We all saw a few days ago how the social media went crazy with hashtags regarding the Amazon rainforest and the fires that were taking place in the Brazilian Amazon. #PrayForTheAmazon, #PrayforAmazonia, and #SaveTheAmazon were some of the statements that became viral on Twitter and Instagram and were used to spread the information about the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest, and perhaps to blame the current president of the country, Jair Bolsonaro, for the disturbing events that we witnessed. Later on, the international community, represented by the French president Emmanuel Macron also had their say in the incidents, and blame Bolsonaro’s policies for their role in the deforestation of the Amazonian forest, which in words of Macron, represented a barrier in the fight against climate change. Apart from the ongoing and mutual declarations of both presidents, there are some facts to have in mind when discussing the Amazon rainforest and its protection: Sovereignty, development and environmental harm.
The principle of sovereignty has been in the international law spectrum since the colonial era, nonetheless, only after the two world wars and with the upcoming necessity to develop infrastructure and gain economic independence, the states started to strongly express their interest in forging their own future. Within these group of countries, those called “third world” nations, also needed the assurance of their right to operate their own economies without any colonial intervention, and as such, in 1962, the Group of 77 developing nations during a United Nations General Assembly pushed through the Declaration on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources. Later, in the course of the first United Nations conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, Principle 21 acknowledged the equal sovereignty of all states over their natural resources. Nonetheless, with the recent development of environmental regimes, the notion of state sovereignty has begun to evolve into a new, and still conflicting stage, which states that sovereignty is not an absolute attribute of countries and the Westphalian system is incapable of facing the environmental threats that the world affront today. Instead, this wave of international law claims that sovereignty must be guided by the responsibility of not causing transboundary environmental damage.
Apart from the contradiction that might be exposed above, that is, the right of states to exploit their own resources and also the expectation that in doing that, they have to prevent environmental harm to other nations, there is the issue of state responsibility, which in terms of environmental harm is extremely ineffective. The vagueness of the environmental norms, the lack of consensus and commitment around international treaties and the scarce number of cases that effectively reach the international tribunals seeking for compensation or reparations, make almost impossible that adequate legal sanctions are imposed to violating states.
Although today the vision on the environment has changed, and a new conscience of conserving the world for the good of the planet and the generations to come is increasing, the landscape stills seem bleak. And, even when the positions of Bolsonaro do promote an economic system that deforests the rainforest, these same events repeat themselves in other latitudes and over the years. In Africa for instance, during the same week of the incidents in Brazil, 6,902 fires were reported in Angola and 3,395 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also, although the rate of fires of 2019 is 80% higher than in 2018, the trend of fires in brazil has been constant over the last 10 years. Certainly, the vision around nature, the planet, the climate change, and the science behind it, is real, there is also true that imposing the obligation of securing the Amazon to the Latin American countries that often struggle with poverty and violence is unbalanced.
Finally, hearing the current president of Brazil, reminds the days of the military dictatorship that governed the country from 1964 to 1985, when the main policy regarding the Amazon was easily condensed under the slogan “Ocupar para não entregar” which means “occupy it to avoid surrendering it” or when during the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the Brazilian government sustained that Europe had already had their chance to pollute and develop, and now Brazil had their own opportunity to industrialize its economy and escape poverty, even, by transforming the Amazon into a production and agricultural centre. Also, the statements of Macron claiming that the trees of the amazon were a subject of the whole planet and as such they could not let Brazil destroy everything, recalls the words of the senator Al Gore in 1989 who said that “contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us”.