about 15 percent shared by Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More tropical tree cover was lost globally in both 2016 and 2017 than in any other year this century.

Preserving rainforests, and restoring former forested land, is an economical way to meet climate change targets. The G7 aid package to help Amazon countries fight wildfires is a start. But targets and protections are only effective when they are strictly applied. Europeans need to change their diets to reduce demand for carbon-intensive foodstuffs.

They also ought to restrict market access unless conservation policies are reintroduced along with laws that can be enforced with transparent monitoring. The world urgently needs a new pattern of development: Brazil has become stuck in a middle-income trap, with per-capita GDP hovering around 30 percent of the US level. We need an economic system where the forest is valued as highly as the field, and in which natural assets are nurtured for the long term. It is a better way forward than every country putting itself first.