Fires in the Amazon: Who Owns Them?


As the Amazon rainforest began to burn in early August, the news spread quicker than the flames; everyone would come to know of the unfolding tragedy. The forest burned along with Brazil’s reputation, Earth’s oxygen, and climate change efforts. A home to countless species and the indigenous population, from the onset, it was clear the disaster would have severe consequences. Alarmingly, if the Amazon rainforest were completely destroyed, some 90 billions tons of carbon would be released into Earth’s atmosphere. With all of these issues in mind, many people, particularly international powers in the Global North, have both attacked Brazil’s current administration and encouraged Brazil to make a strong effort to save the forest, specifically by banning deforestation and ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. 

Critics note that the majority of the Amazonian fires are deliberately stoked by humans, casting a spotlight on the 1,330 square miles of forest that were lost to development under Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose conservative governing style emphasizes small government and economic development, which has cattle grazers and timber firms eying the region. As part of his development plan, Bolsonaro desires to build environment-altering dams and roads and desires to develop mining to aid human settlement in the region and improve the well-being of the Brazilian population. Despite the $22.2 million down payment to repair the damages, Bolsonaro’s attitude towards the Amazon as a natural resource meant to be utilized by the people raises a rather significant question that often plagues other developing countries rich in natural treasures: apart from the immediacy of climate change and the importance of preserving Earth’s resources for the entire human species, why should Brazil prioritize the environment over the well-being of its people, especially considering its precarious social, political, and economic state, when some developed countries don’t make half the effort despite their wealth and higher quality of life?

Economic, Social, Political Backdrop of Brazil in Modern Day

An assessment of Brazil’s social, political, and economic backdrop to the fires in the Amazon paints a different picture of the calamity. Comprehension of several key economic issues that Brazil currently faces may help international audiences understand why the people of Brazil are also surfing the wave of global conservatism that other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and more have been riding and why they voted a far-right president into office. Ostensibly, his election was largely because Brazillian electors desired the increased standard of living that Bolsonaro promises. An understanding of Brazil’s current economy may also clarify why Bolsonaro might not be as sympathetic to the burning of the forest, as harsh and cruel as it sounds, when the clearing of the forest will provide land for development in various forms mentioned earlier (dams for clean water and irrigation purposes, roads, housing, commercial and industrial centers, and mining), which will attract revenue and bolster the failing Brazilian economy. International audiences may have a hard time understanding why the Amazon may no longer be as important to the Brazilian administration and perhaps the Brazilian people themselves, despite the Amazon being a major source of economic revenue and tourist attraction. But, international audiences should not criticize these priorities, considering that, for example, the United States recently pulled out of the Paris Agreement to the dismay of climate change activists everywhere. A recent BBC article details four areas in which the Brazilian economy has severely fallen behind: a lack of economic recovery from the crippling two-year recession in 2015, a near doubling of Brazilians on unemployment (28.3 million people currently under-utilised), drops in the currency and stock markets, and the ever-growing national debt. 

Additionally, the Human Rights Watch notes several disturbing elements of Brazil’s social state, including the following: violence reached a new record (64,000 killings in 2017), police brutality increased significantly, domestic violence continues (1.2+ million cases pending before 2018), tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees poured into Brazil in 2018, large numbers of people (about 726,000) are behind bars in overcrowded and understaffed prisons, juvenile detention facilities house nearly 25,000 children and young adults in January 2018, free speech was attacked during and after the election season by Bolsonaro and his administration, and abusive, “slave-like” working conditions were endured by some 1,246 Brazilians.

To top it all off, the new political administration has, despite Bolsonaro’s crime-and-corruption-fighting zero-tolerance policies, “roiled Brazil’s politics with caustic, inflammatory, and at times hateful statements.” A country with great promise, that hosted both the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, now suffers under the weight of economic, human rights, and political issues. Two events in particular are to blame: a fall in the soybean industry after China’s demand for it decreased; and a scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras which revealed “the looting of billions of dollars from the public treasury”. 

Onlookers also should not forget certain dreadful events of Brazil’s short history, from slavery and colonial robbery of its rightful resources to a haunting military rule in the 1960’s to a period of vast inflation and corruption after José Sarney left office in the late 1980’s to recession, cuts in health and educational programs, a soaring national debt and unemployment, and irregular industrial practices under Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1994. 

Therefore, Brazil’s history, paired with its current economic, political, and social state helps put the burning of the Amazon into perspective. Doing this does not reduce the gravity of the situation in the Amazon, but it encourages people around the world to understand that the Amazon burning is just another one of Brazil’s many problems and may not be a problem at all (with the exception of climate change) if clearing the forest’s land would bolster the economy and better the Brazilians’ quality of life.   

The Amazon In A New Light

So, as troubling as the burning of the Amazon rainforest is for environmental activists, climate change trackers, and nature lovers around the world, it will have a greater impact on Brazil and its people as the country attempts to repair its reputation. Rather than shouting about Brazil’s lack of respect for one of its most precious natural resources, people and politicians alike should think about how urgent the situation may be that some Brazilians, including Bolsonaro, consider sacrificing the Amazon for the nation’s stability and well-being. International countries are often too ready to thrust donations to save the forest, but they need to see the bigger picture regarding this issue and make more of an effort to help Brazil raise its standard of living, which will in turn help preserve the Amazon. As for Brazilians, they are a resilient people under political and economic stress, as historical and current situations have proven, and although the Amazon is burning and the economy is slow to recover, Brazilians will likely never lose faith in such a rich land.


Image Source: Shutterstock

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