More than 75,000 fires have been recorded in the Amazon Forest since January 2019. This equals an 84% increase compared to last year. Global media outrage, presenting the events as worthy of, and urging for universal empathy and concern, has had the merit of drawing attention towards Brazil, calling all to #prayforamazonia. This call for ‘praying’ had initially hinted the events to be the direct result of natural disasters such as droughts and global warming. But the exponential expansion of starting fires is no accident. Fingers were first pointed at Jair Bolsonaro’s lethargy regarding the status quo before a more refined approach was put forward: the government’s implication in deforestation procedures in the affected area. The practice, coupled with growing support from parliamentary group ‘Beef, Bible, and Ammunitions’ has allowed farmers to benefit from a certain sense of impunity. Explanation below.
Starting fires is a widespread method used for opening roads, clearing out formerly deforested areas, creating ashes as well as for fertilizing land. But one should also consider spontaneous fires. The latter are symptomatic of another phenomenon: global warming, which is drying out the Amazon Forest at an alarming rate. Numerous and violent, these fires have two major consequences:
(1) Rainfall deregulation. Rains in the Amazon Forest are the product of trees ‘sweating’. They collect rainwater and allow it to evaporate so as to form clouds which will once again create rainwater. Hence, the fewer the trees, the fewer the rain. A vicious cycle.
(2) Greater greenhouse gases emissions. The Amazonian forest is a huge stock of carbon. When trees burn, the carbon dioxide they contain escapes into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to global warming. Another vicious cycle.
Adding health-related damages caused by the toxic clouds induced by fires, the implications are compelling.
And it all boils down to a logic of collective action in place to support a political project. The Amazon is not presented as a territory to preserve, but rather as one to develop, cultivate, drill mines and quarries in, fill with highways and hydroelectric infrastructures. This project has as an indispensable prerequisite: the acceleration of land clearing, which the government stirs up without necessarily regulating, in the name of a neoliberal conviction that the process is to boost the region’s economy. This explains why, according to figures published by the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the number of cleared areas amounted to three times what they were back in July 2018. Their disclosure seemingly upset Bolsonaro, as testified by the Institute’s director’s dismissal. Since Bolsonaro’s election, many forest predators (gold miners, wood producers, and landowners) have felt entitled to ignore the regulations in place. Some have gone as far as threatening the few agents still willing to enforce them. The government facilitates just that in two main ways.
On one hand, it cripples control bodies – the deprivation of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment (Ibama) from half of its yearly budget exemplifies just this. On the other hand, it discredits NGOs working towards the protection of the rainforest as well as the region’s indigenous people, reducing the environmental debate to a ‘globalist conspiracy’ aiming to deprive Brazil of its right to exploit its natural resources. In other words, the ongoing tragedy the Amazon Forest has been experiencing for the past months goes well beyond the fires. Not only is Bolsonaro’s economic project incompatible with the maintenance of sufficient tree areas for the Amazon to remain a rainforest, but the tipping point before the latter is to turn into a savannah is soon to be reached.
What the international community has to hammer home is that, firstly, neoliberalism, in the context of a violent, unequal and segregated society is bound to generate extraordinarily destructive behaviours almost in the blink of an eye. This is valid for Brazil’s current state of affairs but does not exclude tomorrow’s potential minorities’ persecution. We cannot rely on any civilizational consensus regarding the environment or even bare human rights. At least until 2014, under Lula and Dilma Rousseff, the executive sought to remain a bulwark. Today, the main leeway is the exercise of economic pressure, so that short-term predation thwarts the interests of powerful lobbies at a federal level. Secondly, it must assess how much of this neoliberal destruction is auxiliary to the logic of a ‘cultural war’ inherent to right-wing populisms. For the first time perhaps since the country’s October 2018 election, Bolsonarism is emerging in all its radicality and destructive power. The president maintains his political base with a discourse according to which progressive decorum, through embracing multiculturalism, multilateralism, feminism, and ecology, are the new faces of the enemy. An enemy that was once that of a military dictatorship (1964-1985).
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