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The Best Way to Fight Fires in the Amazon

Raise the stakes for Brazil’s president—and work with the nation's people, not against them.

Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

G-7 summits, gathering the world’s most powerful men and women around a table, have previously dealt with issues like North Korea, nuclear proliferation, Iran, Russia, trade deals, terrorism. At last week’s meeting in Biarritz, France, world leaders found themselves grappling with an existential threat from an unusual direction: the Brazilian government.

The Amazon rainforest, which the globe depends on as one of its largest carbon sinks, is on fire. So far, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro seems uninterested in stopping it.

This is not the first Brazilian administration to preside over the destruction of large swaths of the Amazon. Deforestation peaked in the late ’90s and early 2000s when some 10,000 hectares were being burned annually. 2005 and 2010 were particularly tough years for the forest. They were also years of serious drought⁠; fires were almost to be expected. But this year hasn’t been an especially dry one. The Amazon is not burning so much as it’s being burned by farmers clearing land for their crops; strict regulations which helped Brazil drastically reduce deforestation in recent years are being relaxed—human-made fires are the norm again.

Bolsonaro last week dismissed a fire-fighting $20 million aid package from the G-7 nations as “colonialist and imperialist.” It was only the most recent attempt to brush off international interest in preserving the world’s largest tropic forest, 60 percent of which is in Brazilian territory. In mid-August, after Germany responded to rapid deforestation under Bolsonaro by cutting off its regular funds for Amazon preservation, Bolsonaro suggested the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, take that money and “reforest Germany, instead.” It is the same type of blind nationalist rhetoric that helped Bolsonaro get elected last year, with 55 percent of the votes.

In spite of the maltreatment it has endured over the last decades, the Amazon has always been a source of pride for Brazilians—as important to the national identity as samba and soccer. This year, however, satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has shown an increase of almost 85 percent in fires across the country from 2018, mostly in the Amazon region. In 2019 alone, more than 80,000 fires have been recorded. By the time you read this many more trees will have burned to the ground.

To understand why this is happening, it’s important to understand how Bolsonaro got to where he is, and with whose help. Back in 2016, as the country was in the throes of an economic and political crisis, Bolsonaro emerged as the voice of the far-right, the man who would, among other things, liberate farmers all over the country from the “shackles” of environmental legislation. In an effort to reduce red tape, one of his campaign promises was to fuse together the Agriculture and Environment Ministry. It didn’t come to pass, but there was no doubt on which side he stood. “Let it be clear, the future [Environment] minister will come from the production sector,” he told a news conference on October 11. “There will be no more fighting [between environmentalists and farmers].”

Since winning the election, Bolsonaro has presided over a deforestation boom. Earlier this month, following the publication of the satellite images showing fires all over the Amazon, Bolsonaro sacked the man who released them: Ricardo Galvão was let go from his post as director of the INPE, after being accused by Bolsonaro of “betraying his country.”

When is it right to meddle in the affairs of a sovereign state? It is a question as old as diplomacy itself, but it becomes especially poignant when that state possesses one of the keys to the world’s welfare. In the late ’90s, French legal scholar and co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, Bernard Kouchner, came up with his “right of interference” theory, arguing that in cases of extreme humanitarian and environmental crises, states should have their sovereignty challenged. In the past decades, many have questioned Brazil’s exclusive right to the Amazon. Today, Al Gore denies he ever offered a controversial and widely reported quote on his 1989 visit to Brazil while serving as U.S. senator: “Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us.” Whether the words were ever uttered or not, they echo a common sentiment, and one at which some Brazilians, including Bolsonaro and many figures in the military, bristle.

The Brazilian military is invested in protecting Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon, and Bolsonaro so far has shown himself unresponsive to verbal pressure. He came into power promising to put more money in the pockets of ordinary Brazilians, while promising to do away with big government. The budget for Ibama, the environmental agency charged with protecting the rainforest, has been slashed by 25 percent. During the presidential campaign last year Bolsonaro said the following: “It’s unsustainable for Brazil to have more than 50 percent of the [Amazon] territory allocated as indigenous lands, as environmental protection areas, as national parks, because it hinders development.”

Any attempt to sway him will have to go beyond protests, marches, and Twitter hashtags. This current Brazilian administration is only sensitive to two things: seeing the economy suffer, or its political standing decline.

Some companies are already targeting the first. Last week, the parent company of Timberland, Vans, and NorthFace said it will stop buying Brazilian leather for its products; asset managers, pension funds, and companies have issued warnings, halted deals, and stopped purchases of government bonds; and the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which has been 20 years in the making, is now in jeopardy, with French President Emmanuel Macron threatening to veto it until Bolsonaro changes tack. This sort of pressure might just do the trick.

In order to govern as he wants to, Bolsonaro relies heavily on the support of the agribusiness community. In Brazil’s fractious Congress, they occupy more than 200 seats out of a total of 513. For the country’s biggest landowners and food producers, the Amazon and its indigenous people have always been an obstacle to economic development, hence their support of a president openly hostile toward indigenous groups. But if that same president’s belligerence also becomes a problem, threatening lucrative business deals, they may try to rein him in.

“In recent years, the country’s export industry worked very hard to rebuild Brazil’s reputation,” Blairo Maggi, a former Brazilian agriculture minister and one of the leaders of the agribusiness lobby, told BBC Brasil last week. “We were showing the world that we had deforestation and environmental issues under control. We were on the right track, but now we will have to redo it all.”

Clipping the legs of Brazilian exports won’t necessarily stop farmers from going into the Amazon: Brazil is a country of continental proportions, and even if the world loses appetite for its meat and grains, producers still have an internal market of 200 million Brazilians to feed. Instead of demanding boycotts, NGOs and pressure groups should demand that Brazilian exports pass a “clean bill of health.” Trading partners must refuse to do business with Brazil if the Amazon is violated in any way. And, as a crucial step outsiders sometimes miss: If products sold domestically, to Brazilians, are found to have been made at the expense of the environment, then those sold abroad should also be rejected.

No matter how great the international pressure, in the end, the Amazon’s most powerful ally will be the Brazilian people. In the last five years alone, popular rage has contributed to the impeachment of a president, the imprisonment of another, and the emergence of the current one. Finding ways to work with, rather than against, public opinion is vital. Over the last week, in cities all over Brazil, thousands have marched to demand government action on the fires. By continuing to ignore the Amazon’s plight, Bolsonaro risks alienating his base at home and the country’s trading relations abroad. Pretty soon, this Brazilian administration will be forced to admit that there’s nothing to be gained from deforestation.