It’s taken the world by storm first via social media, which forced news outlets to speak up about the issue and culminating with a war of words between political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. This year’s Amazon fires reached a pinnacle when president Emmanuel Macron (France) tweeted that they are an “International crisis” and later called for emergency talks on the issue at the G7 summit.
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) saw Macron’s comments as an insult and struck back, sparking a diplomatic crisis that has done nothing to help the issue so far.
But if we look beyond the smoke screen (metaphorically speaking), what has caused this environmental nightmare in the first place?
if we look at historic patterns, the fires in the Amazon forest have been happening every year with records going back to at least the 80’s. It’s important to note that fires in the Amazon very rarely occur naturally - they’re all man-made by mostly farmers who are clearing their land for next year’s crop, and also ranchers looking to clear land for cattle. Which means that with the right policies and law enforcement, they can be prevented!
The issue hit all time records in 1995 with over 10,000 sq miles burnt in that year alone, averaging 6 to 7,000 sq miles each year during the decade that ensued. The numbers took off again in the first two years of left-wing president Lula, in 2003 and 2004. The following years then saw a steep decline in those trends, brought about by stronger enforcement of environmental policies in the Amazon. In the last eight years the numbers have hovered between 2 and 3,000 sq miles per year.
What is happening this year? So far we had nearly 1,400 sq miles charred in the Brazilian rainforest and we’re still a month away from peak dry season. Comparably, it’s the worst in the last eight years following a growing pattern that started in 2016. It’s bad, but not something completely new - so why now?
I know a lot of us feel strongly about the images being shared everywhere and I’m sure most Brazilians are as sad as Americans and Europeans (and everyone else) following the drama from afar.
But we need to be clear about what we really want to be done, to avoid being played like ponds in a much bigger political game. And, as always, many of the pictures shared on the internet are not from this year’s fires in the Amazon (they range from shots from many years ago to pictures of a koala in a 2009 forest fire in Australia - there are no koalas in Brazil).
As I noted earlier, the trend was there since 2016. Brazil had a left-wing government then (similar position to Macron’s). The new Brazilian president is a right-wing partisan who got elected not for his environmental plans, but with the promise to eradicate corruption and restore public safety in the country, especially in large cities. Amid his drive for austerity, his pro-economic development speech as well as some policies weakened the governance that was put in place over the previous decade to monitor, fine and bring to account the perpetrators responsible for causing these fires in the Amazon. It seems they took note, and this year relished on the opportunity to do as they please in face of reduced law enforcement in the region.
Luckily for us and the power of social media, the issue came to surface and after three weeks the global media finally caught up.
International media and pressure is paramount to keep the Brazilian government focused on the issue. Given the economic fragility of the country and the importance of the Amazon to the world, international financial aid is also needed. The Amazon Fund (http://www.amazonfund.gov.br/en/home/) has already invested nearly half a billion dollars in the last ten years - and judging by the reduction in fires during that period, some of it is definitely working. This year, Norway and Germany announced that they wouldn’t contribute to the fund if the Brazilian Federal Government didn’t show their support for preservation (a backlash to Bolsonaro’s policies that favour economic progress over environmental wellbeing).
Mr Bolsonaro has shown strong resistance to foreign presence in the region as he sees it as a threat to national sovereignty and a disguised interest in exploration of Brazil’s natural resources. It is a fair remark, given no other country allow foreign forces to enter their territory easily (France offered military support to help with the Amazon fires). He has also pointed out some cynicism in the fact that European leaders use double standards when they show deeper concern for an environmental issue in Brazil than with environmental issues in Europe itself.
In spite of the altercations, it seems the Brazilian government has taken note of the matter and is taking action. President Bolsonaro signed a Decree on the 23 Aug giving powers to the Brazilian military forces to carry out emergency operations in the Amazon to put off these fires and fight environmental crimes, including fires and deforestation. Three days ago, he also announced interest in bringing discussions on international funding for the Amazon Fund back to the table and talks with Angela Merkel got friendlier since then.
In a recent live stream on the 27 Aug the Brazilian military forces presented some of the results of the actions, in conjunction with several government agencies and the nine states that cover the Amazon forest. The evidence presented is encouraging, with reduction in fires in at least three states in the first couple of days. A plan of ongoing and next actions was also presented. Governors from the states reiterated that the problem is recurring every year and a combined effort with the Federal Government is needed to address the issue more permanently.
We hope that these actions will continue to deliver and - more importantly - that this global debate will continue to push forward diplomatic efforts for international cooperation to support Brazil in protecting “the lungs of the world”, while at the same time respecting the sovereignty of the countries where the Amazon sits.