For the past three weeks, large sections of the Amazon Rainforest have been on fire. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there have already been more than 72,000 fires this year – an 84% increase compared with the same period last year. The fires have intensified over the last few days, with thousands of ongoing fires near cities polluting the air with smoke and causing panic among communities.
But these fires have not been started by natural causes. Alberto Setzer, a scientist at the INPE, said that nearly all of the fires are the result of human actions “either on purpose or by accident.” With the persistently high number of fires in recent weeks, it is unthinkable that weather alone could cause this many fires in a humid rainforest like the Amazon. The primary culprits are thought to be farmers and cattle ranchers who wish to create space for grazing. Because it is currently the dry season, fires are more likely to burn strong which makes it the most ideal time to set them.
The consequences of these fires are worsening. Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, the coordinator of the non-profit environmental organization Kanindé, said that growing numbers of people are becoming scared as these fires get close to cities and towns. “The hospitals are full of people with respiratory diseases. In 60 years, this is the first time I feel difficulty breathing,” she said. The worsening consequences of the fires for people mean that this is no longer simply an environmental issue, but rather a severe threat to thousands of lives which needs to be tackled.
International leaders have sought to bring attention to the crisis. In a statement on Twitter, French President Emmanuel Macron said that “our house is burning… the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire.” While Macron is seeking international leaders to band together and prevent the crisis from worsening, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is spending all of his energy accusing non-governmental organizations of starting the fires to undermine him and is refusing to take a shred of responsibility for what is happening under his watch.
Bolsonaro’s response to the fires has been dangerous but also not surprising. In the 2018 Brazilian Presidential election, Bolsonaro was heavily backed by the agribusiness industry. In return, Bolsonaro has slowly loosened environmental protections. For one, the number of fines handed out by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources for environmental violations has decreased from 9,771 between January-August 2018 to 6,895 in the same period this year. Moreover, Bolsonaro has delineated authority to the Agriculture Ministry over indigenous lands. This, in effect, means that these areas can be more easily opened up for commercial activity as he promised throughout the election campaign.
Because Bolsonaro controls so many levers which determine the extent to which the Amazon is protected, external pressure is necessary to manage the crisis. Despite domestic polls suggesting the majority of people want more to be done to protect the rainforest, average citizens do not have the mobility to compound Bolsonaro’s special interests. The only realistic way to reverse environmental damage is for international actors to engage in what some are calling “climate diplomacy.” This involves using leverage in areas such as trade to persuade Bolsonaro into halting mass damage to the Amazon. This is already happening to some extent with France and Ireland threatening to oppose a trade deal between the European Union and a South American bloc of which Brazil is a full member. This deal has been in negotiations for more than twenty years, and it would be a massive blow for Brazil to be the reason it did not get ratified.
Bolsonaro has already elicited some response to these moves. Instead of continuing his nonsensical blaming of NGOs for starting the fires, he has promised that the army will be deployed to help combat them. Beyond European pressures, however, the two largest economies in the world – the U.S. and China – are unlikely to build on the progress being made. For one, U.S. President Donald Trump has recently said that he wants to pursue a free trade agreement with Brazil amid growing trade in recent years between the two countries. This stands in stark contrast to the ongoing U.S.–China trade war which has seen China substitute over 30 million tons of American soybeans for Brazilian ones.
Both outcomes are problematic for diplomacy purposes as they serve to embolden Bolsonaro. Going forward, continued pressure by the EU bloc is going to be key. Clearly the threats of opposing a trade deal have worried Bolosnaro as he has mobilized military forces to attempt to tackle some of the blazes. But it is also crucial for environmental NGOs and other lobbyists to persuade the U.S. and Chinese governments to engage in more active diplomacy with Brazil. Raising the consequences for leaders who allow environmental degradation will prevent future crises like this from occurring in the future.
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