As the Amazon burns, cool heads must prevail
Global leaders must work with Brazil, not against it, to effect change
The scale of the Amazon rainforest is hard to comprehend, which makes the news that in July, a record 2,254 sq km was lost to deforestation, equally difficult to grasp. The satellite images and footage of fires consuming vast swathes of the Amazon have, however, focused the worlds’s attention, to the extent that the business of this weekend’s G7 summit is being overshadowed by the pall of smoke rising over Brazil. In the emotionally charged outcry that has erupted, subtleties are being sacrificed. The Amazon basin always burns at this time of year, when lightning strikes and farmers clear fields to plant new crops. Doubtless some fires have been started by farmers and loggers clearing land, but many are raging across land stripped of trees for generations – and, indeed, in other countries that share the Amazon.
This is not to contest that this year trees are being lost on an unprecedented scale, as Brazil’s own National Institute for Space Research has stated, but to recognise that the relationship between humankind and the Amazon is a complex one, not easily summarised in an outraged tweet. Something must be done if one of the world’s most precious habitats is not to be lost. But the world’s proprietorial indignation over the rainforest must be tempered with the reality that it extends across eight nations and is a home and a source of livelihood for millions of people.
Populist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stands accused of pursuing policies that favour mining industries and agribusiness, at the expense of the rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants. That, he says, is his business, along with the vital task of bolstering his country’s economy. “I don’t want to finish the environment,” he says, “I want to save Brazil.” It is unsurprising that the leader of a country that threw off the yoke of European colonialism just 200 years ago dismisses French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion that “our house is burning” as the product of a “misplaced colonialist mindset”.
But the Amazon, the great lungs of the world, is everyone’s business. As the leaders of the world’s seven largest economies gather in Biarritz, there is talk of blocking the hard-won Mercosur free-trade agreement, concluded between the EU and four South American nations only last month, if Brazil does not stop the deforestation. This would be a disaster, not just for Brazil, but also for the economies and people of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The Amazon dispute is symptomatic of the wider conflict between those who accept the reality of climate change and those who do not. It is vital for the planet’s future that the gap between those positions is closed. But this can be achieved only by collaboration – not by political stone-throwing and economic ultimatums.
Updated: August 24, 2019 08:00 PM