ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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The Burning Question of Amazon Fires

Jair Bolsonaro’s denial of climate crisis and assault on indigenous communities intensifies the calamity.


Dangerous plumes of smoke rise from sections of the vast Amazon rainforest, a 5.5 million square kilometre (km2) carbon sink. During the worst of the fires, the smoke had covered the sky of Brazil’s eastern seaboard, where the country’s largest population lives. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) says that there has been an 84% increase in the number of fires compared to 2018, with more than 74,000 fires tearing through one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Fires are not uncommon, since these occur regularly in the dry season. But this year’s fires are extreme, which is why there has been global concern about them.

Scientists at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) say that the fires this year have been most devastating in the 10 Amazon municipalities, which have seen the most deforestation. The drought of 2016 certainly plays some role in the fires, but—IPAM scientists argue—the hypothesis that these fires are caused by drought or by any natural cycles “must be rejected.” Rather, IPAM notes, “despite being the dry season, moisture levels in the Amazon are currently above average compared to the last three years.” Based on the work of IPAM and the Deforestation Alert System, the scientists point out that “the only plausible explanation is that deforestation is fanning the flames.”

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro neither believes in climate science nor in scientific forestry and forest conservation. Early in August, the head of the INPE—Ricardo Galvão—had warned that the deforestation rates in Brazil had been excessive. He said that in June 2019 itself, the Amazon lost 2,072 km2 in forestry, a region larger than the country of Mali. Bolsonaro called this a “lie” and fired Galvão. On behalf of the logging, mining, and agrobusiness industries, Bolsonaro slashed funding to the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) by 20% during the first six months of 2019. He said that the IBAMA officials were too zealous in their regulations; they would “arrive with a pen in each hand, applying astronomical fines.” The Amazon, he said, was open for business.

The logging, mining, and agrobusiness industries have perceived the presence of the indigenous communities inside the Amazon as a major obstacle. They have resisted turning the forest into commodities. The 1988 Constitution of Brazil created vast reserves—mostly in the Amazon—that are for the indigenous communities (who make up 0.6% of the Brazilian population). Bolsonaro, and his right-wing clique, have been genocidal in their attitude towards the Amerindians. Tashka Yawanawa, the leader of the Yawanawa community, says that the indigenous people are facing “genocide” in the Amazon.

Bolsonaro blamed the fires on conservationist non-governmental organisations. He said that they had deliberately set these fires to embarrass Brazil and to undermine his pro-business agenda. There is no evidence to sustain his claim. This is one more inflammatory statement from Brazil’s President.

Anger at Bolsonaro has crested in the last two weeks of August. Mass demonstrations have taken place across Brazil, with the epicentre in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Chants at these protests reflect the mood—“The Amazon belongs to the people” and “The Amazon stays, Bolsonaro goes.” Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have slipped rapidly, with a CNT/MDA poll showing that 39.5% of those in the survey say that his government is “bad or terrible,” and with his personal approval rating now at 29.4% (from 38.9% in January). The impact of the Amazon fires, Bolsonaro’s unscientific reaction, and the protests have put pressure on the government.

Things got worse when Europe began to openly criticise Bolsonaro, and to threaten his two main trade and policy objectives. European farmers pressured the European Union (EU) to stop the import of Brazilian beef. This by itself was harmful, but worse yet when this pressure morphed into the threat that the EU would pull out of the trade pact with Mercosur (the bloc that comprises Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Furthermore, Bolsonaro had hoped to take Brazil into the OECD—the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the 36-country body that sees itself as “developed,” Now, Brazil’s entry into the OECD is in doubt.

At the G7 meeting in France, a special session was held to discuss the Amazon crisis. United States President Donald Trump, who is close to Bolsonaro, did not attend. The G7 pledged $20 million—a very small amount—to fight the fires. Bolsonaro rejected the money as an “unreasonable and gratuitous attack on the Amazon.” However feeling the pressure, he has sent in the army to help fight the fire. Nevertheless, even this feeble response seems to have emerged from instrumental concerns rather than emerging from the intrinsic worth of the Amazon forests and the people who live there.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s fires have swept into Bolivia, where its President Evo Morales hastened to hire a super-tanker to help douse the flames. Bolivia has a Law of Mother Earth on its books, which grants nature equal rights with humans. The stark difference in the response of these two countries shows how the political–ideological orientation of the governments determines their positions on ecological and humanitarian crises. Therefore, the task of saving the Amazon cannot be dissociated from the struggle to establish a just and decent sociopolitical order.

Updated On : 11th Sep, 2019


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