Before we go any further, let’s begin with three facts. More than 74,000 fires have ignited in the Amazon so far this year. A third of these have occurred in August alone. And $22 million isn’t nearly enough to save the rainforest from further destruction.
But that’s the amount of money that members of the G7 offered to donate to the firefighting cause last week as world leaders convened for the group’s summit in Biarritz, France. (By contrast, the state of California spent nearly $1.8 billion fighting the 9,000 fires that destroyed 1.2 million acres back in 2017.) The fires have already consumed more than four million acres of Brazil’s rainforest; another 1.8 million acres of land in neighboring Bolivia have also succumbed. As of this writing, there’s no end in sight.
With that said, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s initial refusal to take the G7’s money, however insufficient a sum it may have been, was utterly reprehensible, setting a new low for the kind of presidential pettiness that the world is growing wearily accustomed to seeing these days. As flames ravaged the rainforest at a rate of one and a half football fields per minute, Bolsonaro responded by childishly insisting that he would not accept any G7 aid until French president and summit host Emmanuel Macron first retracted perceived “insults” against him. A few days earlier, he had illustrated his general level of concern over the fires by going to a comedy club while thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in protest of his administration’s gross malfeasance. (Facing both national and international outcry, Bolsonaro has since backtracked and now hints that he will accept the G7’s $22 million upon being assured that his government can have complete control over its allocation.)
From the get-go, Bolsonaro’s presidency has endangered the more than 300,000 Indigenous people who live in the Brazilian Amazon and the very health of our planet. The rainforest’s nearly 400 billion trees not only suck up vast amounts of carbon but also, through the process of evapotranspiration, govern seasonal rainfall patterns. Stop and ponder that for a moment: The trees in the Amazon are so powerful in their plenitude that they’re capable of making their own rain. Deforestation has been identified as the greatest threat to the Amazon’s biodiversity and its ability to carry out these important ecosystem services. And yet a policy of increased deforestation, as nonsensical as it sounds, was an actual platform of Bolsanaro’s successful campaign for president. (In 2017 Bolsonaro told one audience, “Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth beneath it.”)
Make no mistake: Deforestation has everything to do with the flames currently sweeping through the Brazilian Amazon and raising alarms throughout the world. What has now become a national conflagration began as a series of deliberate burn-offs by cattle ranchers eager to make more grazing room for their ever-expanding herds—and emboldened, almost certainly, by the rhetoric of their new president. According to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, cattle ranching is now the single-largest driver of Amazon deforestation, accounting for 80 percent of the current rate.
Coincidentally, that same figure pops up in another disturbing statistic about the fires in Brazil: So far, this year’s fires represent an 80 percent increase over last year’s. And while the rest of the world has been uncomfortably connecting the dots between out-of-control cattle ranching, deforestation, and fire, Bolsonaro has been doing his best to discredit his own government’s deforestation data—first angrily characterizing the numbers as “lies,” then firing the government analyst who had shared them with the public. In July, as international worries over the Amazon began to rise and the leaders of European countries started stepping up their criticism of Bolsonaro’s policies, he sniped that “the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours.”
And there you have it: the perfect summation of a mind-set that can’t conceive of nature as anything other than property. To Jair Bolsonaro, stewardship of the Amazon is synonymous with ownership of the Amazon. Standing before the planet’s largest and most biodiverse carbon sink, he thinks: What an amazing business opportunity. He can’t see the rainforest for the trees he’d love to remove one way or another. (Of course we know he’s not the only president who thinks this way.)
But even if Bolsonaro can’t see things properly, Brazilians are starting to see right through him. A poll released earlier this week showed that more than 53 percent of survey respondents now disapprove of Bolsonaro’s personal performance as president, up from 28 percent in February. Nearly 40 percent of Brazilians now describe their president’s government as “bad” or “terrible”—more than double the proportion of respondents willing to do so in the previous poll. Voters have cited Bolsonaro’s handling of the environment as a source of their disaffection; news stories about the poll point out that “he has been criticized at home and abroad for downplaying the severity of fires raging in the Amazon forest.”
Scientists fear that the Amazon is closer than it’s ever been to a dieback scenario, whereby the interlinked natural systems that have sustained it for millions of years essentially collapse, one by one, to the point where they’re simply beyond resuscitation. If that were to happen, the effects would be felt not just locally, but globally.
The fires will eventually go out. When they do, Bolsonaro’s supporters will be forced to ask themselves some hard questions. Among them: Are they really willing to raze the world’s largest tropical rainforest in order to sell more hamburgers to Hong Kong? Is that how they choose to define progress? Does the fact that the Amazon exists largely within Brazil’s borders make it theirs? Or is the Amazon in fact an unownable gift to the planet—one that has been placed, temporarily, in Brazilians’ care?
And if the answer to that last question turns out to be yes, then one more question arises: Don’t Brazilians deserve a leader who feels the same way?
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