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Pyromaniac president, international pariah

Amazon
Credit: Wikicommons/Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has achieved a remarkable feat. As fires, many deliberately started, raged in the Amazon, he lost Brazil all the international respect it had earned over the years for tackling climate change and protecting the environment.

The world watched in dismay at the destruction. International leaders expressed concern and protests were held outside Brazilian embassies. Bolsonaro faces becoming an international pariah and reducing Brazil’s access to world markets. And it has all happened because the Brazilian president has pandered to the suicidal drives of an anachronistic portion of the agribusiness and mineral extractive industries.

Since coming to office, he has criticized environmental and labour controls, saying that under his rule there would be no punishment for those who wanted to ‘develop’ the Amazon.

This was a green light to farmers and loggers to burn and clear the forest and for miners to feel free to invade indigenous territories. Bolsonaro even forced the resignation of a renowned scientist heading the Brazilian Institute for Space Research, in charge of satellite monitoring of forests.

When criticized, Bolsonaro uses the argument that he is protecting Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon. The criticism, he says, is coming from those who want to ‘internationalize’ the region in order to exploit it. A polar bear trapped on a piece of ice floating in the Arctic could tell him that the process of climate change is not about Left and Right politics: it is about survival.

The Amazon is not ‘the lungs of the world’ as commonly stated; the oceans play that role. But the rainforest stores billions of tons of carbon that, if released, would make the planet a lot less habitable. Without the Amazon, areas of Brazil can bid farewell to their agriculture because their rainfall system depends on it. And, of course, the Amazon contains the largest biodiversity on earth; millions of people live in it, including traditional populations with their languages and cultures.

Brazilian public opinion, as far as we can tell in these times of chaos, is mixed. In September the leading polling institute, DataFolha, published a poll that showed 25 per cent considered Bolsonaro’s policy on the Amazon as ‘good or very good’ and 51 per cent as ‘poor or very poor’. Some 57 per cent fully agreed that ‘the interest of other countries in the Amazon is legitimate because it is important for the entire planet’. But 42 per cent fully agreed that ‘the interest of other countries in the Amazon is just an excuse to exploit it’.

As a major producer of food and commodities, Brazil has often faced attempts by competing countries to raise protectionist trade barriers against its goods on environmental or human rights grounds. We are now providing the perfect rationale for such action.

Bolsonaro may speak bluntly to the leaders of foreign governments. He may dive into conspiracy theories and paranoia, where his most loyal supporters feel good. But at the end of the day, he needs to answer whether his government is willing to fight the real threats that endanger our planet. Or will it mock them and sacrifice revenues from Brazilian exports of beef or soybeans, blocked at ports around the world, as Brazil stands accused of being an environmental and social criminal?

Bolsonaro need not believe in climate change; believing in boycott will be enough.

New Internationalist issue 522 magazine cover This article is from the October 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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