Understanding the political dimensions of the Amazon fires

While critics have dismissed the situation as “slacktivism” gone overboard, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the fires in the Amazon (Image Source: Rogerio Florentino/EPA).

By Anna Day | @anna_day_

You’ve probably heard that the Amazon Rainforest is burning.

 

What you might not have heard is that influential Republican lobby groups in the US have entered into talks with the Brazilian government to promote corporate investment in the Amazon.

 

The Brazilian government has swatted international offers of help to control the fires, while also entertaining US lobbyists with shared interests including cattle farming, mining, and agribusiness like grain and soybean exports.

 

While there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding the “lungs of the earth”, the situation is dire.

 

The re-sharing of information and images before fact-checking has detracted from the seriousness of the situation.

 

Celebrities like Leonardo Dicaprio, Madonna, Novak Djokovic and Jaden Smith have caused misunderstanding by posting out-dated photos (some over 30 years old) of jungles in violent infernos, many of which don’t even depict the Amazon.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted such an image, sparking the popular claim that the Amazon is the lungs of the earth “which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen”; but this Conversation article by atmospheric scientist Scott Denning debunks this claim. 

 

Professor Denning explains the majority of the Earth’s breathable oxygen originates in our oceans, and there is enough of it to last for millions of years.

 

The fires also aren’t being caused by climate change, another popular but faulty claim.

 

Put simply, an environment as humid as the Amazon cannot burn without human intervention.

 

Some of the widespread, low burning, human-made fires are agricultural burns, which are fires used in rotational agriculture, or to clear encroaching scrub from existing pasture.

 

Other Amazon fires are related to a recent spike in deforestation, where natural rainforest is being burned to create new farming land. 

 

According to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, satellite images have identified over 40,000 fires in the Amazon since the beginning of the year; which is a 35 per cent increase of fires from the same time last year and the highest spike of fires since 2010.

 

This resurgence in deforestation comes after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismantlement of environmental protections, making good on promises from his election campaign where he declared Brazil’s vast protected lands an obstacle to economic growth.

 

The extent of damage these fires will have on the Amazon rainforest remains unclear.

 

What is clear, however, is the Brazilian government’s stance on the situation.

 

At the G7 meeting hosted by France last weekend, French President Macron made the fires a priority. 

 

All of the G7 nations, including the US, pledged a combined (and somewhat meagre) US$20m to help fight the fires in the Amazon. 

 

But Brazil rejected the offer, with Onyx Lorenzoni, chief of staff to President Bolsonaro, telling French President Emmanuel Macron to take care of “his home and his colonies”.

 

“We appreciate [the offer], but maybe those resources are more relevant to reforest Europe,” Mr Lorenzoni told the G1 news website.

 

“Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron.”

 

Even as Brazil rejects the G7’s offer, in Amazonas, a province of Brazil that governs a third of the Amazon, Governor Wilson Lima is entertaining US Republican lobbyists’ interest for mining and farming in the Amazon.

 

The Intercept reports that in June, Governor Lima began work with the US lobbying firm Interamerica Group.

 

Files disclosed under the United State’s Foreign Agents Registration Act show that Interamerica’s vice president was tapped to represent Lima’s government in meetings with federal agencies and congress.

 

The Interamerica Group and Governor Lima have also filed an informational packet for US companies, which promotes the Amazon region for its development potential.

 

According to The Intercept, “The packet lists mining, agribusiness, and the “Gas Chemical Industry” as “Opportunities” for American businesses—among the “Challenges” for these potential businesses is to “Ensure Forest Conservation”.

 

Furthermore, The Intercept reported that two Brazilian Firms, Hidrovias do Brasil and Patria Investimentos, which are responsible for gaining control of Amazon land, are partly owned by Blackstone, a major U.S. investment company.

 

Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a top donor to President Trump and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

 

The two firms have played a direct role in the deforestation of parts of the Amazon and aiding in the construction of a controversial highway leading to the Miritituba shipping terminal, a critical access route for exports.

Amazon.png
(Image Source: Soohee/The Intercept)

The fires in the Amazon are political just as much as they are environmental.

 

As part of a rapidly diminishing list of pristine natural environments, the Amazon deserves to be defended from malign political and financial interests. 

 

Instead of re-sharing (often inaccurate) pictures, demand change from current governments and show support to your local politicians who have strong environmental policies.

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