Brazil Amazon Fires

Preserving Brazil’s Sovereignty Means Taking Responsibility for the Amazon

Fire consumes the Amazon rainforest in Altamira, Brazil in August. Fires across the Brazilian Amazon sparked an international outcry for preservation of the world's largest rainforest. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The world is waking-up to the climate emergency. But our prolonged slumber is going to cost us dearly. The latest scientific findings indicate that our planet is approaching multiple “tipping points” that could cause irreversible and catastrophic changes in temperature, ecosystems and biodiversity. One country that could help decisively shape the future of the global climate is Brazil, home to over 40 percent of the world’s tropical forests and 20 percent of its fresh water supplies. Once a promising player in environmental conservation, Brazil has changed stance dramatically as far-right nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the pro-agriculture and beef lobbies that back him, are convinced that the climate agenda is a conspiracy, driven by hidden interests from abroad. All the while, the forests are burning at rates not seen since 2010.

A tricky question facing the international community is how to conserve global public goods such as forests in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia at a time when multilateral cooperation is waning. When it comes to reversing climate change, it is impossible for any one single state to deliver results on their own. Up until now, governments prefer to establish non-binding international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement or the Kyoto Protocol. Businesses have called for market-based mechanisms intended to reward reductions in greenhouse gases and reforestation efforts. Meanwhile, many environmental and indigenous activists—and a growing number of socially-minded businesses and average citizens—are adamant that it is only through direct actions such as protesting, campaigning, boycotting, and divestment that governments and businesses will agree to reverse anthropogenic climate change.

Bolsonaro has rejected virtually all forms of cooperation and coercion, saying that “the Amazon is ours, not yours.” Faced with mounting pressure from France, Germany, Norway, and others to act, he has retreated to chest-beating nationalism.

Yet the Amazon fires that generated global outrage in September are straining the utility and credibility of traditional concepts such as the zero-sum understanding of national sovereignty. A fundamental tenet of international affairs—at least within the tradition of realism—is that each nation state has exclusive control over its own domestic affairs. But what happens within a state—say a government-sponsored dramatic expansion in the exploitation of land for cattle, soy, and mining, along with  the emission of millions of tons of carbon dioxide—affects global temperatures, cloud cover, ocean currents, and human well-being? It becomes harder to defer to absolutist notions of national sovereignty when global survival is at stake. This is precisely the point raised by Harvard professor Stephen Walt in his recently penned Foreign Policy article, “Who will intervene in Brazil to save the Amazon?”

Walt’s article stirred up sharp controversy (and bad memories) in Brazil by sketching out a fictional scenario in which an unnamed future United States president issues an ultimatum before intervening militarily to “protect” the Amazon and avoid a climate apocalypse. A joint scientific study published in 2016 concluded that Brazil is perilously close to the precipice. If more than 20 percent of the Amazon’s tree cover is deforested, the basin’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide could collapse, turning the world’s largest tropical forest into its biggest patch of dry scrub-land.

Not surprisingly, Walt’s article came under heavy criticism—and not just from Brazil’s vocal nationalists. Many Brazilians suspect that outsiders (together with foreign-funded local human rights, environment and indigenous organizations) covet the country’s abundant resources and are determined to undermine the country’s sovereignty at all cost.

While Walt is quick to describe the aforementioned scenario as unrealistic, it has already emboldened and amplified the Brazilian government’s dangerous nationalist discourse. The country’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, has clumsily cited Walt’s article several times since it was published last month. Walt was careful to note that any hypothetical intervention would need to be authorized by the United Nations. But this only fueled the “anti-globalist” narrative that is popular among Bolsonaro supporters (and some Trump ones): that the United Nations is part of a global left-wing plot to undermine Brazil’s national sovereignty. Indeed, the new government threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris Climate Agreement earlier this year, and while the government has since backtracked, critics argue that, in practice, Brazil is no longer part of the accord, with Araújo on record describing climate change as part of an international Marxist conspiracy.

Part of the reason why Walt’s article has generated such discomfort is because his arguments inspire memories of the past. The US has a long track record of resorting to military force to achieve its foreign policy goals, and it has a massive military footprint spanning at least 150 countries, including influence in Colombia and a base in Peru. While it’s inconceivable Walt’s grim scenario could be sanctioned by China and Russia who sit on the UN Security Council, what he imagines is different—a “coalition of the willing” that side-steps the Council. As we have seen from Iraq to Libya, these ad-hoc coalitions rarely turn out well (they also entail massive environmental footprints.)

The fact is that there are other levers available to improve Brazil’s (and others) custodianship of the Amazon, and most of them do not entail military force. In addition to applying significant pressure on Brazil to stay committed to the Paris Agreement and other climate commitments (including through conditions in trade agreements), the Amazon Cooperation Treaty (ACT) could be significantly bolstered. The ACT was created by all eight countries straddling the Amazon in 1978, and equipped with a secretariat in 1995 to strengthen key provisions. Countries like Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador should also significantly ramp-up pressure since they stand to lose most dramatically from Brazil’s misbehavior.

Efforts to protect the Amazon will require the use of “carrots” and not just sticks. Donors have started looking for new ways to promote forest conservation. President Emmanuel Macron of France recently announced that his country would commit $100 million to protect the Amazon, as part of a larger package of $500 million funded by Colombia, Chile, and donors from outside the region, namely Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. In early September 2019, at a summit in Leticia, Colombia, seven South American countries—among them Brazil—signed a forest protection pact to improve satellite monitoring, strengthening disaster response and expanding reforestation efforts.

Another powerful means is by working with business, rather than against it. In response to the 2019 forest fires, 230 global investors with $16.2 trillion in assets released a firmly worded statement warning hundreds of companies to honor their commodities supply chain deforestation commitments or risk economic consequences. In Brazil, a new climate, forestry, and agriculture coalition is promoting public and private partnerships to curb deforestation, stimulate land restoration, and increase land-use efficiency. The partnerships include financial institutions, trading companies, beef and agricultural producers, and land-owners who are proactively cleaning-up their supply chains. They are acting out of enlightened self-interest. Given that Brazil’s minister of finance, Paulo Guedes, intends to phase out a wide range of subsidies to local producers, they will need to turn to much more demanding international creditors for access to capital. If they don’t change their practices to meet changing consumer demand, their businesses will suffer.

There are also opportunities to empower civil society and Brazilian states and municipalities, many of them at the forefront of efforts to mitigate illegal deforestation (which accounts for up to 80 percent of all deforested land). Several state governors have already joined forces to preserve the Amazon—despite facing withering criticism from the federal government—with some recently proposing that the more than $1 billion Amazon Fund, supported by Norway and Germany, be “decentralized” to states.

There is also a vast network of civil organizations with a successful track record of promoting environmental action and holding criminals accountable. The country’s more than 300 indigenous groups are highly organized, which also explains why they are facing waves of violent occupation on their land. These and other alternatives were discussed by representatives of 26 countries during the Latin American and Caribbean Climate Week, held by the UN. International efforts to protect the Amazon need to have a more comprehensive geopolitical vision and prioritize peaceful methods. In the end, there are many ways to build responsible sovereignty around public goods like the Amazon. Walt and his colleagues would do well to bring these options to the world’s attention.