How to think clearly about Amazon protection

As Jean Daudelin writes from Recife, Brazil, when it comes to effective action to help the Amazon, beware lofty hopes and empty threats.

By: /
August 30, 2019
An aerial view shows the Amazon rainforest near Altamira, Para state, Brazil August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The world has suddenly rediscovered the Amazon. After a summer of record heat waves in Europe and North America, thousands of fires and a climate-sceptic, obnoxious, sexist, racist and proudly authoritarian Brazilian president have put the Amazon and its protection on the global to-do list and, more pointedly, on this past week’s G7 Summit agenda.

This is great. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and its largest reserve of biodiversity. It plays an important role in the planet’s carbon cycle and its destruction would have a massively negative impact on climate change. And yet, a fast-growing part of it is being destroyed on President Jair Bolsonaro’s watch.

Over the last two weeks, as demonstrations were taking place the world over, a huge wave of aid offers, threats and advice have flooded the media, and the usual clique of universal experts and global spotlight grabbers — from Stephen Walt and Leonardo DiCaprio to our very own Lloyd Axworthy — have jumped in the fray. Most of the suggestions, however, seem to assume that the development of the region can still be largely stopped while others have been frankly counter-productive — for instance, sending "multilateral green helmets [...] across the Brazilian border."

For the current energy not to evaporate as the rainy season starts in the Amazon and as temperatures drop in the Global North, it may be useful to drop those views and consider a few basic things that any serious endeavour to save as much of the forest as possible should take into account.

First, and most importantly, the Amazon is huge: larger than Western Europe and, at 5.5 million square kilometres, as large as Canada’s 10 provinces together. Depending on how one defines it, between 20 and 30 million people live in the 60 percent of the Amazon that lies in Brazil, and millions more in the Colombian, Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon. Most of those people are poor and, with very few exceptions, their current livelihood and long-term life prospects are not consistent with the transformation of the Amazon into a huge forest reserve.

The protection of forest thus calls for the creation of options for those people. This will be costly, and it will take time. Consider for instance that the US$20 million G7 aid offer represents less than a dollar per capita for Amazonians — or less than the carbon tax on 20 litres of gasoline that many Canadians are loath to pay. It also probably means that, even in the best of cases, a substantial portion of the forest will be destroyed in the meantime.

Being serious about the Amazon means being ready to invest massive amounts of money into the long-term and necessarily slow and muddled re-engineering of its economic development. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who managed Brazil’s Amazon policy from 2007 to 2009, speaks for instance of a knowledge-based economy for the region, an appealing prospect, but one that is also not realistic in the short or medium term.

"Being serious about the Amazon means being ready to invest massive amounts of money into the long-term and necessarily slow and muddled re-engineering of its economic development."

Second, the Amazon is in Brazil, but also in French Guyana, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. In today’s world, challenging the sovereignty of countries over a piece of their territory is pointless and counter-productive. It feeds ultra-nationalist fear-mongering and militaristic reactions, and will meet with fierce resistance from the countries targeted, as well as from the vast majority of UN members.

Third, the G7 countries’ track record on climate change commitment is patchy at best: Germany’s main source of electricity is still coal; Canada is building pipelines to export thick and dirty oil; the gilets jaunes movement in France was driven in part by opposition to a carbon tax; the Trump administration is doing its very best to keep the country’s energy matrix as dirty as possible; and so on.

In other words, a serious attempt at tackling the problem calls for a long-term outlook, a willingness to invest large sums of money, a sizable degree of humility and the recognition that the main players will be Amazonian countries themselves. Now, with a man like Bolsonaro in charge of the largest chunk of the forest, some prodding will obviously be needed too, but the latter must be cleverly applied.

This means leveraging the will and interests of local players. Brazilians are proud and protective of the Amazon and, as Robbert Muggah recently noted, most are shocked and ashamed at the current government’s policies and actions. The governors of Amazonian states and significant sectors of the Brazilian Congress are pushing the central government to fight the fire and enforce existing regulations, and they want to prevent Bolsonaro from weakening the latter. Powerful counter-forces must obviously be tackled — the large and powerful congressional “cattle caucus” for instance — and for this, sensitive pressure points must be exploited.

The most obvious of them is Brazil’s sizable dependence on foreign agricultural markets. Brazil is the world’s top exporter of sugar, coffee, soy, orange juice and chicken, and it ranks third for beef and eighth for cotton. Credible threats of boycotts could thus in theory work wonders. The agro-business lobby in Brazil understands this and is already pushing the government to enhance the monitoring of illegal logging and enforce existing regulations.

To have any hope of success, however, such pressure needs to be completely de-linked from any challenge to Brazil’s sovereignty, and tied to a credible and substantive offer of cooperation.

A very promising avenue is being opened by Colombia and Peru’s call for a summit of Amazon countries on September 6. The G7 summit may be now over, but if leaders of those countries are serious about action on the Amazon, they should engage with this effort, commit to supporting effective action with significant resources, and make it clear that, while the effort must be led by Amazon countries themselves, inaction or worse could have real economic consequences.