The Amazon is burning. “The lungs of the planet” are being choked by smoke from a historic number of fires — many, if not most, of them set illegally to clear land for agricultural production.
Facing an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions and in need of international assistance, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has instead lashed out at critics and endangered, as a result, a trade agreement recently concluded between the European Union and Mercosur, the group of South America’s largest trading nations. The price of economic development must not be planetary destruction. A compromise must be reached that allows Brazilian farmers and ranchers to benefit from global trade without endangering the climate.
Data from Brazil’s own National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has revealed more than 72,000 fires from January to Aug. 20, an 83 percent increase over the same period last year. Sometimes the fires have natural causes, triggered by lightening strikes; more often, however, they are set deliberately by farmers and ranchers to clear land for agriculture. Many observers believe Bolsonaro’s development policies — he has urged the country “to use the riches that God has given us” — have spurred this year’s increase: INPE has reckoned that deforestation in the Amazon increased 380 percent over last year.
Destruction of the Amazon has profound implications for the planet. That rainforest produces an estimated 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen when its trees recycle carbon dioxide. Burn the trees and the planet not only loses those oxygen generators but the carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas, in them is released into the atmosphere. Equally important is the loss of wildlife and indigenous cultures found only in that part of the world.
Even without the destruction, cattle are problematic for the climate. They account for 41 percent of livestock greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock produces 14.5 percent of total global emissions. It has been estimated that reducing beef consumption would contribute about 20 percent of the effort needed to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Brazil’s inaction prompted international criticism. French President Emmanuel Macron has been a vocal critic and put the issue on the agenda of the Group of Seven summit he hosted earlier this week in France. A spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she backed the move, calling it “a global emergency,” a view echoed by other European leaders.
Stung by the criticism, Bolsonaro lashed out. First, he fired the head of INPE and accused him of releasing fake data. Then, he blamed nongovernmental organizations, saying they set the fires to make him look bad. Then, he accused Macron of using the issue for “personal political gain” and charged the G7 with having “a misplaced colonial mindset.” After the summit, a Brazilian government official said the country would refuse $22 million in aid pledged by the G7 countries to help fight the fires.
The attacks on Macron raised the stakes. He accused Bolsonaro of lying when the Brazilian president said at the Osaka Group of 20 meeting that he was committed to fighting climate change and protecting the Amazon. As a result, Macron said he would try to kill the trade agreement concluded in June by the EU and Mercosur. The French president has reportedly had doubts about the deal, given the potential impact of cheap South American imports on his country’s farmers; other European leaders face similar pressures. Those officials are quick to point out that their farmers and businesses have paid a price to honor environmental commitments.
Europe’s environmentalists are also skeptical about the deal. Finland’s finance minister has even called for the EU to “urgently review” the option of banning Brazilian beef imports because of the fires.
The backlash has Bolsonaro backpedaling. He says that he is open to help if provided in a respectful manner, and has admitted that Brazil does not have the manpower to combat the situation. That would seem to offer room for a graceful de-escalation of tension.
Japan can play a role in this effort. Japan and Brazil are co-chairs of the Informal Meeting on Further Actions against Climate Change. That annual forum holds candid discussions on how to assess and implement recommendations of the United Nations climate change conference. That would seem to be a good venue to take up this issue.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono had a phone call earlier this week with his Brazilian counterpart during which they discussed the problem and Kono offered Japan’s assistance. Japan should reinforce the message that environmental concerns are a priority in business meetings, like the Brazil-Japan Business Council, which held its most recent meeting last month in Sao Paulo.
The ultimate responsibility for protecting the Amazon rests on Brazilian shoulders. Yet those rainforests are the entire planet’s resource and we must all contribute to efforts to ensure that the Earth’s lungs keep working.