Can there be a more serious story than the record levels of fires raging across Amazonia? These rainforests are the lungs of the planet producing 10-20% of the world’s oxygen and acting as the world’s largest carbon store. They are fast approaching respiratory collapse. In addition, Amazonia is home to 10-15% of our planet’s land-based species, its biodiversity unrivalled. It should be at the epicenter of every global leaders’ plans and thinking, but is it?
Judging by the outcome of the G7 summit in Biarritz, it is a side issue that only merits token gestures and synthetic outrage. For the G7 states to offer only $22 million is risible. It would not buy a minor football player. Brazilian officials have dismissed the offer and refused this assistance although they did welcome Israeli support, perhaps because of the close relationship between President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
One does have to credit President Macron of France for pushing it to the top of the summit’s agenda. At the less helpful end of the spectrum was President Trump who did not attend the session on the Amazon citing bilateral meetings with Chancellor Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Modi of India. The catch was that both these two leaders were in attendance at that session. Trump is not a fan of the environment lobby but is a fan of fellow far right populist, Bolsonaro.
Much of the focus has naturally been on Brazil which has suffered an 85% increase in fires this year according to satellite imagery, amounting to over 75,000 fires. This is the highest number since records began back in 2013. Nearly half of the Amazon rainforest resides in this country. Yet neighbouring Bolivia has suffered major fires too losing 1.8 million acres.
The difference however is that Bolivia has a leader who appears to value the environment, treasure the rainforest and embrace external assistance. Conversely, Bolsonaro sees the Brazilian rainforest as a disposable commodity and any external involvement as colonial-style interference and a grotesque infringement of Brazil’s sovereignty. Like others he argues that Brazil should be able to do what European and other countries have done before to embark on an orgy of deforestation, yet this position, of repeating earlier mistakes, is a luxury the planet cannot afford.
Bolsonaro has barely lifted his finger to stop violations of the rain forest by loggers and miners, whilst without evidence has blamed environmental groups for starting the fires. His environment minister, Ricardo Salles, shamefully just blames the dry weather. Bolsonaro backs deforestation regardless of the impact on the indigenous tribes who number around one million and who have lived in this glorious habitat for centuries. They do not count for Bolsonaro. Reports also indicate that fines for fires have been lowered, creating a climate of near impunity. All of this is part of the Brazilian leader’s anti-environmentalist agenda and his crass dismissal of scientific evidence about climate change as a hoax.
Bolsonaro only started to act after international pressure and black clouds of smoke engulfed Sao Paulo. Domestic pressure is mounting as polls suggest Brazilians do not back his position on the rainforest. The Brazilian military, some 44,000 troops, has at last been drafted in.
International actors cannot be quiet or resort to stopgap measures. At a minimum, the EU must not ratify the EU-Mercosur agreement and should not rule out further action if Bolsonaro continues to play such dangerous games. A Finnish minister has proposed banning imports of Brazilian beef. The same could apply to Brazilian soya beans. Bolsonaro’s attitude could scupper Brazils’ efforts to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
This entire saga emphasises how protecting the environment and tackling climate change is still far from the emergency crisis issue many believe it should be. Short term profits still outdo any thought as to preventing long term irrevocable destruction. Major fires have broken out not just in Amazonia alone but also in Central Africa and perhaps just as alarmingly this year, in the far north releasing untold amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. These are exacerbated by droughts as well as direct human damage by greedy corporations and others.
Perhaps the most depressing element is that this phenomenal wonder, rich in thousands of glorious species from macaws, toucans, piranhas, red howler monkeys and leaf cutting ants is an ecosystem anyone would wish to destroy.
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