As fires rage in Amazon forests, Brazil pushes back against global flak

Topics Amazon | forest fires | Brazil

In this Aug. 20, 2019 drone photo released by the Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso, brush fires burn in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state, Brazil | Photo: AP/PTI
The Brazilian government is pushing back against mounting national and international pressure over its environmental policies as a record number of fires rip through the Amazon rain forest.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles announced the creation of an Amazon task force in an interview with local news website UOL, while President Jair Bolsonaro’s senior foreign policy adviser tweeted a long English language thread defending Brazil’s record on Amazon deforestation and attacking media coverage. Meanwhile, house Speaker Rodrigo Maia said congress will set up a panel to study the fires.

Data from the National Institute of Space Research showed an 84 per cent year-on-year increase in forest fires in 2019, many caused by loggers incentivized by the government’s disdain for environmental oversight. While Bolsonaro relishes criticism of his attitude toward the Amazon -- jokingly referring to himself as ‘Captain Chainsaw’ -- his supporters in the agricultural sector fear a backlash from consumers both in Brazil and abroad.

Germany and Norway have already suspended their contributions to a rain forest preservation fund, and polls indicate that even among Bolsonaro’s own voters there is overwhelming support for stronger measures to combat illegal deforestation.

“In terms of environmental management we’re witnessing a disaster,” Jairo Nicolau, a political science professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said. “It’s not about just a different policy. We’re seeing total disorganization in an area in which there was a culture of continuity from one government to the next.“

Points of concern

Salles’ decision to create an Amazon task force, comprising police, armed forces, indigenous, farming and mining groups represents a change in tack from the confrontational attitude he has taken to previous criticism of environmental policy. The announcement came the same day as a Brazilian Senator asked the Supreme Court to remove him from his position for failing to fulfill his duties.

Maia was clear in explaining the reasons behind his decision to establish a congressional committee to investigate the fires. “It is important to keep our agribusiness exports strong and to preserve the environment,” he wrote.

Senior figures in Brazil’s agricultural sector have warned the president of the potential economic repercussions of his policies, though so far Bolsonaro himself has shown little sign of paying heed.

In comments to reporters on Thursday Bolsonaro said that it would be the media’s fault if Brazilian agriculture suffered commercial barriers as a result of the outcry. He also appeared to shrug off suggestions of containing the blaze. “The Amazon is bigger than Europe. How are you going to fight a criminal fire in such an area?” he said.

One of the key concerns is the possible impact on the recent trade deal agreed between the European Union and the South American customs union, Mercosur.

“The Mercosur-EU deal hasn’t been ratified yet and there are requirements in it about sustainability and the protection of the indigenous, for example,” Renata Amaral, director of international trade at the Barral MJorge consultancy, said. “The Bolsonaro government could start to see setbacks in the area he cherishes the most.”

Protesters from various NGOs are planning demonstrations in cities across Brazil on Friday evening to demand action in defense of the rain forest.

‘Spreading lies’

On Thursday morning, a day after he had baselessly accused foreign NGOs of lighting fires to discredit his government, Bolsonaro instructed his Twitter followers to read a thread by his adviser, Felipe Martins.

In the 11-part post, Martins criticized the mainstream media’s “irresponsible disregard for basic data” and stated that over 60 per cent of Brazil is covered by native vegetation, while only 29 per cent is used for agriculture. Martins also wrote that Brazil has some of the most stringent environmental legislation in the world and has a larger share of territory under environmental protection than any other country worldwide. He adds that there is a “clear long-term, downward trend” in deforestation.

While the percentages of land used for agriculture and covered in vegetation Martins cites are roughly true, World Bank data show that there are at least 20 counties that maintain more forest as a proportion of their territory than Brazil, including Japan, Sweden and the Congo.

The statement’s omissions are also significant. Brazil is the country that deforests at a faster rate than any other, according to the research NGO World Resouces Institute.

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