Brazil’s far-right populist president has encouraged the wanton destruction of the world’s greatest forest. He has been humbled but not stopped
As Donald Trump’s America retreats from global leadership, coalitions of like-minded nations are attempting to limit the damage. One such grouping at this weekend’s G7 summit in France managed a breakthrough over one of the globe’s most pressing problems: the accelerating deforestation in the Amazon.
Conserving rainforests is necessary if there is to be any chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It’s not just humanity at stake – the Amazon contains at least 10% of the Earth’s biodiversity. So it was good to see France’s Emmanuel Macron take Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro to task for encouraging the wanton destruction of the world’s biggest tropical forest.
The rules-based order worked though Trumpish pre-emptive tweets: “Our house is burning. Literally,” wrote Mr Macron last week; “It is an international crisis,” added Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister. Mr Bolsonaro attempted to brazen it out. However, his opposition melted away as the heat was turned up over 24 hours. Mr Macron, along with Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, threatened to veto a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, the South American economic bloc in which Brazil is the biggest player. Both European nations’ trading interests aligned with concern for the Amazon, but the pressure worked. By Friday Mr Bolsonaro had ordered the armed forces to fight a worrying spate of forest fires. Even the White House offered to help with saving the rainforest.
This is a tactical victory for the planet – and one shamefully not won by the UK, which appears to be more fixated on securing its own post-Brexit trade arrangements than standing up for what is right. Much more will have to be done to change Mr Bolsonaro’s mind over the threat posed by the climate crisis. The Brazilian president, who took power in January, has appointed climate deniers to prominent roles. When the country’s National Institute for Space Research revealed increasing deforestation in the Amazon in July – a result of the rollback of environmental protections and enforcement – the president said the numbers were fake. He then sacked the head of the institute, shooting the messenger rather than acting on the message. The rate of destruction has brought the Amazon close to a dangerous threshold – where it becomes too small to generate its own clouds. As the trees disappear, rainfall declines and deforestation begins to feed on itself; this could push it to a point of no return, where the vast basin would end up resembling a savannah more than a rainforest. Mr Bolsonaro sees the Amazon as a “virgin” that should be “exploited” by big business.
With the Brazilian economy still struggling to pull out of a long slump, he is looking for ways to turbocharge economic growth, but at least some of the world’s leaders have signalled – and rightly so – that this cannot be at any price for the planet. A small number of nations hold the world’s rainforests, with Brazil home to one-third and about 15% shared by Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More tropical tree cover was lost globally in both 2016 and 2017 than in any other year this century.
Preserving rainforests, and restoring former forested land, is an economical way to meet climate change targets. The G7 aid package to help Amazon countries fight wildfires is a start. But targets and protections are only effective when they are strictly applied. Europeans need to change their diets to reduce demand for carbon-intensive foodstuffs. They also ought to restrict market access unless conservation policies are reintroduced along with laws that can be enforced with transparent monitoring. The world urgently needs a new pattern of development: Brazil has become stuck in a middle-income trap, with per-capita GDP hovering around 30% of the US level. We need an economic system where the forest is valued as highly as the field, and in which natural assets are nurtured for the long term. It is a better way forward than every country putting itself first.
Brazil Angrily Rejects Millions in Amazon Aid Pledged at G7, Then Accepts British Aid
By Manuela Andreoni – The New York Times
RIO DE JANEIRO — Hours after leaders of some of the world’s wealthiest countries pledged more than $22 million to help combat fires in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil’s government angrily rejected the offer, in effect telling the other nations to mind their own business — only to later lay out potential terms for the aid’s acceptance and then, on Tuesday evening, accepting some aid from Britain.
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil expressed his ire in a series of Twitter posts on Monday, extending his verbal feud with President Emmanuel Macron of France, who had announced the aid package at the Group of 7 summit meeting.
But early the next day, Mr. Bolsonaro offered possible terms for its acceptance. If Mr. Macron withdrew what he called personal insults and insinuations that Brazil does not have sovereignty over the Amazon, he said, he would reconsider.
“He will have to withdraw his words, and then we can talk,” Mr. Bolsonaro said.
For Mr. Bolsonaro, who has governed as a far-right populist stoking nationalist sentiment, the defiant rebuff of the G7 aid played well to his base. But an outright rejection of any outside help might also have undermined the nation’s efforts to control the fires, possibly further eroding Mr. Bolsonaro’s plummeting popularity.
After refusing the G7 help, Brazil decided to accept $12 million in aid from Britain to help fight the fires in the Amazon. The decision was made after Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, was offered the help by Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary, in a meeting on Tuesday.
