The Amazon rainforest is unlike anywhere else. It functions as a massive carbon sink, is the most biodiverse region in the world, and is home to several indigenous populations. This rainforest’s existence and preservation is integral to maintaining the quality of life on earth, especially in the face of climate change.
But in August 2019 the hashtag #PrayForTheAmazon swept social media. Wildfires had broken out over great swaths of the region showing no signs of stopping. The Amazon stretches across 9 countries but the majority of the forest is contained within Brazil. That month, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there were over 75,000 wildfires burning, an 85% increase from the same time the year before. The city of São Paulo was overtaken with smoke even though it was thousands of kilometres away. Brazilians staged protests and international pressure mounted to get the fires under control as trees were being cleared at the rate of five football pitches every minute.
How did it reach this crisis point?
While it is normal for fires to take place during the dry season, naturally occurring wildfires are less common in the Amazon than in places like California and British Columbia. Much of the fire is human-caused, people intentionally set the blazes to make way for agriculture, livestock, mining, and logging. Typically trees and plants are felled and removed by bulldozers and heavy equipment during the wet season (November-June) and the remaining stumps are torched during the dry season (July-October).
While this slash-and-burn method has been used for thousands of years, there are rules and regulations in place in order to mitigate deforestation. In fact, deforestation was reduced by 80 percent between 2004 and 2012 and Brazil was positioned as an environmental leader. But since then the political discourse has changed, environmental protectionism has been poised as the enemy of economic opportunity. This is in large part thanks to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who dubbed himself “Captain Chainsaw” in reference to his support of Amazon resource extraction. His rhetoric has emboldened farmers to ignore the regulations and organize “days of fire” where they intentionally set fires to their property to show that they agree with his message. They often don’t have the skill-set to contain the blaze and the fires grow out of control. But you can’t place too much blame on the farmers, most of them are economically disadvantaged and just trying to make a living.
So who is Jair Bolsonaro?
Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019 promising to clamp down on corruption and reduce violent crime. Preceding Bolsonaro’s rise to power, a massive corruption scandal dubbed “Operation Car Wash”, implicated many business and political actors, shaking Brazil’s perception of democracy to its core. Bolsonaro managed to position himself as the leader who would solve these problems, but since the election he has also been accused of corruption.
Bolsonaro is a political veteran and former military officer who is well known for standing by his controversial opinions having firmly positioned himself on the far right. He has long praised the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, claiming that it’s only problem was that “it didn’t kill enough of its opponents”. He has made hateful comments towards women, once telling a female political rival “she wasn’t even worth raping”. He’s said he’d be “incapable of loving a homosexual son,” and there was a rise in hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals during his campaign. He’s made offensive remarks about Afro- and Indigneous Brazilians, and has little regard for aboriginal rights.
Bolsonaro has a habit of governing via Twitter and has a history of disputing facts and distributing fake news. Some have dubbed him “The Trump of the Tropics.” Like Donald Trump, he rejects the urgency of climate change and promised to take his country out of the Paris Accord, although he reneged on that promise. He campaigned on a pro-business and pro-development platform focused on opening the Amazon to more economic activities.
What was Bolsonaro’s response to the wildfires?
When Ricardo Galvão, the director of the Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) presented satellite data showing the rise in Amazon deforestation, Bolsonaro dismissed it as “lies” and then he fired him. Bolsonaro claimed Galvão was using the data to lead an “anti-Brazil campaign.”
Despite zero evidence, Bolsonaro accused NGOs of starting the fires in order to embarrass his government. Environmental activists argued this was just a way for him to deflect attention away from how his regime allowed for erosion of oversight. He has slashed the budget of Brazil’s main environmental agency by 24%.
When French President Macron made collective action for “our Amazon” a priority of the G7 summit, Bolsonaro accused him of having a “colonialist mentality.” The two got into a war of words with Bolsonaro demanding an apology before he would accept foreign aid to fight the fires.
Where does this leave us?
Over the past 50 years approximately 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed and scientists warn we could reach an irreversible tipping point if we reach 20-25%. At that point the ecosystem will turn from a rainforest to a dry savanna. A lot is at stake, the Amazon is a reservoir of fresh water and the trees capture an immense amount of carbon, it’s an important tool in our fight against climate change. Additionally, the biodiversity could contain resources for food and new fabrics and building materials, as well as potential medical advancements like cures for cancers.
Experts are calling for collective action to refuse products that rely on slash-and-burn methods as a way to start to steer the global economy away from deforestation. While I’m sceptical that a product boycott could make a meaningful impact, it is undeniable that Bolsonaro’s international reputation took a hit because of his position on the wildfires and environmental protections more broadly. It’s clear that the global community must continue to loudly advocate for meaningful climate action and specific protections of the Amazon from all world leaders. Our future depends on it.