In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced this bill to put pressure on Brazil to combat the record number of wildfires burning in the Amazon rainforest:
“President Jair Bolsonaro believes he can act with impunity and accelerate the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and he needs to know there are real-life consequences for his reckless actions. I’m angered, but not surprised, that President Trump wholeheartedly supports [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro’s game of chicken with humanity’s existence. Though thousands of miles away from Oregon, the Amazon serves as the lungs of the earth. Without significant intervention to curtail destruction of the rainforest, it will impact rainfall in the United States, dramatically reduce our crop yields and food supply, and increase the extreme conditions for catastrophic wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.”
In a separate statement, Rep. DeFazio accused Bolsonaro of “encourag[ing] deforestation, destroying the rainforest, displacing the indigenous peoples… [and] think[ing] he can get a free ride.” He said this legislation will show Bolsonaro “that he can’t get a free ride from the United States of America, at least, on this.”
Andrew Miller, advocacy director at Amazon Watch, says this bill would serve as an important act of American solidarity with the Amazon:
"As long as we purchase commodities from a burning Amazon, we are complicit in the rainforest's destruction. Not only must the Brazilian authorities stop the fires, but also the spiking deforestation and imminent threats to indigenous territories. Brazil's indigenous movement has called for a boycott of products like beef and soy that are catalyzing land invasions and deadly conflicts within their territories. By supporting the Act on the Amazon Act, U.S. voters can stand in solidarity with the urgent indigenous plea to protect the Amazon."
In an August 23, 2019 Slate article, Joshua Keating praises the European Union’s use of trade threats — specifically French and Irish leaders’ treat to block a landmark trade agreement between the EU and the South American trading bloc Mercosur unless Brazil shows a commitment to protecting the environment — as an example of how governments can use trade sanctions to “get tough on climate change outlaws.” However, while it might be tempting to see this as an example the U.S. could follow (as this bill proposes), Keating argues that the powerful global economies who are themselves the world’s largest carbon emitters (such as the U.S., China, and Russia) can’t credibly use this tool. He explains:
“If the world’s largest emitters take steps to punish poorer, developing countries for not tackling their own emissions, it won’t only be hypocritical—it will be useless.Sanctions and economic pressure on emissions outlaws may eventually be part of the toolkit for tackling the climate crisis, but for it to work, the world’s major economies—particularly the U.S.—need to get their own houses in order.”
In an August 27, 2019 article in The Atlantic, Peter Brannen argues that while tragic, the Amazon’s loss to wildfires doesn’t pose an existential threat to the planet. He explains:
“Losing the Amazon, beyond representing a planetary historic tragedy beyond measure, would also make meeting the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement all but impossible. World leaders need to marshal all their political and diplomatic might to save it. The Amazon is a vast ineffable, vital, living wonder. It does not, however, supply the planet with 20 percent of its oxygen… The Amazon produces about 6 percent of the oxygen currently being made by photosynthetic organisms alive on the planet today. But surprisingly, this is not where most of our oxygen comes from. In fact, from a broader Earth system perspective, in which the biosphere not only creates but also consumes free oxygen, the Amazon’s contribution to our planet’s unusual abundance of the stuff is more or less zero… Contrary to almost every popular account, Earth maintains an unusual surfeit of free oxygen—an incredibly reactive gas that does not want to be in the atmosphere—largely due not to living, breathing trees, but to the existence, underground, of fossil fuels.”
Although the Trump administration has said it’s “deeply concerned” about the Amazon fires, President Trump has defended Bolsonaro on Twitter. In a tweet, he said, “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil — Not easy." In a responding tweet, Bolsonaro wrote, “Thank you, President @realDonaldTrump. We're fighting the wildfires with great success. Brazil is and will always be an international reference in sustainable development. The fake news campaign built against our sovereignty will not work. The US can always count on Brazil.”
This legislation has 15 Democratic cosponsors. It’s supported by a range of environmental and Amazon advocacy organizations, including Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Earth.
Of Note: In 2019 alone, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has recorded about 40,000 forest fires in the Amazon rainforest. This is a 77% increase over 2018. According to experts, this dramatic uptick is largely attributable to increased deforestation and burning practices by Brazilian farmers and miners.
Rather than working to aggressively tackle the Amazon wildfires and combat illegal deforestation, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has actively undermined environmental enforcement protections and encouraged these practices. He’s also worked to discredit his own government agencies and sought to cast blame nongovernmental organizations for starting the fires despite lack of evidence for these claims.
Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher with the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo, says the current surge is deforestation is taking the Amazon close to a tipping point beyond which swaths of the rainforest will become a dry savannah. This would have consequences for the climate, wildlife, and forest dwellers. He adds that deforestation is on course to rise by 20-30% this year, and is “very likely” to pass 10,000 square kilometers for the first time in over a decade.
While this trend has been worsening for several years, it’s accelerated under Bolsonaro, as his administration has weakened the Brazilian environmental agency and expressed support for miners, farmers, and loggers. Nobre says:
“The situation is very bad. It will be terrible. A very large number of these fires are due to the cultural push that ministers are giving. They are pushing deforestation because it is good for the economy. Those who do illegal deforestation are feeling empowered.”
Given domestic institutions’ powerlessness to sway the Bolsonaro administration from its current course of action, Nobre says external protests, consumer actions, and international pressure are the only path forward:
“Politicians in Brazil pay more attention to international pressure than the voice of Brazilians. I think international pressure is essential to reverse this tragic pathway. The agriculture sector in Brazil is very concerned that European consumers won’t buy Brazil produce. This may be the ultimate way to stop the Brazilian government from a suicide of the Amazon, which will have terrible consequences for the climate and for Brazil.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Brasil2)