Human activity is destroying the Amazon rainforest, to disastrous effect. Liam Glen writes on how the Brazilian government is failing to prevent an ecological disaster.
Some men just want to watch the world burn. Evidentially, one of those men is far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The majority of the Amazon rainforest falls under his rule. The “lungs of the planet” produce an estimated 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen. It is also essential for supplying the region with a secure water supply and stable climate. This is not to mention the roughly half a million indigenous people living in the Brazilian Amazon.
Without even going into biodiversity, it is clear that the Amazon’s preservation is an issue of human security. But that has not been the Brazilian government’s stance since Bolsonaro entered office in January.
When the country’s space agency reported that deforestation had increased under Bolsonaro’s presidency, he responded by firing the agency’s head Riardo Galvão.
Now, it has reported a record number of forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon. So far, the president has alternated between denying the fires altogether and claiming that they are a false flag perpetrated by non-government organizations with a grudge against him.
Most environmental crises today fall under the broad umbrella of climate change. While it is certainly a human-caused problem, responsibility is extremely diffuse. It is impossible, for instance, to blame any specific coal-fired power plant for any specific melted iceberg.
Climate change contributes to the destruction of the Amazon, but even more pressing is deforestation by farmers, miners, and other private interests. It is a problem with a direct cause that can be prevented, yet the Brazilian government has been derelict in its duty.
There is no evidence that NGOs are setting the Amazon ablaze. But unsustainable farming practices certainly are.
It is a vicious cycle. Farmers burn down forest to grow crops, but the poor soil is only productive for a couple of years. Thus, they must keep burning.
What happens when the forests run out? That is a question that Bolsonaro has not considered. He has attacked regulations on agricultural expansion in the Amazon, for they are blasphemies against the golden calf of short-term economic growth.
Mass deforestation has threatened the Amazon for decades. But regulations and protections, even if they were not enforced, managed to mitigate the crisis. The new administration, however, has no respect for the rule of law. Anyone who wants to steal and burn some land so they can make a profit off of it are encouraged to do so.
This is in line with his complete indifference to indigenous life. While still a Congressman, he expressed his view that “The Brazilian Cavalry was very incompetent. Competent, yes, was the American cavalry that decimated its Indians in the past and nowadays does not have this problem in their country.”
The Spreading Flame
Bolsonaro invokes national sovereignty to dismiss any international criticism of his environmental policy. But the Amazon’s continued destruction will spell disaster throughout the world.
A man may theoretically have the right to burn his own house down, but his neighbors would certainly be concerned that the flame may spread to their own homes.
In addition, national sovereignty cannot allow tyrants, or wannabe tyrants like Bolsonaro, to act with impunity. If a landlord burned down his own apartment while the tenants were locked inside, not many legal systems would allow him to use property rights as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The European Union is already starting to threaten potential trade deals involving Brazil. This may be a necessary start. Scientists fear that increased deforestation could trigger a domino effect, wrecking the region’s hydrological cycle. Like so many environmental crises, this transcends borders; anyone in a position to act is obligated to do so.