As we speak, the region known affectionately as the ‘lungs of the planet’ is on fire. A depository for the earth’s oxygen, the Amazon rainforest has a packet of cigarettes quite literally strapped to its lips. At first the world seemed outraged, with global panic over thousands of forest fires in the region prompting calls to boycott Brazilian products.
While the scale of the crisis has been dampened following seasonal rains across the continent, the flames are still raging. As claims and counter-claims over the cause of the phenomenon gradually died away and faded from the media cycle, the persisting nature of the crisis has slipped outside the collective consciousness of climate warriors – many of whom seem to have forgotten about the broader environmental impacts of the fire.
Conservationists claim that the clearing of the Amazon rainforest has accelerated since President Jair Bolsonaro took office, with an estimated 2,254 sq km of forest cleared in July 2019, representing a 278% rise compared to July 2018. This has caused critics to mockingly refer to Bolsonaro as “Capitão Motoserra” (“Captain Chainsaw”). According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the fires have resulted in a clear spike in both global carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, satellite imagery from NASA has confirmed the destruction of thousands of hectares of land across the Amazon, resulting in visible smoke over the South American continent.
Global leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron have shared their alarm over the unfolding disaster, bringing the issue to the top of the agenda at the 2019 G7 summit in Biarritz, France. On Twitter Macron blasted that “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let’s discuss this emergency (as a priority) first order…”.
Consequently, the situation went viral on social media – trending on Twitter under the hashtag #prayforamazonia. The crisis also attracted commentary from diverse leading public figures including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and celebrities like Madonna. Yet, how did we get here? Who exactly is to blame? And more importantly, how will the international community collectively redress this devastation?
The Amazon represents the largest rainforest in the world, covering 40% of South America, is home to approximately 3 million species of flora and fauna, and is inhabited by over 1 million indigenous peoples. While the Amazon spreads across a total of 9 countries – including Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolovia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana – the majority of forest is contained within Brazil. This results in a compounding geopolitical climate issue – encompassing the complex diplomatic interplay between South American states, governments’ concerns over territorial integrity, and a myriad of human rights issues pertaining to the socio-political and cultural rights of the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon. Accordingly, avoiding a tragedy of the commons can only be achieved through multilateral cooperation in order to arrive at an agreeable solution.
Where the rainforest sequesters approximately 70 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, its function as a carbon sink helps to slow the pace of global warming. The Amazon also plays an important part in influencing the weather by producing copious amounts of moisture. Consequently, former-Brazilian Environment Minister Jose Sarney Filho highlights that this fragile environmental-climate ecosystem makes Brazil not only the lungs of the planet, but also its “air-conditioning”. While the ongoing blaze imperils property and human life across the region, it must also be noted that the fire’s damage to the global ecosystem represents an elevated threat to life as we know it. This raises the question – what is behind this ecocide?
However, President Bolsonaro has shrugged off growing international criticism. His administration’s support of Brazil’s agricultural industry and the commercial exploitation of the Amazon has seen a reduction in enforcement action aimed at protecting the forest. Consequently, the deregulation of land by the Brazilian government has prompted the easing of penalties for past illegal deforestation and incentivized land grabbing by opportunistic individuals and corporations – all of which to the detriment of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples and their livelihood.
In reality, the agricultural industry’s central role in Brazil’s economy has resulted in close ties with the government. It is this phenomenon of political economy, at work behind the scenes, which is responsible for driving the current environmental catastrophe. Worldwide, the existence of rainforests has been increasingly endangered by human activities – including the rising demand for food, and a general decline in the rule of law across developing and rapidly industrialising nations. The Amazon crisis is not a unique case and has parallels with the palm oil industry’s destruction of rainforests in South Asia for food and cosmetics.
Hidden Behind a “Green Curtain”
Despite government inaction, environmentalists have attempted to address deforestation by naming and shaming the corporations that profit from the illegal clearing of land. In doing so, they hope to encourage sustainable practices and respect for labour rights, workplace safety and human rights. While many companies have acceded to such campaigns, there exists the risk of “greenwashing” – where companies create certification schemes with loopholes deliberately intended to impress consumers without levying real checks or consequences. Indeed, corporations have tended to obscure their damage to the environment in order to sustain their bottom line, and have engaged in numerous public relations campaigns in an attempt to appear environmentally sound.
Recently, a joint investigation by Repórter Brasil and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed how McDonald’s and other major beef importers possess a degree of leverage over the Brazilian ranching industry. Similar to the controversial palm oil industry across Malaysia and Indonesia, McDonald's and other major corporations have attempted to preserve their public reputation by purchasing sustainable beef under the guise of protecting the Amazon forests. Despite these efforts, fires continue to ravage rainforests throughout the world, including Southeast Asia – suggesting that corporate self-regulated environmental standards have not resulted in a change in behaviour.
Furthermore, not everyone wants to challenge this unregulated system, especially when lucrative opportunities exist for its players. This has prompted President Bolsonaro’s disregard of international condemnation – evident during his interactions with French President Emmanuel Macron. Herein, Bolsonaro accused Macron and other developed nations of using the issue for “political gain” – asserting that France’s public expressions of concern during the G7 summit in Biarritz demonstrated a persisting “misplaced colonialist mindset”.
In the face of growing disregard and apathy by both the general public and transnational corporations to the continuing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a pragmatic solution is predicated upon multilateral cooperation between world leaders to address the underlying socio-economic causes of the blaze.
Regrettably, in September 2019 President Bolsonaro failed to attend a summit in Colombia with regional leaders to discuss a unified response to the Amazon crisis. For the good of our planet, unless Brazil commits to collectively addressing the root causes behind the Amazon crisis, we may all fall victim to a tragedy of the commons with grave global respiratory implications.
Finally, the Brazilian government must work to strengthen the rule of law, regulate the actions of international corporations, diversify its economy and provide alternative economic opportunities for its people. Indeed, the tightening of industrial practices must be considered a key part of the solution, alongside consultation with the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon.
Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, with an interest in community engagement and global politics.