“The government stresses that all external support is welcome, provided the decision over how those resources are employed is ours,” said Otávio Rêgo Barros, the government spokesman, describing the Bolsonaro administration’s approach to accepting or rejecting foreign help. “Our sovereignty is nonnegotiable.”
More than 26,000 forest fires have been recorded in the Amazon rainforest this month, the highest number in a decade, setting off outrage and calls for more protections. The forests absorb a significant share of the planet’s climate-warming carbon dioxide, are home to indigenous peoples, and are a vital habitat for endangered species.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who had suggested that Mr. Macron’s real motive was to shield France’s agriculture from Brazilian competition, had tweeted on Monday that the president “disguises his intentions behind the idea of an ‘alliance’ of the G7 countries to ‘save’ the Amazon, as if we were a colony or a no-man’s land.”
President Trump praised Mr. Bolsonaro on Tuesday, posting on Twitter, “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil — Not easy. He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!”
But the rancor over the G7 donation spilled into the United Nations, which is planning a climate summit next month during its annual General Assembly. Asked at a news briefing about Brazil’s apparent refusal to accept the money, Luis Alfonso de Alba, a Mexican diplomat who is the secretary-general’s special envoy for the climate summit, sought to avoid taking sides.
“I welcome the willingness to support the efforts” to combat the Amazon fires, Mr. de Alba said. At the same time, he said, “the key for us is to work with the government of Brazil.” Such contributions, he said, “have always been done in an apolitical way.”
Mr. Bolsonaro is facing his own problems at home, where approval of his government has plummeted: 39.5 percent of Brazilians evaluate it as bad or terrible, up from 19 percent in February, according to a poll by MDA/CNT, which conducted the survey between Aug. 22 and Aug. 25.
Approval of the president’s personal performance has also dropped substantially, according to the same poll, with 53.7 percent of Brazilians evaluating it as bad or terrible, up from 28.2 in February.
Despite the widespread attention to the fires in the Amazon, the Bolsonaro administration was rated worst in its management of the health sector. The environment was rated second-worst.
Mr. Bolsonaro has been widely criticized by environmentalists for calls to open up protected parts of the Amazon rainforest to logging, farming, mining and other development, which many say has caused further exploitation of the region. The illegally set fires and resulting deforestation, critics say, are being driven by his policies.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bolsonaro and members of his cabinet met with governors from all nine states that make up Brazil’s Amazon region to discuss the fire and offers of aid.
Some governors made clear they supported Mr. Bolsonaro’s drive to develop the Amazon, and complained that too much of their states’ territories were blocked off as indigenous and environmental reserves, hampering their growth.
Others were more concerned with securing the help offered by the G7 countries, and with bolstering diplomacy.
“We need support, international support, institutional support from the federal government,” said Wilson Lima, governor of Amazonas state. “All help is welcome.”
During the meeting, Mr. Bolsonaro blamed the international crisis in which he finds himself on media outlets that reported on the fire, on those who oppose him for not wanting to protect more indigenous land, and on France, whose president Mr. Bolsonaro believes has overreacted to the problem to score points at home.
These international demonstrations of concern are, in reality, attempts to infringe on Brazil’s rights over its own territory, he said.
“What they want is our sovereignty,” he said about his international critics. “We have to unite to preserve what is ours and guarantee our sovereignty”
Accepting international help might come with “a price,” Mr. Bolsonaro warned, including the protection of other lands. “And this will take us to a destiny we already know: Brazil’s insolvency,” he added.
But as much as Brazil’s sovereignty must be respected, the country is not in a position to reject help, said Elizabeth Uema, a representative of an association of public servants who work in Brazil’s environmental agencies. Brazil also cut 25 percent of the budget for the main environmental agency, Ibama, this year.
“We need all the help we can get,” Ms. Uema said. “But, of course, the terms need to be negotiated.”
Some Brazilians are growing concerned about economic losses from the crisis. Norway and Germany have suspended contributions to the Amazon Fund, which bankrolls much of the equipment used in environmental law enforcement, over what they see as Brazil’s interference in the effort.
Mr. Macron himself has threatened to block a major European trade deal with four South American nations, including Brazil, which was just completed but has not been ratified. And Swedish and Norwegian pension funds have started investigating whether international companies with investments in the Amazon were taking enough action to save the rainforest.
Last Friday, Blairo Maggi, a former agriculture minister and the main shareholder at Amaggi, one of Brazil’s main grain trading groups, told a local radio station that he was worried the crisis could lead to a boycott of the country’s exports.
“We are not an isolated island,“ he said. “We need to pay attention to the path the world is taking.”
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 28, 2019, Section A, Page 7 of the New York edition with the headline: Brazil Rejects Millions in Aid for Amazon Pledged by Leaders at G7.